22 In Women Now

Women Now: The tenacity of family

Facing hard times on BrendaKinsel.com

Stormy clouds in Sonoma, photo by Russ Gelardi


I love months that end in thirty-one. January does that. But this January has been full of memories and I’m so happy to see it go. For periods of the time I’ve felt submerged, deep into a sea of trauma laced memories, a family in disarray, heartache, so much hope, and so much uncertainty.

I don’t know if there’s a name for this feeling. It’s not grief, but maybe it’s related to it. It’s not loss, but loss came. The word that resonates most is trauma. I can’t help but relive a time when life was beyond precarious.

I had a client who hated May. Every year she couldn’t wait for May to be gone. Her husband had been diagnosed in May with the same disease that killed the puppeteer Jim Hensen from the Muppets. It came on hard and he could have died quickly like Jim did. It was a race against time but he survived. My client was diagnosed with breast cancer in May as well. It wasn’t in the same year but May had not been good to them.

I couldn’t quite understand how anyone would want to write off a whole month, especially the beautiful month of May! Wouldn’t those traumas fade and May could be just be May again when kids would be playing league softball in city parks, students would be graduating,  young adults would be getting married and fifty-year-0lds would be traveling to France?

Now I get it. Her May is my January.

The Golden Globes brought it on

The morning after the Golden Globes this year, I started to sink into that sea of emotions that I don’t have the name for.

Mother and I always talked the morning after the Golden Globes. We’d rehash the dresses. She’d share her favorites with me and I’d share mine with her. Only two years ago it didn’t happen. I called to talk to Mom and Dad answered. “I’m worried, Brenda. Mother fell this morning in the bathroom. The paramedics came and got her up and she seemed okay but now she’s talking funny.” I could feel his helplessness and hear his tears. I hung up and called my brother. He went over and Mom was coherent and then not so coherent. He immediately took them both to the Perham, MN hospital to have her checked out again.

“Good news, Brenda,” he said later. “They did a CT scan and she has a small bleed in her brain but they think it’s no big deal. But they’re taking her to Fargo just to monitor her for a day.”

I called the hospital in Fargo the next morning and the only one who would talk to me was an ICU nurse. “They did another CT this morning and the bleed is now huge. She has brain damage. If it doesn’t stop, she’ll …” and she stopped talking. “Who is there with my Mom?” I said. “Your father and it appears two close friends but they’re not capable of talking on the phone. They’re taking this really hard.” I could see Dad and Bill and Verona Martin sitting in the chairs in the corner of Mother’s room, crushed.

If I wanted to see my mother? “You better come quick,” she said. In forty-five minutes, my twin brother (he lives thirty minutes from me) and I were packed and on our way to the airport, headed for Fargo, ND.


Here’s what a brain injury is like

Pretend your brain and all it does for you is a savings account with $100,000 in it.

Within twenty-four hours that bleed in her brain depleted her account and all that was left was $8000.

She was breathing, but not on her own. She couldn’t swallow so she wasn’t eating or drinking. She didn’t recognize anybody. She couldn’t talk. I’d sit in her room in ICU and just watch her chest move up and down. When her eyes were open I’d stand next to her bed and look into her beautiful blue eyes, begging her to come back.

I was there early every morning to catch the neurologist on her rounds. She’d ask Mother to wiggle her toes (she didn’t), to squeeze her hand (she didn’t), to tell her if she knew who I was (there was no response).

Yet, the neurologist kept reassuring me.

“Brains can heal and given how active and bright your mother was before this happened, I believe she’ll get back there. It will take a while. You can’t measure progress in days. You have to measure it in months. In twelve months, she could be fully herself again. If not 100%, then awfully close.”

Waiting and watching

The next two weeks followed the same pattern. Twelve hours with Mother, an hour or two in the evening talking to family members on the phone, calling my nursing friends in SF to get reality checks from them.

But about fourteen days after her fall, I arrived in her room, leaned over and kissed her like I did every morning and said, “Good morning, Gorgeous.”

I had a necklace on and she took it in her hand and said, “Pretty, pretty, pretty.” Her words were back! She was making sense. There weren’t full sentences yet, but we were communicating! That had to mean a $7000 deposit into her brain savings account, didn’t it?

Each new day I was eager to see her progress. But like the neurologist said, there were forward steps and backward steps. Deposits and withdrawals.


Mom pretty necklace text

Texting my daughters and best friend after Mother spoke

Sharing the deposits

She soon called me by name. She called other family members by their name. One day when Dad was quietly weeping in his chair across from her bed where I was feeding her (she didn’t have motor skills yet), she surprised us all and said, “Don-ald, what are you doing?” It was her tone, the way she could call Dad out and make him laugh. We all laughed. She was his wife, 100%.  Her brain account had to be up to $17,000.

She could swallow again. She could eat again — soft things. There were many, many kisses and I love you’s. Friends visited. She didn’t always know their names but I wanted to think she knew them just the same.

But then on January 29th, Dad’s birthday, we nearly lost her. A new bleed had started in her stomach and she was dying. For the next 24 hours, the ICU doctor kept telling us, “We’re doing the best we can. There’s nothing else we can do but wait.” And then, the next morning after 11 units of blood product had been put into her, she was awake, alert, and more of herself than ever. She was the miracle of the ICU. When nurses asked her where she was, she knew. When they asked her name, she knew. She knew who the president was. She knew where she’d grown up. She knew where she lived.

January 30, 2015 was my happiest day ever. When the doctor who had spent the most time with her took me aside and said, “Yes, this is amazing, and you still have to know that the road ahead is bumpy. She has other issues that have nothing to do with the brain injury and they could make recovery difficult.” Sure, she had a heart condition, she had diabetes problems, but surely this day had to prove to him that Mother was made of tough stuff! She was resilient! She’d survive! She would thrive! I just knew it. He didn’t know my mother like I did.

Looking back I have enormous compassion for the Brenda Kinsel that was defiant with that doctor that day, the Brenda Kinsel who had hope and all the strength she needed to spend the next twelve months participating in her mother’s recovery.

I could do that. I signed up for that. I was with the program.


Family photo on BrendaKinsel.com

Celebrating Mom and Dad’s 60 wedding anniversary with kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids

Dealing with a parent in crises is an immersion program

When I reflect, I liken that period with Mother to that of having a baby. New life is an immersion program. The rest of the world disappears while you’re in those early weeks of caring for a  newborn.

Spending a month in the hospital with Mother was an immersion program. The rest of the world disappeared and everything that mattered was going on in Room 214 at Sanford Hospital in Fargo. I am so glad I had that time with her. It was intimate. It was hard. It was family. It was rough but it was life with my precious Mom.

This January, it’s like watching a movie. Frame by frame the details are vivid, the drama is intense. I witness the hopefulness and the heartache. I want to say to that character in the movie that is me, “I love you. I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted. I really am.”

The doctor was right, even though I know he didn’t want to be. Her other problems were too weighty on her system and she passed away in a rehab hospital at the end of March. I look forward to March. I see a celebration of all she was: wife, mother, grandmother, friend. January will be that much more in the distance and the March movie will have a satisfying ending: celebrating the love and tenacity of family.

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  • Reply
    February 2, 2017 at 5:03 am

    So beautifully written, Brenda, and I agree with you that we can’t help but re-experience anniversaries of difficult periods every year. I hope the good and loving memories help soften the hard days you had with your mom. I lost my dad on Jan 31 but now that it’s been 19 years these anniversaries are easier. Love your blog, and esp the video you posted this week. You have done alot this month! Take good care of yourself as we move into a new month.

    • Reply
      February 2, 2017 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks so much, Deanne. I love hearing other people’s experiences on this subject. It certainly isn’t something that’s spoken about out loud very much. We have so much to learn from one another. Thank you! (Insert big sigh.) I appreciate you.

  • Reply
    February 2, 2017 at 6:10 am

    Brenda, thank you so much for sharing.

    • Reply
      February 2, 2017 at 6:09 pm

      Rebecca, thank you for reading and commenting. It means a lot.

  • Reply
    February 2, 2017 at 7:13 am

    Thank you, Brenda, for sharing your profound experience and love with us. Please know there are many beautiful women holding you near and dear to their heart with admiration, love and lots of prayers to help keep you going.

    Your faithful friend,

    • Reply
      February 2, 2017 at 6:10 pm

      Okay, tears in eyes right now. Thank you Pat. These kinds of experiences can be so … well, big … and to feel support means everything.
      Yours faithfully,

  • Reply
    February 2, 2017 at 7:39 am

    Oh honey. Your January is my October — a very similar story about a brain aneurism. It took about 15 years before the sight of vibrant fall leaves didn’t send me into depression. (I was so determined every day that particularly vibrant autumn, walking into that hospital, the leaves burning into my memory.)

    There is a day every autumn when it feels like all the leaves come down at once, in 24 hours. 22 years later, every time that happens, I think “take down all the stars.”


    • Reply
      February 2, 2017 at 6:13 pm

      Thanks for the hugs. “Take down all the stars” — wow, I can hear that whole piece now and how true it seems at the time. When you said, “Your January is my October” it gave me more courage to face these hard things. I can relate to how you were determined. My gosh, my resolve to will her back to life was huge. Of course I had such faith in her, deservedly so, but there are those other things that we had no control over. For that matter, do we have control over anything? Thank you for your share. Very, very much.

  • Reply
    February 2, 2017 at 10:46 am

    I am weeping as I read this, because I think all of us that have had aging parents have experienced this in one form or another. Your story speaks for many of us that have not been able to put into words how they feel. I take great solace in knowing that both my mom and dad are safely in heaven and that I will see them again.

    • Reply
      February 2, 2017 at 6:16 pm

      Thank you dear Joanne. It is awfully hard to put words to these feelings. And I suspect every year will be different. This year was particularly hard. And we’re still early in this journey. At the end of March, it will have been two years since she passed. I also had so many dreams of her in January. I guess we were hashing this out together. Hugs to you and thanks.

  • Reply
    February 3, 2017 at 7:11 am

    My own mother died in January more than 25 years ago when I was living outside of the US. She was already gone by the time I got on the plane for a 12+hour journey home for her funeral. But oh, the display of Northern Lights on that flight was spectacular! Like little souls flashing their brilliance to those of us left behind.
    While I was watching them I remembered the lyrics to a song I hadn’t thought about since I was in my early teens. The original lyrics were in French, and if you speak French they’re worth searching for, because they’re very beautiful.
    I can only provide a rough approximation of that beauty, and I share it in hopes it will comfort you a little as it did me:
    “The Lord has written your name among the stars,
    High above, in His house among the stars.
    The Lord has placed your life among the stars,
    Among the stars, next to Him in Paradise.” (Soeur Sourire, the singing nun.”
    Here’s to all the people we love, gone for stars.
    Peace, Brenda.

    • Reply
      February 6, 2017 at 12:23 pm

      This is so very very moving to me. Those words in that song say everything. I am putting these in a safe place and offering them to others who are going through these situations. You’ve given me an enormous gift. Thank you, Liz! I know it will speak to many others as well. Peace to you too, Liz. I imagine those Northern Lights and it takes my breath away. What a show of love and support for you and your mother!

  • Reply
    Ann Werries
    February 3, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    Thank you for writing this piece. So moving, I’m amazed that you can write with such clarity only 2 years after….I journaled, went to therapy and it’s 26 years since my mom died, and I know I could/would not be this eloquent. 1991 was my year. I was only 35 years old. I’ve learned many lessons since then. Hugs to you as you journey through grief….

    • Reply
      February 6, 2017 at 12:24 pm

      Ann, thanks for sharing part of your story. It doesn’t surprise me that it takes a long time. 35 is so young to lose your mother. I appreciate your hugs so very much!

  • Reply
    Maria Agapito
    February 3, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    Very beautiful words to express your fellings! I was moved by your description because I had such experience with My mother . Other point that called My attention , was that I have lived in Fargo for 3 years (1974-1976) .I live in Brazil now. My father died more than 30 years ago when I was living in Argentina , and I wasn’t able to arrive in time for his funeral . I Will never forget this trip back home .On the other hand I believe God knows what he does , I Could keep only Good memories about My Father. Peace for you Brenda . Take care

    • Reply
      February 6, 2017 at 12:26 pm

      Thanks for sharing and what a coincidence! I had moved to California by 1974 but it thrills me that you know that area! I thank you so much for sharing your words of comfort. Thank you, Maria! Hugs to you!

  • Reply
    February 5, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    Your January was my 2002. I lost four uncles that year, along with my mother and father, the last two within 16 months of each other. Wounds like that hurt so deeply. After my grandmother passed away, my mother told me “There’s no such thing as closure.” I believe now that she was wrong. There’s closure, but there’s always grief. It takes up a little corner of your heart and sits there, waiting for the right time to jump up and slice you when you least expect it. A certain smell, a funny sound, even my sister’s handwriting can set it in motion and I’ll go down for the count. I hear your pain.

    • Reply
      February 6, 2017 at 12:43 pm

      Wow, Fannie, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I think you’re right about closure. When I look at this through your eyes I see closure as being acceptance. After all the “how could this be?” despair, one finds some peace, or acceptance. So that could be the closure part but grief should never ever be touted as something one “gets over.” The best description I have for where I am in my losses (two family members within 7 months) is that I am learning how to walk with grieve along side of me. I know now that grief can’t kill me, even though a big part of me wanted to join my mother on that day in January had she not survived. When it shows up now, it can really be a strong grip but sometimes, like when I dream about mother and she’s alive, I wake up feeling thankful to have seen her again, even if only in my dreams. Grief is a feeling that has so many different faces. I can’t even imagine your 2002. How the heck did you survive it all? Thank you so much for sharing.

      • Reply
        February 11, 2017 at 4:05 pm

        Brenda, I survived that year the same way you’re surviving now…by writing. I write novels instead of blogs but it’s the same method. We express how we feel using our words even if we’re not writing specifically about our loss. A few years after that, my best friend lost her fifty-something year old husband without any warning at all. She’s a writer, too. We all miss the ones who are no longer with us but we carry them in our hearts and know they’d want us to keep doing what we do best, which is write.

        • Reply
          February 14, 2017 at 3:26 pm

          Oh Fannie, this is really important for me to hear! Thank you for the validation. I needed that!

  • Reply
    May 29, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Brenda, thanks to you, I now have words to borrow in my heart that explain the overwhelming feelings of loss on losing my beloved mom and my darling dad. Thank you, forever.

    ~ Mare

    • Reply
      May 30, 2017 at 8:39 pm

      Mare, I am comforted by the fact that you have words for these hard, hard losses. Not a gift I expected to give but I’m glad they helped. I hold you and your parents in my heart!

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