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Ode: I won't let loss take away my joy

Jackie Paulson
Ally Karsyn


“She isn’t going to last much longer.”

“Jackie, call me back. I heard Nikki died last night.”

“Do you think now is the time to let him go?”

In about three years, three lives were lost and another three changed forever.

The first was a hard-fought death – one that we knew was coming but knowing didn’t make it much easier to accept. I was home from college one day when my mom sat me down at the kitchen table. “I have cancer,” she said, “but it’s going to be OK. The doctors say six months, but I am not dying until I have that damn master’s degree!”


She still had at least a year left before she would graduate and let’s just say her stubbornness runs deep. We hugged. I wasn’t worried. I was 21 and life still felt invincible to me then. Death, what death? That would never happen. Life always works out.

About two years later, my mother had defied any timeline the medical community gave her. On top of intensive chemotherapy treatments, she had managed to keep up with two social work caseloads – one in a school, the other as a Guardian Ad Litem, along with monthly travels to a master’s-level cohort in St. Paul, Minnesota to pursue a degree that she knew she would never be able to “put into action” but would finish nonetheless. She tirelessly raised four children and now was her turn to finish something she had started for herself.

She was placed in the hospital, stubbornly of course, about a week before she died. My mom was supposed to have surgery to ease some of her suffering. It was risky. We didn’t know if she would come out of the anesthesia, but she insisted on the surgery. She fist bumped my brother before he left to take care of some things at home. “You’ve got this,” he said.

We decided to go back to our hotel that night. Dad would stay with Mom allowing us to rest. In the middle of the night, we get a phone call. It’s Dad. “Hurry,” he says. “She is holding on for you to get here, but it won’t be much longer before she’s gone.” We rush. The nurse meets us at the hospital doors. I run into the room just in time to grab my mother’s hand. I take a breath and she takes her last. Just like that, she’s “gone.”

“All too young”, my brother says with a pause.


Not too long ago, I was talking to my brother about all of this. It’s been almost ten years since my mom died. He says, “I see people Mom and Dad’s age now and realize how still vibrant and full of life they are. And then Nikki, well she was definitely too young. What would our lives be like with them still alive, I wonder?” I know how he feels. I think of this almost every day. How life has changed and how this world has become an “Alice in Wonderland” sort of descent, a dreamland of who knows what might happen next.

One month after Mom died, my sister Nicole was going to come up to Minneapolis to visit me over Labor Day weekend, but I went down to Balaton instead. Dad wanted to pick out a plot to put the headstone for Mom, and he liked the company anyway. As we were walking through the old German Lutheran Cemetery, he says, “Girls, I know this is an odd question, but since you both aren’t married, where would you want to be buried should something ever happen?” “By you and Mom, of course,” we say and continue our walk around the trees and freshly mowed grass.

I leave on Sunday night because I work in the morning. By lunch on Labor Day, I have several missed calls. It’s one of my friends from back home, urging me to call. She heard Nicole died the night before. What? I call my sister Samantha and my father. They’re getting calls with the same rumor. Nicole’s phone is dead and no one is able to locate her. We call the sheriff and still no information. We call and wait and call and wait. Finally, the phone rings. It’s Samantha. “Jackie, it’s true,” she says. “She’s gone.” I cry out in disbelief. Tears stream down my face, confirming what I knew in my gut the second I checked my phone. My sister is dead.


Two years later, there’s another call. “Dad’s in the hospital. They found a tumor in his brain.” Cancer, again. This time, there’s less fight, less hope. Half his family gone. He’s only 63 with still so much life ahead but not enough motivation. Family was everything to him. We watched him wrestle with the will to live or die.

The phone rings again. “Your dad is struggling to breathe. A decision has to be made.” He had blood clots in his lungs. Maybe he could have been treated and continued living, but he had decided on hospice. Did he want his life prolonged, or was he ready to be with the rest of his family?

We decided. “Call our hospice nurse.” She supported us through mom’s death and knew dad well. Call her. “Let’s make him comfortable.” It was the middle of the night. This took some time. My brother at one arm, my sister on the other. Me at my father’s feet. Him gasping for breath. Us just wanting him to be comfortable. “We are here with you dad. It’s going to be OK.”

One sibling says, “Is this real life?” and the other one chimes, “Or is this just fantasy?” and we all break into song with the lyrics of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And we sing the whole song. I like to believe he would have wanted it this way. Go out laughing. He was always a prankster. Even in his last breath, he kept us on the edge of our seats. The nurse finally did come. He passed very peacefully.


Even today, though, a thought rattles around in my sister’s head, “Is that what he really wanted?” She bats it away. “I can’t go there,” she says.

Almost ten years after so much loss in so little time, I make a couple late-night phone calls to my remaining family, asking, “Hey, what do you remember about these really horrible moments of our lives?” As we talk, I realize how good it feels to honor the impact that these losses still have to this day. We assume transition is a momentary experience, something that simply moves us from one thing to the next.

My mother's transition from life to death was minutes, my father’s hours, my sister’s – we hope – was less than we can imagine. Our transition… well, it will be the rest of our lives as we celebrate holidays, births and professional successes without them. Remembering our mother, my sister says, “Don’t let life get in the way of your joy.”

Still, we can’t help but wonder how life would have been different if my parents and our sister were still present, still alive. It’s hard to say. Even though we don’t talk about them every day, we realize how much they are missed by the way we see their grandchildren’s eyes look just like theirs or how a mother’s strength is still inspiring others even by the place in which you sit tonight. Our hearts and lives have been moved in all directions because of the impact of these losses, these transitions in our lives.

For me, I see the stars with more clarity. I touch the earth with more grace. I feel and sense the impermanence of life. I don’t take for granted any goodbye hugs with my siblings. Our lives have changed. But the love remains and the memories live on.


Jackie Paulson is a licensed mental health counselor and the owner of {be}Studio in downtown Sioux City.

Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.

The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, April 7 at the Peirce Mansion. The theme is “Growing up Is Hard to Do.” Tickets are available at kwit.org. For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.

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