one year later…

gail s. hanson, beloved mother, daughter, wife, friend, cousin, niece, nurse, teacher…

june 16th, 2014.

i woke up early that monday morning. it felt like any other day. after hitting “brew” on the coffeemaker, letting out and feeding the dogs, and then emptying the dishwasher, i picked up my phone. four missed calls, one voicemail.

my heart started pounding.

the voicemail was from my father who had received a call from my sister. she was at the hospital with our mom. it didn’t look good.

my heart started pounding even louder in my ears.

i immediately called my sister who was in the hospital room with our mom. she was telling me that mom wasn’t going to make it through the night. she then had to quickly go because they started administering cpr again. i bolted up the stairs to wake up dave to help me get a flight back home. she won’t make it through the night? it’s around 5:45am, i have time to get there, i thought. less than a minute later my phone rang…”mom is gone”.

hearts stopped.

hers and mine.

actually, that was her cause of death – congenital heart failure. her heart failed due to interstitial lung disease, due to scleroderma, which is a very rare, terrible disease.

it was difficult to comprehend. ever since her husband, john, died in january 2012 and i learned first-hand how fast her disease was progressing, we had had conversations about what the end would look like. it was not an easy conversation for either of us. she was very detailed in her descriptions…she would eventually require hospice…a hospital bed would go in the room off the kitchen if it was the summer, the living room if it was the winter. she wanted foot rubs, the tv on at all times (“but only the today show, no good morning america! i mean it!”) and she wanted lots of visitors. and morphine…she didn’t want to feel any more pain.

the real ending was different.

she was still living independently, calling on neighbors, friends and family only when she needed help and my sister visited regularly to run errands. we all worried and spoke in hushed tones about how she needed more help, but she fought all of our efforts. sometimes she even used humor…

one of the last texts i received from my mom when i stated concern about her moving around her house alone.

our biggest fear was that she would be alone in the house when it happened.

by the grace of God, one of her best friends was staying at her house the week she died. they had a wonderful week visiting and even went out for a lunch or two.


late sunday night, she said she wasn’t feeling well, and it escalated quickly with mom asking her friend to call 911 around 11:30pm. she was taken immediately to st. francis hospital and at 4:52am central time, she was gone.

my heart still processes this.

it’s the natural progression of life, your parents will most likely die before you. knowing this certainly doesn’t make it any easier. this year has proven to be one of the MOST difficult of my life. although i thought i was prepared, i wasn’t. it’s been a year of incomplete thoughts and projects, partially written thank you notes, sleepless nights and then days when all i want to do is sleep. i know i haven’t been present in many ways for my own children and for my small caseload of students. i feel so much guilt. i am still trying to understand my grief and my relationship with my mom. i continue to find clues in her books, notebooks, random post-it notes and old letters about how she viewed herself in the world. it is helping.

my mom and i didn’t have the type of relationship that you see displayed all over hallmark cards. it was very, very complicated. there was a lot of resentment that grew over the years. even she admitted that she was a much better parent to adolescents and adults and if we were all born at 18 years of age, it would have been a completely different story. despite our disagreements and differences, she was there for me when i really needed her. she was there to pick me up from school when i was sick. she always took my call even if she was in the middle of an important meeting. she let me move back in when i was going through a difficult time. i never, ever doubted her love.

there are many lessons she shared throughout her life and since she died too.

the most important lesson she shared is that we are all connected. these connections help pull you out of the darkness and into the light. in many ways, she felt the same connection with her family and lifelong friends as she did with the psychotic patients she treated, the elderly, the lonely. we are all worthy of love and kindness. while she focused on those connections, she also had a very strong sense of self and encouraged that in others too. the night before her funeral when i was writing part of her eulogy, i was staring at the sofa where she basically spent the last two years of her life. i started sobbing. i didn’t know what to say, what to do. i never, ever felt so alone in my life. when i composed myself, i turned the page and found the following in the notepad i was using…


as a mother, she did the best she could.

and that’s enough for me.

my heart rebuilds.

it is growing even stronger now because of what i learned from her and her unending love.

from a coffee shop the day after she is everywhere, if you look for it.
my coffee the day after she died…love is everywhere, if you look for it. so grateful to my sweet, thoughtful friends, family, neighbors, coffee shop, etc. for helping me see this…especially this year. love and kindness matter…always. 

the transitional object

heart-shaped kibble crumb
heart-shaped kibble crumb from bailey

a few days ago, we had to put our dog of 13 1/2 years to sleep. i had never done it before and was surprised by how peaceful it was…but it also felt so final. there was no doubt about it, bailey was really gone.

before they gave him a sedative, the vet tech gave him a bunch of treats. we had tried earlier in the morning to give him some “chicken meatballs”, but he had refused. in this moment, however, bailey ate up every single treat. he wagged his tail once, then twice, and looked up at her for more.

the vet then gave him the sedative to help him sleep before the final injection would be administered. we were up by his head and he fell into a deep, calm sleep. before the vet gave him the last shot, i looked down at the blanket and right next to him were a couple of heart-shaped kibble crumbs. i pointed them out to everyone in the room and we all marveled at the beauty of the moment.

bailey was full of love.

he was sound asleep as we assured him over and over again that he was such a good boy and that we loved him so much. bailey’s face was propped up gently on his paw and he started snoring loudly…three times…and then there was just silence. we kneeled down by him for a while and then kissed our sweet pal goodbye. before we left, we covered him with the blanket, but not before i grabbed one of the hearts and stuck it in my bag. my transitional object.

the transitional object. i had never heard of this term before my mom mentioned it to me a few years ago…

she had left roscoe’s dog run (basically a cord and a leash that ran from the deck to the back yard) up several years after he had died. we didn’t give it much thought until her deck was converted into a wheelchair accessible ramp and the dog run became more of a hazard as people were clotheslined walking up to her back door. when asked if we could just take it down for a little while when we were having guests over, she said, “it’s my ‘transitional object’, please leave it alone!” when i thought about the amount of loss she had faced recently, it made sense and i didn’t gripe about it anymore.

when she was ready, she eventually let someone take it down.

a few weeks ago, when we were moving things out of her house, my husband texted to see if he should transfer the one can of tab from her fridge to our cooler. anyone who knew my mom, knew her by her tab.


although she hadn’t had a tab in a few years, keeping it in her fridge was another transitional object…something that made her feel more connected to the person she was before she became so sick with scleroderma. the tab is now my transitional object for her. (oh, and the forty storage bins that are stashed away in a friend’s garage and our closet, but we’ll get to that later).

it’s made me think about some of the transitional objects i have had over the years…

our friend, carrie…her words are my transitional object. the words she wrote to her children at her own funeral service about being kind and also her words that she left in a voicemail that i just haven’t brought myself to delete…

my brother, brian…i wore his sports watch until the battery died and his red sox baseball cap through a bunch of 5k’s…it made me feel like he was always with me…

my step-father, john…there are many because his death blindsided me and probably changed me the most. i have kept emails from him when he was helping us choose paint colors and work through house projects, the clothes he was wearing when his body was recovered and his suicide note. for me, these transitional objects help me stay connected to him, as well as try to work through my brother’s suicide.

our friend, ann…i kept the postcard she had sent from her summer vacation just before she died the summer of 1983. it stayed folded up in my pocket and then placed in a book and then eventually i lost track of it…

the same thing happened with the tree-top fairy from my babysitter, sheila. it was always close to me and then it was just gone…

i guess over time you really are able to let go, but for now, i will hold onto many objects, including a heart-shaped kibble crumb and a can of tab…which i know people will think is absolutely crazy, but for some reason it helps. maybe i am more like my mom than i thought…

just sitting ‘n spinning…


A few weeks ago, my former babysitter, Tina, joked that she would bring a sit ‘n spin to the last hurrah at our childhood home.

Ah, the sit ‘n spin…such great memories! The sit ‘n spin was a staple in every home in the 70’s, usually found in the living room, right in front of the t.v.

My siblings and I would spend HOURS on that little contraption. When it was my turn, I would stare down at the blue and yellow stripes and spin so fast, the colors blended together. What a trip!  Sometimes I would close my eyes, throw my head back and knock into any sibling or dog in my way. I was like a mini-tornado and loved every minute of it!

A few years ago, I saw one in the basement at a friend’s house and asked if I could try it out. Two notable differences this time around: I got dizzy after the first turn, and 150+ lbs takes a whole LOT of upper body strength!

It was not the same.

Luckily, my babysitters (er, I mean former babysitters) and I have our memories…

Last summer when my mom died, I immediately called and texted friends and family to let them know the sad news.

Then I messaged my babysitters.

I still cannot really explain it, but as I sat in the tiny, crowded airport awaiting my flight back home, I felt a sudden urgency to let them know. And just as they had been there for me when we were all kids, they responded immediately and were there for me again.

I was about 8 years old when my parents got divorced. Within that same year, my mom went back to school to become an R.N. and she also went back to work full-time. Because of her long hours, she relied heavily on neighborhood kids to take care of the four of us. Tina, Erin and Anne were some of our regular babysitters and they were a part of our family.

When I reconnected with Anne and Tina via Facebook a couple of years ago, it felt like we had never lost touch, although it had been many, many years.

It felt like home.

They have memories of things that I only somewhat remember…favorite toys like the “Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop” playdoh set and songs we used to make up and sing together.

"shave and a haircut...two bits"
“shave and a haircut…two bits”

I remember Kiss singing “Beth”, Stu, Kayo, the Christmas tree falling on Brian, Blarney shenanigans, Little Kings’ subs, Round Records and the rock fight incident…just to name a few…

They will probably never realize the influence they had on my life or how safe I felt when they were there. I know that we had the neighborhood reputation as being the “Benda Brats,” and we definitely lived up to the name, but they still showed up for us. Every. Single. Time.

My mom hired them out of necessity because she couldn’t be there. Little did she know that these kind, intelligent, beautiful, funny and accomplished women would be there for me again when she was gone.

Not only there for me, but willing to let me sit ‘n spin…


this is alf.

alf. i never would have imagined that a harmless facebook post with this fuzzy little alien’s mug on it, would trigger so many memories. although the show was cancelled 25 years ago and i only watched it a handful of times, i always liked alf because his voice was funny, he was quick-witted and obsessed with cats, and his cute little face reminded me of a dog we had when i was little. our dog’s name was “jacques”.

jacques (stunt double)
this is jacques’ clone.

jacques was an airedale terrier. because we were so young when we got him, my memories of jacques are a little fuzzy. i remember that he was very soft, fluffy and full of energy. i also remember my mom saying that he was very expensive and, if you knew my mom, that was very important. the only other things i remember are that he liked to jump, and my mom, who gave him his french-inspired name, constantly corrected my siblings and me (we were  6, 5, 4 and 3 years old), “his name is not ‘JACK’, it’s pronounced ‘JAAHCKK’!”. we were a very cultured crew.

unfortunately, jacques was not with our family for very long. one day when my mom went to the back door to call him inside, she noticed that both gates were closed, but he was nowhere to be found. jacques was gone for good. i’m sure we were devastated, but i honestly have no recollection of our response. although we’ll never know exactly what happened, my mom always said he was stolen “because he cost a small FORTUNE”. we had several dogs after that, but jacques was the last dog my mom ever paid for and the only dog taken from our back yard.

as we’ve been clearing out our childhood home over the last several months, we have come across many photo albums overflowing with polaroids and our family dogs are very often front and center with the four kids. i haven’t found any pictures of jacques yet.

while there’s no record of jacques, a picture of his doppelganger, alf, and the friend who innocently posted it, have inspired me to start writing. so, i freely admit that i am spinning with everything that’s happened over the past several months and what will happen over the next several weeks. it feels like my mind will spontaneously combust if i don’t tell my stories and the stories of those who lie under the radar. there is gentle kindness to be found even (especially) in these moments.

let the spinning begin….

saying goodbye


In a couple of weeks, my friends, family and I will say goodbye to our family home. For 43 years, our house provided WAY more than shelter. It’s the place where two of my siblings were born. It’s the place where we celebrated baptisms, first communions, graduations, birthdays, dances and a wedding. It’s the place where friends and neighbors congregated after school and on the weekends. It’s the place my brother left, and it’s the place where I learned his ultimate fate. It’s the place that housed many furry and not-so-furry friends, including dogs, a cat, lizards, gerbils, fish, a bird and a rogue squirrel that took up residence in our attic at one point. It’s the place where we laughed. It’s the place where we cried. It’s the place where we played hard. It’s the place my mom left and never returned. It’s the place I will always call home.

It’s been over 43 years of the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows and many in-between days too. It’s been a constant in my life and in the lives of many other people.

Saying goodbye is never easy for me, and it would be so easy to become sad and resentful over this loss. However, as I sit here on the sofa with our warm puppy, Jane, to the left of me and our sweet Bailey on the floor to the right, I realize unconditional love and kindness are right here in front of me and I have a choice. I am following their lead…