Saying goodbye to my mother

From Sheridan, Wyoming -

Syria isn't the big story this weekend for my family. We aren't discussing what the Congress might or might not do the rest of this month. And we aren't focusing on this weekend in college and pro football either. Instead, we are gathering out in the Equality State to remember my mother.

In early 1959, my mom left this town in north central Wyoming to work in the U.S. House of Representatives; but she never left Wyoming behind, as even from back East, she made her home state a central part of our family's life.

My mom has a great story. Born in Sheridan, Wyoming in 1940, her family lived on various ranches where her father worked - he was a real life working cowboy.

After graduating from Big Horn High School in a class of a dozen kids, my mother's life took an unlikely detour when she met the Congressman from Wyoming at a 4-H gathering in 1958.

A few months later, he offered her a job as a secretary in his office in Washington, D.C., and my mom came East in early 1959.

When she left Capitol Hill a decade later, a newspaper said her Congressman from New York was "losing one of his more decorative office fixtures" - you can read her obituary in the Billings Gazette newspaper.

As the obit says, my mother was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia known as FTD, Frontotemporal dementia. In basic terms, your brain shrinks, and that causes big trouble.

The disease moved quickly. First it caused my mother to forget words in late 2011. Then it stole her voice in 2012. Ultimately, it took away her ability to swallow in 2013. And a lot more.

While you could see with your own eyes how she deteriorated, it was difficult to tell how much she was processing in her own mind.

But you could read it in her e-mails.

"Jamie, the doctor called today and I don't have Alzhiemer's," she wrote me in January of 2012, giving off no signs of any issues.

But a month later in mid-February 2012, her words and thoughts were already becoming a bit jumbled.

"Jamie, I don't have....but Jim is going to get the printed I'll let you know. I don't know know to spell Alzheimers....what is on the computer that I am that I don't know....."

By this time, she had been diagnosed with FTD, just weeks before my parents celebrated their wedding anniversary.

"I got believe we are at 50 years!" she wrote.

As the days ticked by in 2012, the emails from my mother got shorter and shorter; often turning into very simple sentences.

"Jamie, I am having trouble with my throat," she wrote in May of 2012.

In July of 2012, she came back to Wyoming - for one last visit. The birthday cards from my kids are still here on my mother's desk, over a year later.

When she returned to Washington from that trip, we started to see a prominent FTD researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; my mother made clear she wanted no part of those visits.

"I don't want to go," she wrote in an August 2012 email; it was a line she would repeat often to strangers in the elevator there.

Our doctors were very clear about my mother's condition - she was not going to get any better, and there was nothing that could be done about it.

By October, her emails were not making much sense.

"Jamie, are you going to be on Sunday!!!"

"Jamie, we will be right on," or "Jamie, I am right on your blog," she wrote.

Unsure whether my mother could really understand any emails that I was sending her, I started sending pictures of her grandchildren.

"I have been Henry," she wrote after getting a photo of my son around Thanksgiving in 2012.

"I am right...just right!" she said about a different picture.

"Jamie, I am..." read another note to me.

By late in 2012, the emails had become heartbreaking. Nothing really made sense, other than the last line of "Love, Mom."

Jamie, you don't have to be Friday night....

Have right ....

Love, Mom

Sent: Thursday, January 03, 2013 9:21 AM

Jamie, you are work following...

You are right now....

Love, Mom

My mother's last email to me came about three months before she died.

Sent: Saturday, May 18, 2013 6:37 PM

Subject: YOU

South right snow....


I couldn't really figure out what she was trying to say when she wrote "South right snow," but it came at a time when my mother was making it clear that she wanted to go home to Wyoming.

All I could come up with was something that my daughter had said when we visited our family's Wyoming land that had been homesteaded in 1904, as we walked across the fields to get a good look at the Devil's Tower and the Missouri Buttes in the distance.

"Sounds like snow," my daughter said repeatedly in her little kid's voice, describing the crunching sound of the hay in the field as we walked around what was once known as the Holmes Ranch.

"South right snow" - "Sounds like snow."  Maybe that was what she wanted to say.


If you forced me to pick one thing that my mother gave me in life, it was the gift of Wyoming and the West.

Whether it was riding horses as a kid, going to the "Cow Camp" with my grandparents to move cows in the summer, fighting fire with other ranch families, or visiting the relatives in Wyoming and Montana, it was more fun than a city kid could ever imagine.

And as my plane landed at the table-top airport in Billings, Montana on Thursday, the memories were flooding in as my father and I made the two hour drive down to Sheridan.

Even though my mother left Wyoming as a teenager, Wyoming never left her.

And now, she is back home.