by wjw on August 2, 2008

Where have I been all this week? I hear you ask.

The answer, alas, is not as lighthearted as the question. I have spent a week trying to cope with the world’s most fucked-up medical system. I have been coping with the sad business of committing my mother to a hospice facility.

My mother was born in 1916, before the American entry into the First World War. She is very weak and suffers from mild senile dementia, but there’s no actual diagnosis of what is actually wrong with her. She has a host of small ailments, each of which contribute to her weakness, but the doctors have found no smoking gun.

On Monday she was having difficulty getting on her feet, so I took her to the emergency room. She was lucky in being admitted to the hospital after only 11 hours: I was told that some people stay in the e-room for days waiting for a bed.

After a couple days of evaluation, the consensus was that the hospice was indicated.

I recall looking at the paperwork and thinking to myself, “Not only is this my mother’s death warrant, but they’re asking me to sign it.”

And then I signed it, and later in the day went to my mom’s house to clear all the perishables out of the refrigerator.

The hospice wing is as pleasant a hospital wing as a hospital wing is likely to get. The room itself is large and has several armchairs and a couple of couches. There’s a spare bed, should I ever decide to spend the night there, or take a nap. There is a kitchen for the families of the patients, with sweets and coffee donated by local businesses, and magazines and videos and jigsaw puzzles. The personnel are uniformly kind and concerned.

Nevertheless I suspect the whole arrangement may not work as expected. My mother may yet walk out of this alive. She is a woman of hidden resources.

She has sisu.

Sisu is a quality peculiar to the Finnish people, and can translate (badly) as “fortitude” or “resilience in the face of a merciless and arbitrary Fate.” My mother was born of Finnish immigrants, and acquired sisu with her mother’s milk.

She is the youngest, and only survivor, of six children. She was born on a prosperous farm in southern Minnesota, but the family sold the farm and moved to a very poor farmstead in Makinen Township, north of Duluth, in order to be near others of the Firstborn.

The Firstborn was the Lutheran cult in which my mother was raised. (Perhaps you have to be Scandinavian to understand about Lutheran cults, but I assure you they exist.) This bunch was known more formally as the Old Apostolic Lutherans, but I believe they are nowadays called Laestadians. They were a sort of Finnish version of the Amish, but without the cool furniture (or the consistency). Listening to the radio was forbidden. So was any music not directly in praise of God. Girls wore braids till married, and a bun thereafter. Women’s dresses were forbidden to have waistlines lest they encourage vanity. Men, for the same reason I suppose, were forbidden to wear ties. (That was the only part of the Doctrine I ever got down with.)

The Firstborn didn’t have divinity schools or an ordained clergy. They were against education in general, particularly higher education. The local “shepherd of the flock,” as my mother scornfully refers to him, was as ignorant and bigoted as the layfolk. She remembers being made to read from the Finnish Bible of 1776, with its heavy Gothic type, and hating it.

She escaped the cult as soon as she was physically able. As a result of her indoctrination, she now has a violent hatred of all religion. In my mother’s family, “Christian” is used as an epithet. “He’s a real Christian, you know,” they’ll say, in reference to someone stupid, bigoted, hypocritical, or uptight.

(When I was checking my mom into the hospice, I was asked if she would want to see a priest or minister.

(“Only if you want her to cuss at him,” I said.)

My mom’s father worked as a carpenter until he died when she was eight or nine. He hadn’t finished building the family home, and the house remained unfinished until it burned down maybe 25 years later.

Education saved my mother from God and the Firstborn. The children of the family attended a one-room country schoolhouse that took them through the eighth grade. My mother spoke no English until she went to first grade. After graduation, my mom stayed at home for a year, and then heard of a high school opening in the neighboring township of Cherry. There was a New Deal program that paid people a few bucks each month to board high school students, and my mom soon had this arranged. When she graduated from high school— the only one among her family to do so— she went to college for a two-year teaching degree, and then returned to northern Minnesota to teach in country schools, again boarding with local families and sleeping on straw mattresses in spare rooms. Among others she taught at the school in the Finnish community of Toimi, now a museum.

She taught through the Second World War, and spent at least one summer working in a defense plant in Detroit. She had the somewhat Freudian job of straddling bomb casings on the assembly line and scraping off the extra drop of paint on the tip.

She had a boyfriend during the war, but he went overseas and jilted her. My father, overseas, had a girlfriend at home who dear-johnned him. Mom and dad knew each other slightly before the war, and became an item after it, and married shortly thereafter. My mom kept teaching until I arrived, and then she was forced to leave.

Elementary school teachers, in those days, were not allowed to get pregnant, even if they were married. If you were found with child, you were driven from the school system, possibly with a scarlet P sewn to your bodice.

My mother then became a housewife, and contributed to my perfect Minnesota childhood. So idyllic was my youth that pretty much everything from the age of 11 or so has been something of a disappointment.

I’m not sure what my mother made of my ambition to become I writer, which was formed quite early— by age four at the latest. (In those days, I would dictate stories to my parents, who would write them down for me.) Probably her greatest contribution to my life is that she took my intention seriously.

She didn’t tell me I was crazy, she sent me to summer school to learn typing.

The year I graduated from college, my father had an aneurysm and became a semi-invalid. My mother devoted herself to his service with her usual ferocity, and managed to keep him alive and reasonably healthy for over twenty years.

Is this sisu? Hell, yes.

After my father’s death, she announced she had retired and adopted a life so dull and event-free that it would have driven me crazy within the first week. I had to agree with her, though, that she’d earned it.

And now she’s in the hospice, being cared for in much the same way that she cared for my father. Except that she did it all by herself, whereas the hospital needs a whole staff.

She retains her strong personality, though much of the memory is gone. Sisu is a part of her character, and enabled her to escape the bigotry and superstition of her girlhood and out into the wider world.

If she walks out of the hospice, I’ll be the only one who isn’t surprised. Because I know what sisu can do.

Jeremy Lassen August 2, 2008 at 8:35 am

I have a bit of understanding of what you mean when you speak of Sisu, haven grown up in Northern Minnesota and watched my Mother, and grandmother overcome obstacles that make the winters of Minnesota look like a cool breeze. My grandmother took care of my invalid grandfather for 10 years before he finally died, and then lived another 15 years past that. I’ll be thinking of you and your mother over the next few weeks. Best of luck, and much strength, to you both, during these trying times.

birdhousefrog August 2, 2008 at 1:15 pm


Thanks for sharing these memories of your mother. I collect these stories. We are, by comparison, spoiled children of affluence.

Your mother is just a few years senior to my parents, but a lifetime away in experience, living a life more appropriate to what my grandparents experienced. Just shows how diverse life was in various parts of the country in the 20’s and 30’s.

Thanks. I’ll be thinking about her and her sisu.


Foxessa August 3, 2008 at 12:57 am

O, honey.

I’m so glad you’ve got Kathy at your back at this time.

Been there, done that.

Lutheran too — Swedish / German, not Finn.

Love, C.

Rebecca August 3, 2008 at 3:19 am

Sounds like a pretty damn amazing woman, and an amazing mother, too.

Having just returned from shepherding my mother through 5 weeks of twice-daily radiology, and many sessions of chemo, after which I had to help her move from her home into an assisted-living facility, where she will remain for another month or so while she waits to find out whether she still has lung cancer or is only waiting for it to recur, I was moved and heartened by your account of your own mother, and I wish her strength, and you as well.

Grace August 3, 2008 at 7:02 am

Sounds like a helluva woman. I’m going through something similar with my mother, although she is still at home for now. It’s a national epidemic that has yet to get the attention it deserves.

Pati Nagle August 3, 2008 at 5:42 pm

Sounds like a remarkable woman, Walter. She may well surprise the medicos. (My mom did, in much the same situation, and is still hanging in there.)

Good on you for standing by her.

Kevin_Whitmore August 3, 2008 at 9:20 pm

Walter – what a great homage to your mom. Thanks for sharing this with us. My thoughts and prayers are with you and you mother. I wish you both the strength you need during this time.

slymongoose August 3, 2008 at 10:20 pm

I’m pulling for her!

Melinda Snodgrass August 4, 2008 at 3:11 am


Thank you so much for this beautiful and moving testament to your mother.

Thinking of you.

S.M. Stirling August 4, 2008 at 3:43 am

I won’t say I hope things go well, Walter, but may they go as well as possible.

I can see where you got a lot of you, too.

Ethan August 4, 2008 at 7:51 pm

All the best to you and your mother.

Ralf the Dog August 5, 2008 at 6:05 am

Times like this it is hard to know what to say. It sounds like she has an extraordinary fighting spirit and has lived an extraordinary life.

You can help her by advocating for her. Talk to the doctors and the nurses. Let them know that you want the best for her. She may want to stop eating. If she does, you may be the only one to encourage her to keep her strength up.

She may be week, but any exercise you can help her do will be of great benefit. Pain management is also very important. If she is hurting, find a nurse and get her something to help. Even getting her a drink of water can make this time better for her. Try to keep her mind active.

If she starts to get a bit crazy at night, that is ok. Just help her stay calm (When my grandmother was in the same situation, she thought the hospital had been taken over by terrorists and she had been shipped to Iran.)

If she lives for decades or days, just remember, the best thing you can do is make every day of it as good as you can.

dubjay August 5, 2008 at 6:52 am

Thank you, all.

My mother and I are on a pendulum, in which strength alternates with sickness, hope with despair.

Sisu is a touchstone. It will get us through, or it won’t.

In any case, it’s what we’ve got.

Laura J. Mixon September 2, 2008 at 4:07 am

I enjoyed reading about your Mother, Walter. Thank you for sharing that.

Brandon C. Hovey May 9, 2016 at 12:48 am

Walter, Thanks for sharing her incredible tale! Mothers are wonderful gifts. You were gifted an incredible one. Her Sisu is comparable to that one Finnish lieutenant whose name escapes me from the Winter War. He defeated a T-34 tank with a 9mm handgun. He had ferocious opposition and bested it with hard work aligning his meager sights with the slits of the Soviet tank . Your mother carved a place for herself in an unkind world with ferocious opposition and hard work. Sisu is an admirable quality, indeed!

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