That Rescue Thing

(by Zuska) Mar 11 2016

Drugmonkey went old-school with a blog meme recently.

The question is, from the teevee (or movies) you've been watching recently, name the top five characters you'd want coming to rescue you from a bad situation.

Although I was not tagged, I took it as an opportunity to write something on this blog again in the least painful way possible. So thanks, DM!

My rescue team would be:

  1. Archer & Lana
  2. Summer. Or Ghost, or Nymeria. Whoever's available.
  3. Emma Swan
  4. Maneet Chauhan
  5. Stimpy

Secret agents, direwolves, magic (light, dark, whatevs), good cooking, and Happy Happy Joy Joy - that should about cover it.

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Shredding Event

(by Zuska) Dec 23 2015

Some few weeks ago my township held a semi-annual "shredding event", an occasion for citizens to bring forth their accumulated piles of dossiers and documents to be fed into a giant communal shredder, lest our identities be filched and/or days of our lives given over to feeding two sheets of paper at a time into our home shredders.

This was my pile:

To be shredded...

To be shredded...

It might have been much bigger but that was all I could part with at the time.

The pile contained all the Medicare statements and Blue Cross EOB forms I had received for my mother during the time I was her power of attorney. I held on to these until her estate was closed and we were sure all outstanding issues and bills were resolved. It has been many months since the estate closed and I have no further legal need of these documents. But I found it surprisingly hard to let them go.

I browsed through them and their listings of date of service, provider, and service provided. I remembered many of these "services provided", some quite vividly. There were routine doctor visits on which I had accompanied her. There were the "pain shots", the epidural steroids to relieve the pain of her spinal stenosis. Organizing those was like planning the invasion of Normandy, given the astonishing difficulty in communicating with the doctor's office; the need to coordinate scheduling with availability of someone to take her there; and the trickiness of managing all this for someone taking coumadin.  There were the ER visits for falls and other minor emergencies. There was the mountainous paper trail generated near the end, when she bounced from assisted living to hospital to rehab hospital to nursing home and back around till the final bounce home to die. Sometimes I looked at dates and events in disbelief: did that really happen then? so close to the time she died? did all those things really happen so close to one another? Or, oh my god I totally forgot about THAT! How strange, I thought, that these impersonal medical records hold memories of my mother I'm struggling to piece together.

When my father died (young, in his fifties), my mother was devastated. She could not bear the idea that he would go underground. When my brother died, eight months before my mother, we helped her to her feet beside his coffin in the funeral home for the "last goodbye". Though she could barely stand she kind of launched herself at him, weeping over his dead form and declaring "oh Paul, it won't be long, I'll be coming after you." She did not want him to go underground, either.

When she lay dying at home, mostly robbed of speech, she communicated to me one day with great difficulty: "I'm afraid to go in the ground." I don't remember what I said to comfort her beyond "I know" and "I'm sorry" and maybe the pitiful "it will be okay".  I don't know why I didn't ask her why this fear was so strong. Lifelong devout Catholic, each Sunday at Mass she recited "I believe in...the resurrection of the body and life everlasting" and yet in the face of death it appeared this was cold comfort. When her youngest brother, the one she raised from age seven, died before her and was cremated, she did not like that any better. She fretted over how his body would be resurrected at the end of the world. I tried to assure her that if God could do anything, He could surely put her brother's ashes back together in the form of his body. She remained unconvinced.

When she died it was some time before I could leave her side. This parting, unlike every one before it, would not be followed by seeing her smile yet one more time.

I believed I was relatively blasé about the subject of corpses and what should be done with them; I often told Mr. Z he should have mine turned into compost for my garden. At the funeral home, it did not seem to me as if it were her lying there. In the bustle at the house the morning after her death, we could not find her glasses. Lying there without them, that face could have been a wax doll.

And then at the cemetery, the graveside service ended, I wept the tears of a motherless child. I did not want to leave. I knew they would put her in the ground when we left. And she did not want that. It did not matter that she was beyond wanting. Finally, my younger sister said through her sobs and tears, "We have to let her go. Come on. We have to let her go." It was like breaking a spell; her words gave me permission to leave. I let her go, I let her go underground.

A week or so after the funeral my younger sister and I both had the same experience. It was a physical sensation of lightening, as if someone had just removed a very heavy backback from our shoulders. It was not just a mental uplift; we were both still very sad, and actually perplexed by the physical sensation. It was very distinct, and strong. I can only describe it thus: it felt as if I had been literally carrying something on my shoulders, and someone had lifted it off of me. Not that I had set it down, but that the weight had been lifted off me. I had a constant feeling of that sudden lightening for about two weeks. My sister, the same.

I also quit having migraines for three months. My doctors thought that it was the reduction in stress that allowed me to stop having migraines, but I didn't think so. (For one thing, I still had all my worries about my in-laws, and while I no longer had power-of-attorney duties, I now had executor duties for the estate.) I felt that my body chemistry had been altered by grief. I felt that my body was so physically preoccupied with the sensations of grief and loss, that it had no resources, so to speak, to devote to experiencing migraines. In this way, it was similar to the period just after I had my stroke, when I was almost completely blind. I had no migraines then, either. They did not come back until my sight recovered to the point where the place in my visual field where auras formed was functioning again. After my mother's death, my migraines did not come back until I was no longer completely blinded by grief to the world around me.

Time heals all wounds, as they say, whether you want it to or not. Eventually grief lessens, the sharpness of pain dulls, the loved one recedes into memory, which is unreliable, and must be pieced together through written records and conversations with others. Sending the medical records to the shredder was sending a pile of recorded memory to oblivion. If memory is all that is left, how can we bear to part with even one tiny morsel, no matter how bitter its taste? And yet doctor's appointments and ER visits are memories perhaps not worth savoring. There are so many, they dull the taste of anything sweeter.

I gave my folders to the township for shredding. I let them go. Death is cold, the ground dark and silent, but I remember warm evenings at dinner with mom, in the summer at Apple Annie's in Point Marion, the two of us talking, and her smile.

mom apple annies [640x480]

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The Changing Seasons

(by Zuska) Dec 23 2015

It's a balmy 59 degrees today as I write, here in eastern Pennsylvania. Forecast for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is 72 and 68, respectively. These kinds of temperatures may perhaps seem unusual for December in eastern PA. Nevertheless they are quite normal if one attends to the changing of the seasons. In 2015, we had:
Winter With A Vengeance (Jan-Feb-March)
Spring Thank God Spring! (April-May)
Summer (June-July)
Hell (August)
Summer (Sept)
Fall (Oct-Nov)
and now Springish Falmmer (December).
We can expect Winterish and Winter to come and go over the next two to three months (some say Winter Is Coming, but not till April 2016), to be followed by Spring lasting anywhere from two weeks to 2 months, leading into Jesus It's Summer Already! followed inevitably by Hell once again, etc.

When I see the following in my front yard in December

December bloom of black-eyed Susan

December bloom of black-eyed Susan

I think of my mother. Once, driving her to a doctor appointment in early February, I pointed out a tree that had budded and begun to leaf. "That tree doesn't know what it's supposed to be doing," she said. The flora around me are feverishly cogitating over Springish Falmmer. Who among them knows what to make of it, we shall see when actual Spring gets here.




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Welcome! to Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman

(by Zuska) Jul 09 2015

Welcome, welcome, welcome! and a hearty huzzah! for Scientopia's newest blogger(s)! Go check them out over at Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman. They are spectacular!

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Formica (But Not the Countertop): A Cautionary Tale

(by Zuska) Jul 06 2015

Formica is not just a made up word for a substitute material for mica insulation that eventually became countertop material because corporate monopolies in the early 20th century forced it out of the insulation biz. (Btw, the new Jonathan Adler collection patterns are very hip! Also Aqua Dotscreen is retro-funky. But I digress.) No, formica is first and foremost the Latin word for ant.

As in: ants, who make the foul smelling formic acid. Which, when they bite you, they will inject into the bite, because they are tiny, and how else is an ant going to defend itself and the colony? And you, stupid gardener, blithely ripping out tired pansies from late April to replace them with sunnier summer annuals, you who disturb the colony and look at all the teeny tiny ants swarming madly - so very small! - and think it's nothing to do with you, and brush them off as they start crawling over your gloves - so fast! - you are a fool. They will crawl right inside your glove cuff where you cannot get at them - they are tiny, but crafty! - and they will bite, Bite, BITE! Tiny, sting-y, ant bites. Hastily you finish planting, swiftly you rush to clean up, lavishly you apply cortisone cream. Alas! It is no use. You will have swarms of unsightly swollen itchy red bumps all over your wrists for days.

Do not fuck with the tiny little black ants.
They will acid-lace your sorry-ass wrists.

The End


For the ant-lovers in the reading audience, these ants were making their home and their living in the ground near the top edge of a rock wall in the garden - nice loamy well-drained soil, shade in morning and evening but sun from about ten a.m. to two p.m., near plantings of annuals, some perennials (dianthus, heuchera, wild strawberry vine, wild violets, day lilies) and a witch hazel shrub. They were very, very small - maybe 3-4 mm - and all black. And bitey. And fast. Beyond that I didn't stick around to get much more information about them. I have tried to figure out who they are using Alex Wild's website, the School of Ants, and other web resources, and guess they may be Little Black Ants, Monomorium mimimum. But it really is just that, a guess.

In case they (whoever they may be) or their designated representative(s) are reading, I herewith respectfully apologize for the disturbance I caused.
Please enjoy that patch of the garden - it's all yours!

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History Repeating Itself In The Ugliest Of Ways

(by Zuska) Jul 02 2015

Last week's Supreme Court ruling in the Obergefell v. Hodges case was barely out the door before the concerted effort to undermine and resist it got itself off and running. It was surely organized and ready to go well ahead of time. Consistent talking points don't spring up by themselves.

Nearly all the essential elements of the conservative resistance can be found in an editorial by John Yoo that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer this past Sunday.

1. The Court has overstepped its bounds. This decision should have been left to legislative acts in the political process. Instead, five unelected elites in robes with jobs-for-life forced this on us! [And where else do people have jobs for life? The academy! And we already know that's bad!]

2. Our Founding Fathers didn't intend for the gays to have a right to marry! You are changing the definition of marriage and rights! [The Founding Father weren't big on marriage or rights for the blacks. But let's not talk about that.]

3. If the gays are so entitled to marriage as an equality thing, how come we still get to discriminate against them in other ways? Huh? Gotcha! Contradiction! You can't give them All The Equalities because then you'd have to give them to any "self-defined group"! It's not like the gays are a real thing. [And hurray! We can keep on discriminating against them in housing and employment, unless your locality unfortunately specifically prohibits it!]

4. Maybe society would have gone this way anyway, but that's society's choice. If society wants to give special rights to certain special interest groups, that's society's choice. Like abortion for women. Which the Court took out of the hands of The People in Roe v. Wade. And you see how well that worked out. Nobody was happy and there was a big backlash and everything got ruined instead of fixed all nice like it would have been if the Court had left everything alone. Sure, you can point to Brown v. Board of Education as a counterexample for how things work out just fine, but really, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - legislative acts in the political process - were far more important for racial equality which we totally have now.  [And by the way the Court was totally within bounds and right to gut the Voting Rights Act last year! Certain questions just can't be left to Congress!]

Well, thanks John Yoo for laying it all out for us.

You know, it's not like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had anything to do with Brown v. Board of Education. Or that it took any action of the courts subsequent to Brown to enforce its ruling.

You can read about the lasting effects of organized resistance to Brown in a book by Kristen Green, "Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County." Never underestimate the power of a committed and organized group of bigots to keep an oppressed group down. Just as the white Virginians founded the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, talking about rights and liberties to defend segregation, so today the American Renewal Project is hard at work dispensing rhetoric about rights and liberties of evangelical Christians to discriminate against same-sex couples seeking to marry. Or really anyone and anything they find disgusting and unholy. And even though nothing in Obergefell can be construed as forcing pastors to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, legislators are busy passing laws to "project" them from the evil overreaching Court's heinous blasphemous abomination. These are cynical ploys designed to cater to the religious right and simultaneously whip up fear and frenzy in the populace at large, to keep them from realizing that, in fact, no one's marriage has been threatened, their religious liberties are quite safe, and the world did not end.

The editorials, the websites, the organizations defending America, the Presidential candidates explaining why county clerks don't have to obey the Supreme Court - it's a very well-organized effort to undermine Obergefell and resist the expansion of civil rights for LGBT people.

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Data Mining in the Olden Days

(by Zuska) Jun 26 2015

I've been reading about millennial science manuscript writing!

In the olden days we wrote our manuscripts after working in the data mines and spending time refining the raw ores, maybe even going back for another shift or two after the smelting and reading up on the Manufacture and Uses of Various Ores. But that was back in the olden days, when you discovered things after walking uphill to the lab in the snow, both ways. I hear now you can just sit at a computer and write and send a postdoc out to fetch all the cheap industrial processed ores you need ready-made from the store. Modern life is so full of astonishing time-saving conveniences! Truly we live in wondrous times.

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A Note to Tim Hunt (and other self-satisfied "chauvinists")

(by Zuska) Jun 10 2015

Let me tell you about my trouble with boys.

Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with science, they sexually harass you, and when you criticize them, they cry! (And issue rape and death threats.)

I don't want to stand in the way of men. I'm a feminist - keep sexist asshats 'single' labs.

Separate but equal labs with no funding or prestigious awards for the sexist asshats, and real labs for the rest of humanity is the way to go!

These are light-hearted, ironic comments. I cannot help it if my audience interprets them as deadly serious.

I do mean the part about having trouble with boys. It's true I have fallen in love with science and that boys in the lab have sexually harassed me. It's very disruptive to science, because it's terribly important in the lab that people are on a level playing field, and I've found that these emotional entanglements have made life difficult. Not to say dangerous, at times.

I'm really sorry that I caused any offense, that's awful. I just meant to be honest, actually.

h/t @virginiahughes for alerting me to this latest outbreak of Nobelinania. Look out Jim Watson, you've got competition!

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The Parable of the Struggle

(by Zuska) Jun 04 2015

Once upon a time, there was a digital garden eastward in Eden. There a group diverse in academic background, gender, and religion (though not so much in race or ethnicity or class) were put, to dress it and keep it. They gave names to all that had been previously unspoken, and were a helpmeet unto each other. And every one among them did speak, the tenured and the grad students, the men and the women, and they were not ashamed. Of the Tree of Life they ate and of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil they did nosh, even of the humorous branches of both, without fear that they would be trolled.

But within this Garden of Eden grew a third tree, the Tree of Inciting the Spirit of Judgment and Fighting, which did harbor a serpent more subtle than any beast the rightwing nutjobs had made. And it came to pass one day that someone did mention yoga, and someone else offered up a transparent pun about downward dog, and others did virtually laugh. And the serpent saw its opportunity and didst strike. The serpent said unto the one most under siege IRL “eat thereof, and your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, judging all before ye.” And she did eat, and her eyes were opened, and she did judge that white privilege and cultural appropriation and disrespect for a thousands-year old religious practice were on display before her. And fighting did commence. And the Tree of Inciting the Spirit of Judgment and Fighting flourished and grew large, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil did succumb to blight and cankers, and the Tree of Life also sickened.

And lo, it came to pass many years later that on Fresh Air, Terry Gross did interview Michelle Goldberg about her recent book The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Wherein: a Russian woman reads a self-help book written by an American about Indian wisdom; travels to India to study yoga under a yogi sponsored by a progressive nationalist intent on uniting “the best of the East and the best of the West”; the yogi develops his own system incorporating elements that he felt captured the “animal” energy of 8 to 10 year old boys, which we today know as vinyasa; and this system is brought back to the West by the Russian woman with the new definition of “self” not to be obliterated, but to be developed to have greater efficacy in the world. The moral of the story being: your sun salutation has no connection to ancient texts; stop worrying about authenticity; embrace the modern mashup, and adapt it for your own needs. Maybe take your non-authentic yoga mat outdoors, for example to the Morris Arboretum for ten weeks of vinyasa this summer. Just stay away from the serpents in the trees.

A very wise woman of long acquaintance recently advised me that “part of being part of a professional community is the need to be extremely careful not to criticize anyone, which – to say the least – isn’t consistent with scholarly objectivity.” That plum came from the cultivar 'Life Knowledge'. Here's another: "If you don't open your mouth, no one will know you are wrong." The sagacious Dr. Richard Gallagher, now professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Kansas State University, fed me that one.

Members of oppressed groups are injured in many ways, including the silencing of their voices about those injuries. To break that silence one must open the mouth. And then comes the serpent to offer up the succulent, sweet, instant gratification fruit of Judgment and Fighting. There is a bliss in the certainty of the high, though it be short-lived and followed by a headache. And when our better natures call unto us and say, where art thou? Who told thee that thou art persecuted? we reply I heard their voices in the garden, and I was angry and ashamed, and I felt silenced, and the serpent beguiled me.

The flaming sword now turns every way. Eden is protected. Behold, we are become as one of them.

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Makeshift Memorial

(by Zuska) Feb 18 2015

When my siblings and I were young, my parents frequently took us to the cemetery to visit the grave of my mother's mother. I never knew her, but I knew how much my mother and Pappap had loved her. I could see how sad it made my mother each time we went. As a small child, I felt bad for my mother, but it had nothing to do with me. I did not imagine myself one day standing there as she did, at the place where we had cast her underground, lost and weeping.

One may visit a cemetery at any time, but certain proper times impel one's presence graveside: the days of a loved one's birth and death; Christmas and Easter; Memorial Day. Unhappily for me, my mother's birth and death dates are in December and February. The six-hour drive to the cemetery at these times is a dicey proposition.

This past Sunday, February 15th, was the second anniversary of my mother's death. We are in the middle of an arctic freeze, with frequent bouts of snow, freezing rain, 40 mph winds, and sub-zero wind chills. With the anniversary occurring on a Sunday, it seemed attendance at Mass would be a good form of remembrance. I would recite the familiar prayers, and at the end of the service, I would light a candle for mom - near a statue of Mary, if possible.

My mother, a devout Catholic, was very devoted to the rosary and the Virgin Mary. She was always "bending Mary's ear" about a cause in need of Mary's succor, whether it be restoration of the health of a sick grandchild or a conversion of non-recyclers to less earth-ruinous ways of living. It grieved my mother deeply that I had fallen away from church-going. For my part I found it simultaneously amusing, annoying, and touching to learn she had taken to lighting three candles whenever she went to a church. Whether at weekly Mass at her home church, or in other churches while traveling or visiting, the votive candles were regularly lit for my father, my brother, and me. My father was dead, so his candle was to help him get out of purgatory and into heaven. My brother was confined to a nursing home ever since a botched surgery at age 17, so his candle was for his health (and a miracle, if God would so please). My candle was to bring me back to the faith.

When I was very young, I believed that the lighting of votive candles had a magic power. The very candle itself sent up a mystic message via flame and smoke straight to God, who would see the burning candle and think favorably upon its associated prayer. You didn't burn a candle for trivial things, like winning a ballgame, or evil things, like causing harm to one's enemy. You burned them to ask for intercession in someone's misery. Heal the sick and suffering. Lift the souls in Purgatory into Heaven. Guide the lost sheep back into the fold. That sort of thing.

I don't know if my mother believed literally in the power of the candles but she did believe that in some way lighting one focused and amplified her prayer. She always, if possible, chose to light her candles on the side of the church where the statue of Mary was. Mary had been a mother. Mary understood the sufferings and special sorrows of a mother's heart. Mary was the right one to chat with, when you wanted something important relayed to God, to make sure He would get it. You know, really get it.

People without religious faith can still benefit from ritual. Since I have not yet managed to create my own set of deeply meaningful memorial rituals, and couldn't make it to the cemetery, I thought it was worth giving the Mass and the votive candle a chance.

I found a local Catholic church that seemed perfect. Catholic churches usually bear a saint's name. My hometown church was St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Peter, St. Michael the Archangel, St Patrick's are all common; there are a lot of Sacred Hearts and Holy Family parishes, too. But the one I found was called Queen of Peace. It was a church dedicated to Mary! It was a good sign! I planned to go.

Then the butt-chappingly cold weather got even more butt-chapping, and it snowed again, and the dire newscasters warned against going out lest ye be frostbitten and die, and the winds blew a steeple off a church in a town nearby.

I stayed home.

But I didn't feel good about it.

My dear friend and neighbor then suggested, why not burn a Yahrzeit candle at home? Better than trundling off to church to light a candle I wouldn't see again after I left the building anyway! Great idea!

Scrounging around the house, I could not find any nice pillar candles, and for sure nothing that would burn 24 hours. What I did have, though, were "purification candles". These I had found and brought home with me during one of the marathon sessions of cleaning out mom's house. Purification candles are blessed (and sometimes lit) on Candlemas, the 40th day after Christmas. On that day Mary took Jesus to be presented at the temple (and to be purified for her birth-giving uncleanliness, bla bla, patriarchal religion, bla bla). All good Catholics keep some blessed purification candles on hand at home for when the priest comes by to bless and anoint a dying person. Blessed candles can be lit when someone is sick, in a sort of bedside vigil  and prayer for returned health. Or, as in olden days, they can be lit as protection against the (literal) wolves in the forest. They are quite versatile.

I had a candle, noow I needed a holder. DIYers on the internet suggested using a small jar filled with sand. No appropriate-sized jar was to be found, but I did have the perfect mug - a plain white mug my father used to drink his coffee. (My younger sister remembers once as she watched him drink it black, before going out on midnight shift at the coal mine, asking him if he didn't want milk. "The first cup's purely medicinal" came the reply from a man who could not truly be called "awake" at that point.)

Candle, mug - but I had no sand.  Searching my cupboard I ran across some years-out-of-date Minute Tapioca. Kinda sandy-like texture. I lit the candle, dripped some wax in the bottom of the mug, and held the candle in the wax till it was steady. Then I filled the cup halfway with Minute Tapioca around the candle, to catch the dripping wax. For some decoration, I taped the remains of a refrigerator magnet (sans magnet) on the side of the mug. It was a miniature straw hat with pink roses I had bought for my mother when we went to a ramp festival in western Pennsylvania. She had liked the little hat, and pink roses were her favorite. It was perfect.

Makeshift Yahrzeit Candle

Makeshift Yahrzeit Candle

It was early afternoon when I lit the candle (not sundown, as one more properly does). The ersatz Yahrzeit burned quite a long time. I carried it around the house with me wherever I went. I felt very happy about it. At one point while walking up the stairs and shielding the flame, I though of my mother very intensely. It felt to my non-spiritual self like her spirit was with me in some sense.

Later on I noticed that the flame was now level with the rim of the cup. What was of course obvious from the beginning of this candle venture now hit me with all the force of a grief born anew: the flame would burn out. Stricken, I turned to Mr. Z with this obvious and tragic observation, and I wept.

We talked for a little while about my mother and her life, how much we loved her, how much we miss her, and the examples of her life we wish to embrace. It was good to have those moments to feel and share the sadness, and to speak affectionately of mom.

The candle lasted awhile longer. I kept it near me. Eventually the little hat fell off the side of the cup, and though I tried once or twice to press it back on its sticky tape, it just wouldn't stay. Soon the flame was down to a mere wisp which licked at the wax that had earlier dripped onto the Minute Tapioca. As this wax burned and flared, some of the tapioca burned, too, giving off a scent of burnt marshmallow, and leaving a burnt-marshmallow-type ring around the guttering flame.



Little flame, with burnt tapioca



The aroma reminded me of family camping trips when we were all young, roasting marshmallows around the campfire, mom at the wooden picnic table laying out the graham crackers and Hershey's squares in readiness for our burnt sugar fluff sagging off our campfire forks.

Even in those last few moments when the little flame was almost nothing to be seen, it gave me something.

And then it just...went out.

I looked at the clock and by pure accident, the flame had gone out at just about the time in early evening when mom drew her last breath.

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