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Family learns to enjoy mom only in memory

The interplay of light and shadow cast a late afternoon analogy over the dining room where the Breinholt family has shared Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations for decades.

Light reflects on the memories contained on every wall, as faces smile out into the familiar gathering space. Shadow streaks alongside the light, reminiscent of the woman whose presence will appear at this year's holiday season only in memory.

The mood in the room is a fitting reminder of what happens in families when the heart of a home stops beating, as Jane Breinholt's died on Sept. 29. She was 70.

Her son, Peter, one of Utah's most successful homegrown musicians, finds comfort in this space, reflecting on how she influenced his life; on how the family celebrations will now change; and on the legacy we leave when what matters least takes a rightfully distant back seat to what matters most in life.

In October 2008, the Breinholt family heard the words you're only supposed to read about after they happen to somebody else: the mother of five and grandmother of 11 was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. A fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow, it attacks about 12,000 Americans each year, most of them older adults.

When he was a child, that scenario was Peter's greatest fear.

"I had what I felt was just this bond with her. I felt like I was her little pal and I remember thinking, 'Bad can happen, but whatever you do, God, don't take my mom.' "

So for him, "the diagnosis was the most emotional part of the journey. When she died it was devastating, but she had lived with it for nearly a year." Those months gave him, his siblings and his father not only time to say goodbye but also to enjoy the woman they all dubbed, "The Giving Tree," after a much-beloved book by Shel Silverstein.

"She hated that and when we asked her why, she said, 'At the end of the book the tree is just a stump.' In her ending, there would not just be a whole tree but a whole forest of trees. She just grew with everything she gave."

Jane's hairdresser confided one Christmas that the only thing her young son wanted from Santa was a purple horse, which wasn't readily available. A few days later, Jane returned to the shop, with a purple horse gift-wrapped and ready to delight.

"It was always about people to her," Peter recalls, remembering how his mother's natural talents included flower arranging, something she was encouraged to turn into a business, which she eventually did. "But she was so nice, she ended up not charging people," for the services she offered, and it eventually "burned her out," he said.

As part of her daily adventures, she took neighborhood teens under her wing and tried to help them negotiate life's rough spots. One of them learned the art of flower arranging from her, then capitalized on her teaching over time. She eventually became the florist for the White House.

"Who do you think did the flowers for her funeral? For Mom, it was always about people and an excuse to be with people. ... She very much believed you don't keep score, you just give and it will all come back to you."

Peter believes those traits came, in part, from a childhood of suffering. As a child, she endured death of two brothers at an early age as well as the untimely death of her father.

Late in the night during her own cancer treatment, she spoke of something that also shaped her life but of which she had long been silent. As a 9-year-old girl, she was hospitalized with polio, in a ward with other children who were isolated from family and often from the nursing staff.

When they would cry in the middle of the night, she would get out of her own bed and comfort them.

As past often becomes prologue, so it was with Jane. "When she was sick in the hospital, her true nature came out and it was the same gentle and loving and caring nature we had known," as children. While undergoing cancer treatment, she was asked by doctors to talk with a patient in an adjacent room after he had lost his will to live and refused chemotherapy.

"She got up, put on her mask, went into his room, turned on the lights and opened the blinds … and tried to give him the sense that he did have control over some things in his life." After the visit, the man decided to get treatment.

"He's probably still alive somewhere," Peter says, gazing out the window as the sunset turns the western horizon a glowing red and the room grows dim.

There will be memory fests this holiday season for the Breinholts. Two of Jane's daughters erected a "giving tree" in the church foyer during her viewing and funeral, asking people to write their stories about her.

Though they each have their own memories of being "her favorite," Peter and his siblings have found that love reflected in hundreds of tales, many previously unknown to them, about the way Jane touched people through the years, not only with kindness but with humor.

The head-shaving video she made for her grandchildren in her hospital room, geared to help them laugh at the fact that she was losing her hair to cancer treatment, has already become something of a family touchstone.

As for the celebrating, it will "simply have to be different," Peter says. "She was the center of the holiday season," and the entire family is now trying to negotiate what Christmas, in particular, will look like this year. "She took Christmas to a whole new level."

As for many Utah families, the Breinholts will experience all the "firsts" since Jane's death: the first Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, Easter, birthdays. And the gifts, which were one of Jane's "love languages," will be different, too.

There will be no anonymous dropping of coveted Cabbage Patch dolls on the doorsteps of her daughter's friends; no purple horses to delight a child she never knew; no "traditional Christmas" smells and sounds that only she could create.

Instead, there will be tears mixed with laughter; music mixed with memory and joy mixed with pain.

"You resist life's tragedies with everything you have, but when you are inside them you get a different sense," of the sacred, Peter says. "Some would say it's a break from reality but I have it the other way around. I think life's real moments are those when we're sometimes brought to this place of pain.

"I think we have a way of getting a certain perspective. You want to hug your kids and be home when you can. That to me, that's reality. We just forget it when we go to work every day. Life has a way of toughening us up so we can do what we need to do, but we pay a price for it."

For Breinholt, a children's musical tale "for adults" is on the drawing board. Memories come easily and sweetly to one whose childhood was, in many ways, idyllic. "When I think of my own desire to look at some old pictures or visit the home I grew up in Pennsylvania, I could experience that in the sense of a child.

"And the dominant role in all those memories is my mom," he says, noting the last song on his most recent album, "The Rain Tree," is "really about me thinking of the 'Giving Tree.' "

He'll keep mulling the idea over the holidays, looking for a way to "truly capture what most people long for when they think of the sort of innocent days past. What other kind of album would be more suited to her?"

Though the project has been "on deck" for at least a couple of years, he's started to tinker with the idea in earnest since his mother's death. "Maybe this is all by design and maybe there's a reason I waited to do it."

e-mail: carrie@desnews.com