My Mom

My mom, Jacqueline Clemens, was born on this day in 1941, in Morristown, New Jersey. Her family had great success, and even glamor. Though she was a very beautiful girl, she was never comfortable being the princess that her mother wanted her to be. She was more of a tomboy. She never talked much about the trappings of being well off as a young girl. Instead, she was proud of the prizes she won in horseback riding and swimming (at camp), and the ways she found to live independently.

Her favorite radio show when she was a kid was “Sky King,” about a rancher who flew a small plane around the west, stopping outlaws and helping people in trouble. Mom especially liked the Penny character, the Sky King’s niece, who he taught to fly in the show (she talked about how she thought it would be great to fly a plane around the west and take care of people too, as a practitioner).

Mom loved adventurous girls, and believes that streak in her came from her grandmother, Victoria Coelho da Rocha. Her “Maman” was a Portuguese-Jewish transplant to Brazil, whose family once owned choice real estate in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Mom told a story of having an adventure with her when, on a visit to New York when Mom was 7 or 8, she booked them into a hotel room in Manhattan. Spying some coins on the roof of a building outside the hotel window, Maman sent Jackie out to gather them (tethered to the room by sheets tied together).

In 1958, when she was 17, she sailed from New York on a “grand tour” of Europe with her brother and parents, an especially luxurious thing to do then. She loved running around the ship on her own, and had some romance with the son of the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., Mahmoud Shabandar. They must have been a very pretty couple to watch dance. After they returned, Mom visited him at Harvard to dance with him again at the Winter Formal.

She went off to college at the University of California at Berkeley. She studied sociology, but most of all she joined in the huge cultural change that was happening right then and there, when young people got together and decided to do things their own way. She sat-in on the steps of Sproul Hall, and heard Mario Savio speak about the injustices of the U.S. social order that needed fixing.

She and my father were members of the Students for a Democratic Society, the seminal student organization of the 1960s. They danced with students from all over the world at the University’s International House, and talked about liberation theology at the Catholic Newman Center in Berkeley. They got married, very conscious of the politics and history of that, and idealistically wanting very much to be equals. They were at the very center of many changes that made this country a better place.

Mom had me in 1968, in Princeton, New Jersey, and in 1969 she and dad joined the Peace Corps. They packed up their comfortable American life and set off for an adventure with a tiny baby.

In Chile, she worked counseling women about family planning, while my father taught math. She said she loved it there, because it taught her about “what was really important, and what was not.” She loved being a mother, and said she surprised herself with how well it came to her. Once, when she was rushing out the door with me in one arm and the the keys Dad forgot in the other, she tripped and fell. She said she twisted as she hit the ground so she cushioned me from the fall, then popped up again holding out the keys. She said, “I have no idea how I did that!”

She told how she enjoyed the life of a thrifty volunteer. She made her own baby food by grinding up vegetables with a hand-cranked machine. She sent me to preschool with a sandwich wrapped in wax paper and string that she re-used over and over again. On their second assignment to Chile, the socialist government was ousted by the U.S., and the country was unstable. They decided to leave finally, but found that they did not have any way to get to the airport; they had no gas for their tiny Citroen car, and transit wasn’t running. So they sold a few things including my toy tractor to a neighbor for some gasoline, leaving the car at the airport.

In 1974, they had my brother Michael in New York City, where they lived in Columbia faculty housing on Riverside Drive. Mom painted murals of trees and fruit in the sterile apartment kitchen, collected rain water in a bucket, and built a table herself from hardwood, fastened with dowels. She had a dog named Ché. She fed her sons Challah bread, yoghurt, and wheat germ, no sugar.

Once, she was almost mugged while walking with me and Michael, running away holding on to us tightly. Mom wanted to live in a place closer to nature, and in 1978, we all left New York for Utah. Though their marriage ended, Mom and Dad made a good home for their sons there.

In typical fashion, Mom took on going back to school and making her own life in a determined and careful way. She became a Registered Nurse, then later a Nurse Practitioner. She worked as a ward nurse, a visiting nurse, an ER nurse, and finally decided to specialize in Oncological nursing. She was devoted to caring for her patients, and talked about how absolute it was for her to put her patients needs and care above everything else. This was not just a platitude for her, it was an imperative that I heard her discuss many times with her friends and on the phone with colleagues, sorting through some ambiguous circumstances that needed a second opinion. She was a member of the Newman Center in Utah, and went on several retreats in the south-western desert to build her Catholic faith.

At the Veterans Administration hospital in Salt Lake City, she worked with an oncologist named Grant Harrer. She told me a story about making a report to him on a patient with a small and irrelevant mistake about the patient’s shirt. He had her re-do it, asking her to make it “as perfect as you possibly can”; she said he taught her to be better and even more careful than before. She was extremely lucky to also work with a doctor named Kirk Lund. Later, Kirk became her doctor in Spokane, when she was diagnosed with brain cancer 22 years afterwards.

After her son Ben left home, she worked as an oncology nurse in Montana for a clinic started by Dr. Harrer. Her son Michael was very academically strong, and she helped him to become a star at his high school and apply to extremely competitive colleges. He chose the California Institute of Technology, and she supported him through taking on that rigorous challenge. She went to work at an advanced oncology care facility (doing bone marrow transplants for children) in Louisville, Kentucky. She helped her son Ben to chose to pursue a degree in fine art (she was very supportive of a choice that did not have much practical value but that she could tell was what he wanted).

She then chose to become a general care clinician in Whitefish, Montana, working at a small office with two other doctors caring for whatever patients needed. She dealt with all kinds of things, from poor people who hadn’t seen a doctor in years to people whose life she saved with by diagnosing a dangerous condition via an eye exam. She had a collection of hundreds of grateful letters from the people she helped, and strong fans among the local doctors as someone who did the absolute best job she could with the care of everyone she saw.

She started then to get interested in training dogs. She had raised two Shetland Sheepdogs in Utah, and started to become serious with a new Shelty, Bonnie. She did Obedience, then Agility, then Tracking. Her dogs were internationally ranked and she competed in hundreds of trials and rallies. She earned Master Agility Champion with her dog Rosie. She literally had hundreds of ribbons, which lined the walls of her house (upstairs and downstairs). She truly loved her dogs, and said that her love and bond with them was what made them do so well. She hated when she saw anyone yelling at a dog, as she religiously practiced positive reinforcement as the only way she trained.

She raised and trained her dogs to many titles.

  • Bonnie (Obediance Trial Champion)
  • Nickles (North American Dog Agility Council Agility Trial Champion, Obediance Trial Champion, Agility Excellent, Open Jumpers With Weaves Preferred, Agility Dog of Canada, Agility Dog I, and Scent Hurdle Dog Excellent)
  • Brio (Obediance Trial Champion, Master Agility Excellent, Excellent Jumper with Weaves, Agility Champion, Novice Fast, Elite Agility, Junior Handler, Rally Excellent, Therapy Service Dog, Delta Society Pet Partner)
  • Raisin (Companion Dog Excellent, Master Agility Excellent, Master Agility with Jumping Excellent, Elite Agility Certificate, Rally Novice, Novice Fast)
  • Luke (Open Agility, Novice Agility Jumper, Agility Novice, Agility Gambers Novice, Novice Agility Certificate, Novice Jumper, Herding Capability Tested)
  • Crispy (Companion Dog)
  • Geordie

When she retired from practice, she moved to Spokane to be closer to dog events. She spent a great deal of time on the road with four to five dogs, going all over the northwest and Canada. She was still new in Spokane, so she asked her neighbor Carol Klover to take her to the doctor one day, as she had been having some troubles. She had a brain tumor, a Glioblastoma Multiforme, the same cancer that killed Ted Kennedy in the space of a year. When she was diagnosed she was afraid, but simply faced it with determination to do the things she wanted to somehow.

Immediately after she woke up from surgery, having had a 6-centimeter mass removed and still having trouble talking and moving, she told us directly: “don’t put anything off.” If there was something we wanted to do, do it right now. About two weeks afterwards, she was up, moving stiffly but quickly, running with her dogs in her back yard.

She had multiple courses of radiation and many courses of chemotherapy, but never complained. She simply kept at it, doing as much of the things she could do as she possibly could. Her friends at the dog club (particularly Matt Kochel) helped her travel to and compete in dog events even when she was weak or confused, and she was very grateful for their sweetness and generosity.

As Mom struggled against the tumor’s progress, Carol and Mom became friends, and Carol helped mom keep living the way she wanted too at her house. She had accidents, and Carol saved her life four times. Dr. Kirk Lund gave her extremely good care, treating her as a friend and as a colleague when making scary decisions. When she needed more help, her caretakers made it possible for her to live independently for as long as possible, particularly Marianne Kincaid, but also Leah Colborn and Kayla Knicely. Michael and I are extremely grateful to Kirk, Marianne and Carol for the above-and-beyond kindness and generosity they showed our mother through the exhausting, horrible struggle against that disgusting cancer.

Mom died peacefully and comfortably, early in the morning on Sunday, November 4th, 2012. It was not easy for her to let go of life, as she was always determined to get what she wanted from it. I am sure there is more she wanted to do. She was luckier in her sickness than many other people though, and got to do much that she wanted. She was a brave, strong, and utterly decent person, and we will miss her very much.

Today I remembered a part of a poem that I am fairly sure she must have showed me when I was a kid, by Pablo Neruda (I don’t know how else I would have known about it):

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit.