We’re so saddened by the death of Judi Houghton, FBH member and mother of FBH Board Member, Denny Swenson. Denny wrote the following tribute to her mother after her mother’s passing last month. We remember Judi with much love and our hearts go out to Denny and her family.
Photo: Judi Houghton, Ponkapoag, fall 2012
A Mother’s Final Gift
By Denny Swenson
My mum grew up in Braintree, my dad in Quincy. They got married at ages 21 and 23, respectively, which was pretty common in those days. My sister Rosie came first and by the time I came along nearly 3 years later they had built the house where my mum lived for the rest of her life, in Foxboro. When we were young our house was one of only a few houses on Beach Street, a long country road at the time.
Mum and Dad divorced when I was young, so early on it was just us three girls in our house. We didn’t have much in the way of material things. Some would say we were poor, but as kids we really didn’t know it. As the neighborhood developed around us, with Patriots players moving in behind us and newer and bigger houses added to the area, those realizations would come later, over time.
But as kids, we were decidedly rich in one way – we had nature all around us. Living on the Neponset Reservoir meant days full of wildlife adventures. We watched the geese and swans partner up and have babies, played with the crawfish on the shore and admired the catfish as they swam around. We could be busy for hours tracking muskrat, raccoon, and opossum prints in the mud.
When I bump into people my age from Foxboro they all remember our house on Beach Street because it seemed to be the meeting spot for sledding, skating, snow-fort making, fishing, canoeing and rafting. My sister was like the social chairperson. She was always up to something fun and our little world gave us plenty of ingredients to work with.
People I barely recall will go on and on about how we worked all day to find a few tires and a big piece of wood to make a raft. And how we would travel around on the raft for days Huckleberry Finn style, all over the Neponset.
It wasn’t until I was grown that I realized what my childhood meant to me and that I wanted one as special for my own daughter. Such is life.
My mum was sort of a “granola-head”, laid back mom; she would occasionally holler for us to make sure we were still alive. But although we didn’t have much, and she wasn’t a big-time disciplinarian, she instilled key values in us.
Always care for others and be sensitive to others’ feelings.
Don’t blame the less fortunate for being less fortunate; they deserve as many chances as everyone else and perhaps even more so.
And, “I don’t know how we are going to pay for it but YOU ARE GOING TO COLLEGE.” (No one in our family had yet graduated from college.)
I don’t know if my older sister had any idea of how she would use a college degree, but at the time I was planning on becoming the next Aimee Mahn from the Boston band ‘til tuesday, and was questioning “what is the point of college?”
It didn’t matter; she insisted, “YOU ARE GOING” and somehow, against the odds, both my sister and I graduated from Wheaton College in Norton.
I wrote for the local Foxboro Reporter, the college paper, some other local magazines and out of college went on to work at WGBH TV in Boston. My mum read every article and watched every TV show I was ever involved in and called to give me her two cents on what we might include more of next time. “Did you consider so and so for host or what about this expert as a guest?”
She also called with advice for shows that I wasn’t involved in and I’d have to explain, “I don’t actually work with the folks in Nova.” And she would answer,
“Well, when we walked through the Nova offices that time I visited you for lunch everyone knew your name. I think they’d appreciate the feedback, so just be sure to tell them. Okay?” (She seemed to think I had more influence than I did.)
She felt strongly about politics and social issues and would love to spar about the news of the day. A table with smart people, healthy food, a glass of wine and nice conversation was heaven for her.
She was very sensitive to the plight of others. She cried for days after the Newtown, CT shooting and then flooded my e-mailbox with gun control information for weeks. She really wanted to make a difference and she did through her involvement in local politics and community groups.
She was honored when the Foxboro Garden Club nominated her as vice president recently. She was so sad when her illness meant that she could no longer go to those events.
She learned she had cancer around Thanksgiving 2011. She didn’t tell anyone because talking about it made it real. She didn’t want it to take over her life.
She and I quietly went to appointment after appointment. Chemo was an absolute disaster. Her chestnut hair had always been long and full so picking out a wig was devastating for both of us.
A gift of more time came when her cancer had a specific genetic marker that responded to a daily pill called Tarceva. This little pill had only minimal side effects and it kept the cancer at bay for a whole year. Then the cancer symptoms arrived as severe pain in her vertebrae.
I went to the pain clinic with her while she was in extreme morphine-level pain. She was able to get a shot and some medicine, and through flinching pain she insisted on stopping by each of the nurse’s offices to “thank them for what they do.” She said, “Not just today or this week because of the Marathon bombings, but every day. What you do is so important and I thank you.”
After the fourth nurse was thanked I pled with her to let me get her into a wheelchair. She was firm. “Nope, I am walking out that door myself and we leave the cancer at the doctor’s office.” She refused to have a “pick line” inserted because she said she could go through the extra pain of the blood draw or the IV at the hospital and then leave the pain there. She said, “I am going home with out that cancer stuff.”
At the time I worried that it was denial, but I am happy for her that she took breaks and compartmentalized the cancer away from her daily thoughts to live as full a life as she could.
While she was still reasonably well, we had to go to the hospital every month for tests and to see if the cancer was remaining at bay or taking off. Every time we did this we had to sit in a huge waiting room full of people with the varying stages of cancer and each with his/her own challenges — bone pain, chemo nausea, radiation burns. Some in wheelchairs. Some on ambulance beds.
When we left one day I told her how sorry I was that she had to see all these stages of the disease all at once in front of her. I said it must be scary and sad to see all these poor people suffering. She responded, “I am just so happy that they are all getting the best care the world has to offer. And look at how kind everyone is to one another in there. You don’t see that in many places.” How caring of her to teach me to look for the positive even in the toughest situations.
And what a gift she gave me as she walked out my front door on our journey to have major spine surgery near the end of her life. Surgeons removed a vertebra that was disintegrating due to the cancer and built a cage to hold the weight that the vertebra could no longer hold. She never cried about it or got mad about the hand she was dealt. She just acknowledged she had no choice but to fight it.
And she did fight it; within 48 hours was up and out of bed and soon was walking around that hospital with the best attitude of anyone I have ever known. She formed partnerships with her nurses and physical therapists and made friends with her roommates. She refused the help of a walker. She insisted that I look out her window each time I was there and appreciate the lovely view of Boston.
When she went to Spaulding Rehab shortly after the surgery, things spiraled down. Now we know it was because the cancer had spread to the brain. She never complained to me. I might just get a call or an email that she missed me. So I knew to get there quick and she was always so happy to see me. She would have an update and a list of things she could use help with. I always felt appreciated and she made me feel like we were partners in figuring things out together.
The hardest part followed as her health slid downward. Often there wasn’t anything I could do but be with her while she suffered through painful lab tests and invasive procedures. She finally had to tell me to stop asking her if there was anything that I could do for her because she hated to say no. So I had to stop asking.
At the end, my presence was all I could offer but a kind nurse explained to me that is actually more than one might imagine.
I felt like a useless bump on a log sitting next to her bed at the hospital day after day but a nurse noticed that Mum perked up when I was around. She often needed less medicine when I was there and because the nurse and I worked as a team we could soothe more effectively with two sets of eyes and hands.
Mum’s nurse was kind and said my mum was so lucky to have me. I couldn’t receive the compliment and kept saying no, no I am so lucky to have my mum. One thing for sure – we were both so lucky to have such caring nurses and doctors at Mass General.
As Mum slowly slipped away from me I was able to thank her for all the gifts she had given me. I got to tell her that although our family had its share of challenges, I had a good childhood and thanked her for being a wonderful grandmother to my daughter, Reilly. I thanked her for taking care of Reilly so I could work and for giving her an appreciation for nature and wildlife.
I got to tell her that any hard feelings I ever had for her had long ago washed away and been replaced with admiration for all the strength, courage and kindness she showed me, especially over the past year and a half.
Her final gift to me is the patience and respect we shared on her journey. This sharing is something I will always treasure.
My mum, Judi Houghton, passed away peacefully at Mass General Hospital on June 17th. I was holding her hand, surrounded by voluminous cards and flowers from friends and family. Her sunny room overlooked Boston and the gold-domed State House.
I am happy to report that I found her wig under her bed, never worn. Not even once, I know this because the box was still sealed. Amazingly, she never needed it.
A granola head-like, laid back service will be held at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Judi’s honor from 6-9 p.m. on Saturday, September 28.
Judi Houghton, was an avid trail walker, nature lover and community activist. These are a few of her favorite causes. In lieu of flowers, please consider joining or offering a small donation to any of these organizations.
The Friends of Blue Hills: https://friendsofthebluehills.org/support/
The Friends of Hemenway Woods, 65 Green Street, Milton, MA 02186
The Trailside Museum: http://www.massaudubon.org/Nature_Connection/Sanctuaries/Blue_Hills/index.php
FBH is honored to be among the charities valued by Judi and her family.