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MOTHER: On Mother’s Day, I’m honoring Mom, who died two months ago – and you should honor yours, too

louannemillerphoto5 4 16web


My mother, Louanne Vorba Miller of Middletown, took her last breaths on Friday, March 11, in Room 2044 of the intensive-care unit at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. It’s unreal watching your parent, especially your mother, die in front of your eyes.

Within a 10-minute span, everything went from OK to terminal. It was impossible to register what was happening: The woman who created, nurtured and cared for me for 28 years (mothers never stop looking after your well-being) suddenly ceased to be.
No more holiday visits. No more check-in phone calls. No more walking in the door, seeing her reading in her favorite recliner. No more arguing about politics over e-mail.

Those moments are gone. They live on only in memory. As Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly said in T.S. Eliot’s play, “The Cocktail Party,” “We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them.” Mom, being an English major in college, would appreciate the literary reference.

Eliot’s truth never left my mind in the weeks following my mother’s untimely death. Her passing helped me realize just how precious our relations to others are. During our lives, we leave an indelible mark on those around us. We create ripples in life’s ocean that spread out, touch and interact with others, creating a web of connection that binds us, turning us from selfish creatures into beings capable of love and compassion.

Whether they be our friends, family, coworkers, or complete strangers, our essence is made whole by the people we bond with in our short time here.

Louanne Miller lived a simple life. But she, too, left an impression on those closest to her. Here are a few particularities I’ll remember her by:

• Louanne was born in Orange, Conn., and spent most of her childhood years in Bradford, Vt. Her father was a reverend who pastored in churches all over the East Coast. Her mother was a descendent of the Peters, a family that has been in America since 1634.

• She attended Catawba College in North Carolina and met my father when her family settled in Allentown. They were both employees at a local department store called Hess’s when they started dating. Seeing as how I met my fiancee at our last job together, meeting future spouses at work is a familial phenomenon.

• When my family moved to Middletown in the 1980s, my mother worked at Capital Blue Cross. She was an employee for nearly 30 years, a duration unheard of in our digital age. Her co-workers eulogized her work ethic and positive attitude on Facebook. People I’ve never met before called her a “great soul” and “a good employee who genuinely loved her job.”

It was a heartening reminder that my mom was cared about outside her immediate family. As a child, you don’t often think about your parents in that way. Their life outside your immediate bond may as well not exist, but it’s there. As a kid, I didn’t cause a whole lot of fuss (my brother is another story). But in high school, Mom insisted on reminding me to “make good choices.” I didn’t always follow her advice, being a young American teenager and all. When I inevitably walked in the front door past curfew, she either didn’t notice or ignored the alcohol on my breath. She trusted that I wouldn’t carouse myself into brain dead destitution – a trust that surprisingly paid off. When I graduated summa cum laude from Shippensburg University, she couldn’t be happier. When I was offered my first professional job in Washington, D.C, she also couldn’t be happier – for me to leave my childhood bedroom, mostly.

As for hobbies, Mom had more than a few. She always kept up-to-date with current events and the latest television series (which are synonymous these days). During the holiday season, her house transformed into an annex of Christmas tree shops. She was a cinephile who gave Roger Ebert a run for his money for most films watched. She spoiled her dogs rotten with toys – and didn’t hold back the bounty from her grandson.

She had an interest in genealogy and loved tracing our lineage. I remember how excited she was to discover that our ancestor, John Peters, lieutenant colonel of the pro-British Queen’s Loyal Rangers, met briefly with Benjamin Franklin during the Revolutionary War. Curiously enough, John’s brother, Absalom, differed with him on the question of American independence. This caused a schism in the family, which might explain how my mother and I rarely saw eye-to-eye on politics.

Until the end, Mom tried to keep up with her interests like the world wasn’t ending. When she was diagnosed with Stage IV cervical cancer last fall, she wasn’t overly worried. We thought the strain was treatable. A few chemo trips and everything would be all right.

But then we found out that her cancer was a rare form – less than 500 people in the U.S. have it. Her conditioned worsened. Radiation treatments ceased to have any effect. She was forced to retire, and my sister-in-law became her caretaker. She wasn’t happy about the change, but she didn’t let it stop her from doing what she wanted to do. Movies and Christmas kitsch don’t keep death away, unfortunately.

When my mom called to tell me she checked into the hospital for a mild issue, I was in Austin, Texas, for work. She told me not to worry, and that everything would be fine. The next day, my brother called and told me he was worried about her condition.
A day later, I was on a plane back to Middletown. I arrived late, and didn’t have a chance to visit her in the hospital that night. Early the next morning, things took a turn for the worse. I sped down Middletown Road toward Hershey, blowing through red lights, driving well over the speed limit. I arrived in time to say goodbye while holding her hand.

At the end, as life slipped away, she was the woman she’d always been: Genuine, earnest, beautiful. Even in her frail, departed state she was my mother. Seeing her depart this world was a sharp reminder of the inherent dignity God grants us all.

This Sunday, May 8 is Mother’s Day. Do yourself a favor and don’t forget to get the woman who lugged you around for nine months some flowers. Or, at the very least, give her a call. Tell her you’re sorry if you have to. Before you know it, it could be too late.

I love you, Mom, and I miss you.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, works as a digital marketer in Virginia. His columns appear regularly in the Press And Journal.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 May 2016 15:27

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Retired teachers say goodbye to MAHS

brunnerphoto5 4 16WEBBarbara Brunner, wife of former Middletown Area High School principal Edward Brunner, holds his portrait, which hung in the school's lobby, during a tour of the school for retired teachers, administrators and staff. The school district has given the portrait to her.

They returned to their classrooms for one last look.

Retired teachers joined former administrators and staff on a final tour of Middletown Area High School, scheduled to be demolished this summer, on Saturday, April 23.

Among the participants: Barbara Brunner, wife of former principal Edward Brunner, who was given the portrait of her late husband that hangs in a lobby at the school.

The MAHS Alumni Association will offer two public tours of the school before it’s closed – from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, May 7 and Saturday, May 14.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 May 2016 14:07

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Brewery to open in July

tanksphoto5 4 16WEBPress And Journal Photo by Dan Miller -- A tank is lowered into the renovated basement of Tattered Flag Brewery & Still Works on Monday, May 2.

One by one, 13 large stainless steel tanks that will be used to brew the beer at the Tattered Flag Brewery & Still Works began arriving at the Elks Building in Middletown on Monday, May 2.

The first was brought in through a large open area in the front of the Elks Building facing South Union Street, to be lowered and set upon the basement floor of the new brewhouse, and the other 12 will enter the building the same way.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 May 2016 14:52

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Kept Close

steeltonfamilyphoto4 27 16SLIDEPress And Journal Photo by Eric Wise - Terry McMullen, right, and wife Ashley Ward-McMullen hold the remains of Daylynn Smith, McMullen’s son.

A Steelton father takes his son’s ashes to the trial of the young man’s murderer.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 April 2016 17:07

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Being Muslim in Middletown

hassanphoto4 27 16WEBPress And Journal Photo by Dan Miller -- Khadija Hassan, right, speaks to students at Penn State Harrisburg. Though she was born in Somalia, she’s spent most of her life in the U.S. and feels she is “as American as can be.”

What’s it like being a Muslim student at Penn State Harrisburg – and living in Middletown?

“Because of the college atmosphere here and all the diversity, it’s pretty good to be a Muslim in Middletown,” said Ali Hamza, an engineering major at the university.

Hamza was one of five Penn State Harrisburg students who described what it’s like to be a Muslim today as a student and a resident of the Middletown area community during a recent public forum on the Lower Swatara Twp. campus.

Among those attending the event at the Olmsted Building were fellow Penn State Harrisburg students, faculty and staff.

The forum offered an eye-opening glimpse into the rich diversity that is found on the campus:

• Hamza is from New Jersey but spent five years living in Pakistan learning about his native culture from his parents.

• Fairuziana Humam is a graduate student studying community psychology who comes from Indonesia but grew up in Kansas.

• Faqirullah Khan was born and raised in the U.S., but his mother is from Afghanistan and his father from Bangladesh.
Forty-eight different countries are represented among the students who attend Penn State Harrisburg, said Marcellus Taylor, who is the university’s assistant director of student activities and fraternity/sorority life.

Taylor put together the Muslim student event. He was not aware of any incidents on campus or in the Middletown area involving harassment of Muslims. In any case, the forum was part of “being proactive,” Taylor said.

Overall, Muslim students sounded more concerned about what life is like for Muslims throughout the U.S. today.
“It’s a bit scary to imagine that in a great country like America, there are people out there who think it is not safe to be here and that Muslims are not welcome,” Humam said.

Taylor presented a talk that was given in February through the Web site from Dalia Mogahed titled, “What Do You Think When You Look at Me?”

“Some people want to ban Muslims and close down mosques,” said Mogahed, standing on a stage and wearing a hijab, the Arabic word often used to describe a headscarf worn by Muslim women and girls. “They talk about my community kind of like we are a tumor in the body of America, and the only question is are we malignant or benign?”

“A malignant tumor you extract altogether and a benign tumor you just keep under surveillance,’’ Mogahed said. “The choices don’t make sense because it’s the wrong question. Muslims, like all other Americans, aren’t a tumor in the body of America. We’re a vital organ. Muslims are inventors and teachers, first responders and Olympic athletes.”

The rise of ISIS fuels the perception that Islam is “a violent religion,” Mogahed said. “But we would be giving into their narrative if we cast them as representatives of a faith of 1.6 billion people. ISIS has as much to do with Islam as the Ku Klux Klan has to do with Christianity.”

The Penn State Harrisburg students talked about their own experiences growing up and leading normal lives in this country.

Khadija Hassan was born in Somalia, but has spent most of her life here and feels “as American as can be.” She sang Christmas carols. But when it came time for the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha, none of her non-Muslim friends knew anything about it. They learned about it from her.

For the most part, it seemed like Hassan and other Muslims were anonymous until 9/11. “For millions of Americans I think that was their first introduction to my religion,” Hassan said.

As terrible as 9/11 was, it began to force a conversation between Muslims and non-Muslims that continues today, she said.

Hassan encourages other students to ask her anything they want about her faith, including why she doesn’t always wear the same headscarf.

“That’s the same as any American girl, what kind of dress or what kind of style she has,’’ Hassan said. “I also have a different headscarf every once in a while. That’s just like an expression of me. We might express ourselves differently, but we are still expressing ourselves, as anybody else would.”

She thinks of herself and other Muslim students at Penn State Harrisburg as “the bridge that kind of connects from what people know or perceive to know about my religion, and what truly my religion is,’’ she said. But the differences really aren’t as great as what people think, Hassan said.

“Most people will be fairly surprised to learn that we have so much in common that you might actually never know until you hear it from the mouth of someone who has lived outside of this country,” Hassan said.

Khan talked of growing up in small town America. His days were filled with McDonald’s french fries, weekend barbecues, going camping and summer vacations. But the KKK had a foothold in the town.

Khan’s younger brother was supposed to be born a month after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but Khan’s mother had a miscarriage.

“I remember being a 5- or 6-year old sitting in the waiting room hearing nurses talk about him, and the one nurse, said ‘Thank the Lord Jesus Christ that the terrorist child was not born,’ and the other nurse with her agreed,’’ he recalled. “She didn’t say, ‘What you said was wrong.’ ”

“It destroyed me emotionally because I did not understand…to find out that my younger brother had passed away in that context before my parents had told me - it was disgusting,” Khan said, the pain of the experience still fresh in his voice.

Now, “they want to send me back, they want to send my parents back, and this is heartbreaking because my father has been here since he was a Ph.D. student,’’ Khan said. “My mother came here when she was only 18 or 19 as a refugee. The thought of sending them back, to two separate places first of all, is horrendous. It splits apart a family.”
Moreover, Khan said his mother has no home to which to return. The town in Afghanistan where she is from was destroyed by U.S. bombs in 2002, because the Americans thought the Taliban was there.

“I don’t consider myself less of an American after 9/11 as I did before 9/11,’’ Khan said. “But the rest of America doesn’t seem to see me the same way.”

Despite that experience, Khan sounds optimistic as he looks ahead.

“America has the hope in all of us,’’ he said. “We can make this change, we can avoid such close-mindedness, we can make a difference, we can stand up to such evil ways of thinking. Because this is what America stands for.

“Being a Muslim does not conflict with being an American,’’ Khan said. “You can be both and you don’t have to practice either in any lesser way.”

Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 April 2016 17:01

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