Shirlawhirl’s Heartfelt Freedom

Last year, March 6, 2021, my mother passed away (Shirley R. Sesna obituary and Kudo Board). I signed the certification of her trust on my 56th birthday. I didn’t expect her to go. Nor did I expect her to take away what she did:  any habitual excuse for not living into my highest potential.

Picture of Shirley in feather beaded mask.
Shirlawhirl at the Oregon Country Fair

The contradiction

My mother had an adventurous heart and the soul of an artist, dancing and laughing with color. She made an eclectic assortment of friends around the world.

My mother also lived in a box of many self-imposed restrictions, old hurts, insecurities and negative memory tracts. Her Box-of-the-Past-Hurts did not contain her, I admit, but I ran into it’s walls a lot. I was one of the people to whom her Box was most evident, and the contradiction with her playful persona was hard for me to reconcile.

Shirlawhirl could regale people with stories of travel through Indonesia and Fiji with a backpack, dance to live music (the Blues preferably), flit through the Oregon Country Fair in flamboyant costumes, and render the sweetest Teddy Bear Contest Judge for the Corvallis da Vinci Days GRAAND Kinetic Challenge.

Shirley could also make the best contractor cringe with dread, just because she was already so scared, and convinced, that they would take advantage of her. She wore life heavy when she talked to me, when she wasn’t dancing.

The first garage
The plastic dolls who helped us laugh on the many trips to the dumpster

I inherited many beautiful and valuable things from her, lovely memories of adventures in nature, Christmas and lands far away, as well as The Box. It was represented literally by two garages and a basement full of boxes. She printed, reviewed and saved every stock transaction and disclosure statement. Yes, she did. She saved the leftover rice wall paper from the master bedroom she shared with my father in the house they built together; and she saved the papers of the divorce and property lawsuits of 1979 with which their marriage ended. She saved her letters and journals from high school and from travel to cool places. She saved hundreds of satin ribbons won in horse shows, rodeos and parades, mine and hers. She saved incomplete creative projects (perhaps that’s what the plastic dolls were for).

She saved news paper clippings documenting family history, and several key items, like paintings by family artists, the violin that my great-great-great-great grandfather, Dr. Ring, played for he and his brother’s passage on the steamer ship from Norway when they were 14 and 11. Antique guns given to her grandfather, Paul Hunter, who was President Teddy Roosevelt’s personal orderly, appointed a Post Master, and helped to found Save the Redwoods League. A Hupa Indian baby basket given to our great aunt, who was a nurse and served the tribal community in the 1950’s. Handmade dolls carried across the new world in a covered wagon. A photograph of the family sitting on a giant whale bone across the front of the cabin in Camp Weott (a Native tribe in Humboldt County, CA) on the Eel River, before it was washed away by the 1965 flood.

I located all this really cool family history, and culled out the rest, so that I can someday soon create a legacy display of the family.

Much of the stuff was sweet to see. Some of it was incomplete and unsettled, an odd combination of mouldy guilt and anger with a big swirl of joyful nostalgia. Wow, she had moved these boxes with her across two states, two marriages/divorces, and at least seven houses. 

I often felt smothered by the weight of the past she carried, and what she wanted from me. I spent a lot of my life running away from this feeling of being overwhelmed by her history, needs and opinions. I fought with her to breathe my own way through life. This fight restricted my relationship with her, and most of my relationships, actually. It’s been hard for me to trust that intimacy wouldn’t suffocate me. I always wanted her to truly let it go of the past. She always wanted to hold onto everything, to be respected for all she had survived.

“Memory was given to us to keep alive only life’s good experiences and lessons. Get rid of wrong thoughts by avoiding recalling them….To remember bad experiences and dwell upon them is an abuse of God’s gift of memory.”

Paramhansa Yogananda

Really, she seemed afraid that if she lost those representative bits of the past, she, herself, would be lost, and not matter…to me. That was the weight. She really needed to matter to me, and I really did not care…about that stuff. I could not carry the weight of her Box. I cared about her. It took stubborn determination to care for her. Caring for her made me stronger. 

In the hospital, suspicious and cantankerous with the nurses and doctors, she said to me, “I’m not angry.” Incredulous as always, she really could not hear herself or feel the energy she was putting out at people. “I’m just protecting myself.”

So much in common

Strangely, I had just received a neuropsychological diagnosis for my son. “Non-Verbal Learning Disorder” (NVLD or NLD) puts him on a spectrum of “neuro-diverse”. There are common symptoms with high functioning Autism, and Aspberger’s Syndrome, but it’s not. No one I know has ever heard of it. Columbia University is studying NVLD to define it, put it in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Luc having fun with his Grandma ShiShi

Shirley had a successful life in many ways, but the inside scoop I saw was anxiety, relationship challenges, and an extreme effort to manage her life. Luc passes as a typical tween, but I’m living the tumult of his neuro-diversity every day. I feel the same emotional pressure and dis-regulation from Luc that I felt from my mother my whole life. It was an emotional disaster for me to be with both my son and my mother/his grandmother at the same time. They both pulled on me the same way, competed with each other for my energy (probably to co-regulate them, I’m discovering). So many everyday expectations of joyful times with mother and son/grandson just rarely worked out that way.

In the hospital, trying to support her, and to understand, it struck me that Shirley and Luc had similar brains, and that however I am reacting to them is a lifetime karma (learning) for me to unpack. We weren’t able to have a full conversation (we were only able to have maybe 6 conversations of a few minutes), but hearing about the learning disability diagnosis for Luc was significant for her. “Luc and I have a lot in common,” she mumbled to herself as she fell back into a sleep state.

Souls on a journey

“Just protecting myself…” Ah-ha, I understood something, finally, without judgment. What I experienced as suspicion, anger and control was her habit of self-protection. A lifetime habit. But the habit was not her, not him, not us.

I switched to address her soul. “Mom, none of that matters now. Only love matters.” She softened.

I’d been reminding her of this truth for several months now as we walked through the lung cancer treatments. Hanging out in her doctor’s Zoom waiting room, she would try again to talk things through. I knew the conversation would be unresolvable, would just cause her pain. So I explained “On my spiritual path, the past is gone. I love you, Mom. That’s all there is. I love you. Let’s enjoy the time we have together.” That was a turning point, a stake in the ground deeper than I expected.

Ogden and Mom

Now I added, knowing all treatments were ineffective, “They’re all waiting for you, Mom. Your mom, Ruth, Ted, Rodger, Sabrina, Pablo, Ogden…” I named all her family and pets who had passed before her. She smiled so beautifully and looked up. “Really?” she asked, but I could tell she felt, maybe even saw a ray of light. “Yes, Mom, they are all waiting for you.” She laid back, smiling, and rested peacefully that day.

Ruth Hunter Sesna and Shirley Ruth Sesna

Her habit took over again and we went a few rounds in the hospital, but I knew now she was just a soul on a journey, like all of us.

She had done the best she could do in this life: as a girl who had lost her best friend in a tragic accident falling off the back of a horse; as a career woman with significant learning disabilities (self-diagnosed and medicated) and two Master’s degrees; as a person who had been betrayed by people she loved and trusted; as a single woman in a rapidly changing world, who had re-built a life she enjoyed; as an adventurous, creative person, whom many had loved; as the daughter of pioneers who was proud of her family’s history; and as a mother who had loved her only daughter, as best she could.

Shirley and Jacqueline at waterfall in the background
Shirley Ruth Sesna and Jacqueline Ruth Debets on our hike to Silver Falls

I promised to give her life a respectful ending. She asked me to take over. I signed the papers. But she was a fighter all her life. Her habit fought me, to keep her on intravenous antibiotics that were not holding back the aggressive MRSA bug eating her body. Her soul was ready for hospice, ready to be free. I promised to serve her soul, not her habits.

“The secret of love is respect; for while feelings fluctuate, respect can remain a constant. Listen respectfully…Preserve a certain dignity in your relationship: that dignity which gives others freedom to be themselves.”

Swami Kriyananda, Secrets of Love

I am profoundly grateful to have lived loving her wholly, to have seen her, to only feel love for her now…To have realized on the path of life that we are all souls on a journey, doing the best we can, and loving each other is all that matters. It’s all that God wants us to do, all we truly can do. Love is the energy that makes that journey together, matter. 

Beyond the Box

After she passed peacefully, I opened the first garage. With the help of friends, I cleared out, disposed of, and burned most of that old stuff. Deeply and delightfully, I feel I am helping her to lighten her load (and my own), to complete that karmic habit of carrying all the past hurts and sad memories around. Let your soul fly free, Mom. In our next life together, we will play, dance, and ride like the wind.

Her passing also blessed me with her friends. We shared the experience of her as “very particular,” but their experience was much bigger and sweeter. They enjoyed her stories, playing with her, working with her. She supported each of these people to believe in their dreams, to enjoy life, to work hard for success. They credited her with inspiring them to achieve their goals in higher education and to live their dreams of entrepreneurship (like the red cedar altar that now adorns the meditation room in ShiShi’s Cottage for guests to enjoy).

As I’ve opened up her Box and leaned into loving her, my own boxes have dissipated. Since high school, we wanted to raft the white water rivers of Idaho together (she cancelled for a house fire, COVID and then passed before we got there). She wanted to see Tru and I cross the Tevis’ finish line. She planned, and delayed three times, a trip to Bhutan. The Happiness Country. Well, that’s a family habit–delaying the joyful experiences–that I’m shedding, and spreading with her ashes…on the Salmon River, along the endurance trails to a 100 miles over the Sierra Nevada. With gratitude, Mom! I can see her smiling and feel her heart warming in mine.

Dreams I’ve carried on my back burner, inspirations I’ve labelled as “unrealistic,” are emerging. A wise adviser once warned me that every time I shut the door on these dreams, it is “a little death.” I didn’t know how to open my heart then, but I’ve been meditating, immersed in the open-hearted community of Ananda Village, on the ancient path of Kriya Yoga for almost 7 years now. Most recently, I began studying with Linda Kohanov. I’m seeing a subtle, powerful effectiveness applying her heart-breathing with my horses, and with Luc. Something is gestating inside me, heart-felt dreams, a melding to birth something new and transformative, a gift to the world. Thank you, Mom. Welcome 2022.

“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I am changing myself.”


P.S. After writing this, I listened to a beautiful astrological reading of 2022 energies by Keshava, and found my heartfelt intentions are well aligned with the energies coming our way this year!


4 thoughts on “Shirlawhirl’s Heartfelt Freedom

  1. Thank you for this conception story. Boxes are hard realities in our lives. So little in nature is a box.


  2. Mothers,daughters,fathers and sons .Among your many gifts you have put all life learned lessons together in a beautiful peace honoring your Mother! So proud of you .Love Ineke.


  3. Beautiful story and writing of your heartfelt experience with your mother , yourself and family. Thank you. All the best to you.


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