June 2011

In Memory of Helen Baldwin

On March 5th my Mother, Helen Baldwin, passed away in her sleep. She lived a full and rich 88 years. What she often called her "wonderful life" included much self-sacrifice for others that she learned from her parents example in depression-era Bay City, MI where the family stayed active in their community's church, school and government. She took to heart her fathers advice to his four daughters that being involved in community work was the responsibility of every citizen.

HBaldwin_1 Helen Baldwin in 1943 when she worked for the Navy with her father who supervised construction of Liberty ships in WWII.

Before and after she retired in 2003 after 17 years as Volunteer Coordinator and Program Developer for the Macomb County Department of Senior Citizen Services, Helen served in the United Way, several senior services departments, the Macomb library and the Arts Council, local hospitals and many other organizations. Between voyages I recall helping her deliver food to house-bound seniors for Focus Hope and twice helping set up the Older Americans Festival at Freedom Hill Park. Up until complications set in from the disease that ultimately took her life, her chief concern was how to continue her volunteer work visiting sick children and lonely elderly patients at the local hospital. It's comforting to know my Mother was such a caring and helpful person who will be loved and missed by many.

Along with all the volunteer work, she found time in her younger years for family vacations with my father and me, enthusiastically trying everything from wilderness camping, skiing and boat trips to flying a small plane. She loved to swim throughout her life and even had her own motorcycle she enjoyed riding into her sixties.

She loved to sail on my boat Atom and spent many happy days aboard in fair weather or foul from the lakes of Michigan to vacations aboard in the Florida Keys, Hawaii, Trinidad and Martinique.

If my mother had a fault, as some of you who knew her best would know, it was perhaps being over-proud of her often wayward son. She always encouraged me to sail and discover the world, even at the cost of missing her only child when I was gone for months or years at a time. She was my home base and she made it all possible. I'll remain forever grateful for her encouragement to travel the world and thankful that I was home to share her last days.


Helen joins me and Atom on vacation in Hawaii in 1987.


Helen joins me sailing through the squalls this day when she stayed aboard Atom for two weeks in Martinique.


Aboard Atom in Trinidad in 2000.

At her age, she was prepared for death, but I was caught completely unprepared for the swiftness of her departure. What her doctor thought in November was a treatable basal cell skin cancer on the side of her head, within a couple months became a rapid-spreading metastatic squamous cell carcinoma that we were powerless to stop. The specialists at the Cancer Center in Ann Arbor, MI told us on our first visit there that surgery and chemo were impossible, and recommended palliative low dose radiation at her local hospital. They told me she had perhaps six months more to live. Her doctors tactfully avoided directly telling her the prognosis and Helen surprised me by not pressing them for more information. Perhaps she knew her condition better than they. It was up to me to try to explain the details of the doctor's diagnosis of terminal cancer. I could barely speak of it to her just as I can barely speak of it now. Between my sobs I explained there was no cure, but that I would be there with her for whatever was to come. We held hands and hugged as I cried. I noticed my Mother shed a single tear as she consoled me. A tear for me rather than herself, I suspect.

Being the only child in our family, I planned to take care of her myself with home nursing as needed and my wife, Mei, also offered to help. But before she could be stabilized on her pain medications, she passed away unexpectedly from heart failure at the hospital. This was the same hospital in Mt. Clemens where she gave birth to me 53 years ago.

I returned to Helen's suddenly empty condo in Michigan and spent a cathartic week there alone with my grief. I wept for all the times I had let her down, the times I wasn't there, until finally pulling myself together enough to allow Mei to drive up from Georgia. With the help of Mei and two of Helen's nieces, who flew in from out west, I was able then to tackle the soul-wrenching tasks of the funeral and estate business.

My Mother always looked for the bright side. Her humor was aimed at making others feel better. She told her pastor and I after we prayed together on one of her last difficult days at the hospital, "I came in and stayed one night on the first floor, then they moved me to the third floor and now they have me on the fourth floor. At least I'm getting closer to heaven."

She filled her life with kindness to others; an example for all of us who knew her to do the same.