Los Altos writer learns heartfelt love in caring for parents

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Alicia Castro/Town Crier
Los Altos resident and author Jackie Madden Haugh, above, chronicles small but significant life moments.

According to Sufi mysticism, the souls of children look down and pick their mothers for the lessons they’ll teach in life.

Jackie Madden Haugh would add that souls pick their fathers, too.

“I’ve always loved that,” said the longtime Los Altos resident. “How lucky was I for my little soul to pick these two people? The one thing that my brothers and I never questioned was how much they loved us.”

It was, in fact, her mother’s trademark message: “I love you with all my heart.”

Haugh, 62, said the adage didn’t resonate while she was growing up.

“I always thought, ‘This is so weird,’ she said. “It was part of her ‘mommy-isms.’ I couldn’t say that.”

But in the end, she claimed it as her own.

One day when Haugh went to visit her ailing mother in the hospital, her mom pulled her into the narrow bed beside her and said, “Just remember I love you with all my heart.”

“At that moment, knowing how much pain she was in, it was just blinding how intense it was,” she said. “From that point on, I started saying that to my kids.”

Haugh’s mother passed away soon after, but that moment was a gift, she said, one of many she’d pass on to her children through word and writing.

Penning the past

Vibrant, observant and powerfully funny, Haugh is a local Realtor and writer. In 2009, she self-published her first memoir, “My Life in a Tutu.” Her follow-up was “75 Beats to a Happy Heart.” She is currently working on her next project, “Tipsy in a Tutu,” a chronicle of mostly true stories about being single in her 50s. She also writes the monthly “Haugh About That?” column featured in the Town Crier, which often reflects on small but significant moments with her parents.

“There were little things with my mother and father – just those nuances when it all comes together,” she said. “Those moments are gifts.”

Her mother, Lassie Pearce Madden, was the daughter of silent film actors; her father, John Madden, was the son of Irish Catholic immigrants who fled the potato famine.

As a young adult, Haugh said she feared that she had failed in comparison to her parents.

“When I grew up, I realized that we all have our own beliefs,” she said. “We all have our own struggles.”

Her father was in good health until the end – he died in 2012 at age 97 – but her mother battled cancer, surgeries, and chronic illness for nearly 30 years of her life. During it all, Haugh was her mother’s caretaker.

“Their generation didn’t ask for outside help,” she said of her parents. “They wanted the family to do it. And I’m the only girl.”

Haugh’s three brothers lived far away, she said, and her parents lived relatively near in San Carlos. For the final five years of her mother’s life, Haugh drove up nearly every day to visit her in and out of the hospital.

“I wish I had known then what I learned with my dad,” she said. “People don’t have to die in hospitals anymore. I can’t imagine a more wonderful gift you can give to someone than dying with grace and dignity.”

After her mother passed away in 2003, she immediately began caring for her father. He still lived at his residence under home health care – which Haugh came to find wasn’t all that caring.

“Finally one day, I realized that he liked it because it was cheap,” she said. “When he said he didn’t get ice cream anymore, I thought, ‘OK, now I’m angry. I’m giving you a month, but you’re moving in with me.’”

Her brothers, friends and doctors all objected to the move, worried it would drain her of energy and time.

“I didn’t think it would be that hard,” she said, pausing to roll her eyes at herself. “But I would do it all over again. We had priceless moments that we would have never had if I’d put him in a nursing home.”

Bringing her father home

Haugh said that as a child, she didn’t know her father.

“He was like all dads at that time – you get up, you go to work. He was never a fun dad,” she said. “He wasn’t a conversationalist. My mom took care of all that.”

After years of caring for her mother, Haugh felt guilty for not taking time for him as an adult. But initiating meaningful conversation with him was easier than she’d imagined.

“All it took was to ask,” she said. “That opened the door to our relationship.”

He shared stories from his life and snippets of wisdom. Together, they walked through life for two years. When Haugh was unable to care for her father alone, she brought in hospice support – a choice she’s quick to explain.

“Hospice is not a case of the dying. It’s for declined health,” she said. “I got hospice for me because he could not be taken from the home easily.”

Haugh said he’d sleep for days after going to the doctor and struggle to keep down his food. He was resistant to the additional expense – but was finally won over when Haugh said Medicare covered the cost.

Soon after the caretaker arrived, she observed his behavior and told Haugh that he was entering his final transition.

“She said, ‘He’s preparing himself; he’s preparing you,’” Haugh recalled. “She told me to enjoy it. ‘Listen to what he says. You can have some great conversations.’”

The experience, Haugh said, enabled her to see the beautiful side of dying.

“We as viewers see the heavy breathing, maybe the pain,” she said. “When a person makes peace with it, there is an aura about them that is mystical. Because he was here with me, I got to be such a part of his transition.”

Haugh often came home from work to eat lunch with her dad. One day, his eyes tracked behind her head, and he said he could see her mother.

“So I glance over my shoulder, and I’m looking at the blank wall,” Haugh recalled with a shrug. “I just looked at him and said, ‘You get to decide when you want to go.’”

He fell into a sleeplike coma that week. It was October 2012 and the San Francisco Giants were about to win the World Series. Haugh’s father was an avid fan, so she placed headphones over his ears to enable him to listen to one final game. But something – “a voice in my head,” she said – compelled her to take off the headphones to share a final thought.

“You don’t have to do this anymore,” she whispered to him. “You never listened to me before, but I’m going to be just fine.”

She said she could feel him take his final breath.

“When he was here, there were so many things I learned,” she said. “He took better care of me than I did of him.”

One invaluable lesson, she said, was to have no fear.

“It was an incredible journey, and I’m not afraid of dying,” she said. “I’m just not ready.”

Sharing the lessons learned

With her four grown children, Haugh has taken her parents’ lessons and passed on her own.

“You’ve got to follow your passion, and everything else will fall into place,” she advised her kids. “We were told to follow our passion as long as the job fell into place.”

As for religion, she raised her children in her parents’ tradition of Catholicism.

“My former husband was Episcopalian. That’s close enough,” she said. “I think children need something to hang on to – at least give them a base of something.”

When they turned 18, she set them loose.

“I always wanted them to know there is a higher power above them,” she said. “We are not the center of the universe.”

In documenting her own memories, Haugh strikes a similar balance between self-awareness and awe-filled reverence.

“I think people don’t give themselves enough credit for their stories,” she said. “You don’t have to be prolific; you don’t have to have good grammar. Write memories down, write thoughts down. Save them. They’re such a gift for the future.”

“My Life in a Tutu” is available on

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