Today’s is Mother’s Day…and I just lost my mother.
There is little to say, no Top 10 lists of what mom taught me that adequately capture everything I learned from her during our time together. Instead, I’d like to share the words I wrote for her funeral service, words that celebrated our mother-daughter time together and reveal some lessons I learned during her life. There are many more lessons I am learning from her after her death, but those are for another mother’s day.
Encapsulating a person’s life and meaning in a few pages is a difficult task, and it is near impossible when that person had a passion for life as boundless as my mother’s. Mom was feisty, tenacious, rebellious, protective, fun-loving, and she carried a palpable energy with her wherever she went. She was stubborn, never at a loss for words, and was constantly trying to feed people. She was an outstanding teacher, mentor, and friend. While her accomplishments were many, I think mom would agree that her greatest accomplishment was our family.
Her life was far from easy, although you would never know it—because she rarely complained. She lost her father at 14, her mother at 21, and her health problems began at 29. Mom’s parents were never far from her mind, especially her mother, whom she spoke of often. She always told me that while you may get used to living without your mother, you never get over the loss, and that she missed her mother every day. While I sympathized with her sadness throughout the years, I now fully know the constant sorrow she lived with, and understand more clearly the relationship she and I had, and the bond she nurtured within our family.
My relationship with mom always seemed influenced by her desire to prepare me for life without her. Our mother-daughter activities were, I think, different from other mothers and daughters. At a young age, mom sat me down and showed me how to pay bills, how to balance a checkbook, how to create a budget, how to do laundry so that clothes lasted years. The three greatest lessons she taught me were how to “cook”—or rather, how to dial and place an order— how to accessorize properly, and how to calculate a price on a designer sale item in my head. When I was sick and stayed home from school, she rented movies for me, like The Exorcist and Psycho. I asked her once why she would ever show films like that to a child. Her answer: she didn’t want me to be afraid of scary situations.
As I grew up, she pushed me hard so that I knew I could achieve things on my own and perhaps to let me know that whatever limit I thought I had, I was capable of more than I was aware. We fought like mothers and daughters do, and she told me that during these fights she felt pride, because she knew that if I could tell her off, I could stand up to anyone. Mom spent her life teaching me how to be self-sufficient and to survive on my own, how to be independent and assertive, and how to reach deeper inside myself to find abilities and strengths I didn’t know I had.
Mom also shared her love of literature, art, music, film, good food, travel, and fashion with me. We swapped books, visited museums, discussed films and spirituality, and went to plays. We danced like crazy, and laughed—or rather cackled—like fools. Mom tried to teach me to knit—it never really worked, I took up crochet instead, but that love of craft came from her and her mother as well. She also encouraged my free-spiritedness, and made sure I stayed quirky as I grew up.
We talked every day, even when I didn’t live at home, and we talked about everything—those things you would never tell your mother, I shared with her. She was critical, as mothers are, but her critiques were aimed at relatively superficial things. When I shared things that a mother might want to judge her child about, she never criticized me and that meant everything. One of my college friends captured my mother and my relationship perfectly I think when she wrote “it was like you [two]…always had a funny secret that the rest of the world was not quite in on.”
I have read that one of the most important decisions you make in life is the choice of a spouse. As with everything else in my mother’s life she selected a high quality man to be her husband of 46 years. My parents met when they were teenagers, and, I can report that even after more than 50 years of knowing one another, they were as deeply in love as ever—holding hands wherever they went, frolicking in the pool, and generally engaging in behavior that prompted me more than once to say “I am in the room.”
My mother and I often talked about what a good man my father is and about their relationship. She told me how much she appreciated him, especially in light of the difficulties that came with her heart condition. They might have overwhelmed someone else, “but not your father,” she would say. Dad describes mom as the whole package—smart, funny, beautiful, supportive, and full of joy—“Whatever stupid joke I told,” he said to me recently, “she always laughed.”
One of the best gifts my parents gave me was the model of a great partnership. My parents were a solid team, no one was more important of the two, they accepted the other person for exactly who they were (faults and all), and they never turned away from one another during stressful times. They also doted on each other constantly: mom would get dad’s breakfast ready, and fix his hair so, as she said, he wouldn’t look like Albert Einstein when going for coffee in the morning; dad would DVR the shows mom liked to watch, and sometimes drive mom around while she ran errands—even when the one errand she wanted to do turned into five before they’d even left the driveway.
Our family time together was special to mom as well—there was never “my parents” and “me”, there was always “us”. We were a rowdy group, who could devolve into tear-inducing laughter at the drop of a hat, and the amount of noise we made at any given time was really astounding, especially considering there were only three of us. We traveled a lot as a family, spent time at the beach in Maine every summer, took day trips here and there, and enjoyed lazy afternoons by the pool. Weekend habits cultivated in my youth become traditions as I grew up: dinner or breakfast out, and a movie on Friday or Saturday night. As an adult, not having plans over a weekend never bothered me—I genuinely loved spending time with my parents.
We spent the day before mom’s surgery together hanging around at home, and that night the three of us watched Downton Abbey together in my parent’s king-size bed. I can’t think of more perfect way to spend our last evening at home together as a family.
After we brought mom to the hospital and got her settled in, there was a brief moment between the end of the doctors’ visits and the time they wheeled her to the O.R. I remember mom and dad looking at each other and sort of smiling, then she turned to me and said: “When you come to visit me, make sure you look cute—there are lots of eligible doctors here.”
As a religious studies scholar who researches suffering, the most comforting meditation on death I have encountered describes death as a metamorphosis—it is not an end, but a change in state from one thing to another. Mom told me over the years that she wanted to be cremated because she wants me to carry her everywhere I go so that we can stay together. Then she found a company that makes diamonds from cremated remains and was excited at the thought of becoming a piece of my jewelry. While the physical change is the most painful part of this experience, mom will be around, just in a new form. She will still be there to greet in the morning and to wish good night in the evening.
The metamorphosis also applies to mom’s energy force, which was so large that her body may not have been able to sustain it any longer. Her spirit is fused with the universe, and the energy that she used to care for my father and me is working behind the scenes on a much larger scale to make sure things move in the right direction for us both. And now, as a spiritual entity, my mom can finally return to her mother, whom she missed so much while they were apart. I’m sure they have a great deal to catch up on.
Mom’s spirit will still be here as well. Whenever I go into hyper-organize mode and everything has to be “just so”—that’s mom. Whenever I display assertiveness and independence—that’s mom. Whenever I offer advice that may be a bit too direct but is something you need to hear—that’s mom. Whenever I make sure you’re well fed—that’s mom. Whenever I dance with abandon—that’s mom. Whenever I laugh so loud that the sound carries everywhere—that is, absolutely, my mom.
March 11, 2015
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart