Eulogy for my mother

The Thinker by Rodin

My mother’s memorial mass is tomorrow. I prepared the following eulogy when my turn comes to say something after the mass. This is a different perspective of my mother suitable for consumption by our immediate family.

Soon hopefully I will be focusing on other things again. For those of you who are wondering I find myself at peace over her passing. I think most of my grief occurred watching her decline. Now that this is behind us I think I can move on. However, I will certainly never forget my mother, and always hold her close to my heart.

First, I think we should all take a bow for the loving care we gave Mom. We all went beyond the call of duty. Even those of us who do not live locally came frequently. Mary’s tenacity and hard work throughout this whole time was overwhelming. She made Mom’s limited time at Riderwood a rich experience. She kept her mind engaged on projects like decorating the kitchen. She allowed Mom to sample the fullness of life as long as possible. When Mom fell or her conditions worsened, Mary jumped in with both feet and with little notice. She took on a big responsibility and she came through it with flying colors. Thank you, Mary. And thank you sister Teri, for the intensive care you gave Mom during her most critical times, including being with her at the end. Thank you all. A special thank you though also goes to my wife Terri. She visited Mom every Wednesday in Renaissance Gardens, almost without fail. The picture poster board was her idea. She gave Mom the deep, loving and focused attention that she craved. As a fellow Michigander, she was a critical bond to the home and culture that Mom loved. I believe not one wife in a thousand would do what Terri has done. Although I knew she had these traits when I married her, I still feel overwhelmed by her magnanimity and character. I am not sure I could give to my mother in law what she gave to hers. Clearly, I am a husband who is quite blessed. I love you dear.

My most persistent memory of Mom is of a woman always in motion. From before we were up (when she or Dad put on the first pot of Maxwell House coffee) until after we went to bed (when she could be found in the living room darning socks) her hands were usually busy. Even her sleep was restless. I do not know where her energy came from but I found it intimidating. She seemed to never stop doing things for us. She always kept our house immaculate. The furniture was always dusted and buffeted. Our sheets were changed like clockwork every Monday. I have memories of her in Endwell once a week waxing the kitchen floor whether it needed it or not. She never seemed to take a day off. She seemed to work as hard on Sundays as she did during the week.

Mom’s essence, I believe, was to be a doer. She was happy as long as she was doing something. She was usually miserable when she wasn’t doing anything. For example, she did not have to make spaghetti sauce from scratch. It could have easily come out of a jar. She knew what she could cook would be so much tastier than what could be purchased. She was right and we were her beneficiaries. From my perspective, the food she served was uniformly excellent. Often the aromas would fill the house for hours before the meal was served, making me all the hungrier when dinner arrived.

I also remember littler things that showed me that she cared. During my teenage years when I worked evenings at the Winn Dixie, I would get home hungry. But she had saved me a dinner plate, wrapped in aluminum foil, and would pop it in the oven. She knew I preferred her home cooking to anything I could buy so there was never a reason for me to miss an evening meal. Yet this was just one of numerous little things that she would do for me. When I came home from college for the weekend, she volunteered to do my dirty laundry. A few hours later, it arrived all neatly folded and ready for me to take back to the dorm. Little things like this spoke to her magnanimous character.

Mom was the sort of person who made a house a home. While Dad always struck me as the logical center of the family, Mom was its emotional heart. Mom was a woman very much in touch with her feelings. There was little in the way of ambiguity about Mom. You knew how she felt about things because she told you very explicitly and in a tone of voice that eliminated any ambiguity.

A few things about Mom will always puzzle me. One is why she discounted her own intelligence. Here was a woman who had earned a degree in nursing from Catholic University. Her degree was equivalent to Dad’s. She had loads of common sense. Like my wife Terri, she was a whiz at crossword puzzles. When we watched Jeopardy on TV together, I could rarely beat her to the answer. Nevertheless, for some reason she felt she was Dad’s intellectual inferior. She seemed to think that the person with more facts crammed into their brain must have better judgment. I have learned: it ain’t necessarily so.

As you know, shortly before I turned a teen I promoted myself as her favorite son. She would agree to it only in jest. I knew she was too evenhanded to actually pick a favorite. In retrospect, my attempt at humor answered to a deeper need within me. Mom herself has admitted that when I came along she was a bit frayed at the ends. She had three of us boys in diapers at the same time, plus a busy household to manage. Clearly, I wanted a whole lot more mother time than I actually got. A baby cannot understand the burdens of a full time mother with a plethora of children. But oh how I ached for more time with her. One way to get it was to play the favorite son game.

During the last years of her life, and the last couple of months in particular, I found that my mother had few distractions. She now lived close to me, so I could have as much of her attention as I wanted. Those of us who cared for Mom in the nursing home had a tough time of it. Yet it was not all bad. It was a bittersweet experience. To me it was right and appropriate for me to do intimate things like help her to the bathroom or feed her lunch, when she surely did far more for me in countless episodes throughout her life. While extremely difficult at the end, her last months were also a profound growth experience for me. Even in dying, she taught lessons.

From Mom, as well as Dad, I learned doggedness. For both of them marriage was for life, and for better or for worse. I think that perspective is something many of my siblings share. It contributes to so many long-standing marriages in our family.

One area of disagreement between Mom and myself was Catholicism. While it did not agree with me as an adult, I cannot help but have deep respect her profound feelings about her given faith. I know visits from priests and lay ministers comforted her enormously in her last months. Moreover, I am impressed in some ways with the Catholic Church as an institution. When she was in the hospital in Midland after her fall, members of the church stopped by to pray with her and give her Holy Communion. Although I suspect I will never be a Catholic again, I have inherited a feeling of reverence for the sacred from her as well as from Dad. Certainly, Jesus taught us to work toward being good people and to live by high values. She was dutiful in practicing her faith. I will cherish the memory of hearing her and Dad saying their prayers on their knees next to their beds before starting their busy days. I know her faith carried her through times that would have destroyed lesser women. I cannot help but respect that power.

Of course, right now the loss of Mom is too near and tender. It will take some time for me to gain some perspective on the meaning of not having her in my life. Right now, my mind is clouded with distressing images of her during her last few months. Yet I believe that as time passes these images will fade. Instead, I will remember the essence of my mother. The images that will persist will be those of my Mom humming to herself in the kitchen while she made another meal, or tending to her flowerbed on her knees. She took great pleasure in simple things. This is perhaps the most profound lesson that she taught me, and one I have yet to fully absorb.

While Mom is not here in the flesh, she is definitely here in spirit. She will always be in our hearts. So much of the person I became can be traced directly to Mom. So in a way I am the walking embodiment of Mom, as we all are. Because while we live, she still lives on. So I cannot grieve too much today because she is not just all around me, she is a part of me. She is not gone. She is in the air. She is in each breath I take. She is in every step I take. She is integrated inside me. Knowing this I can accept her passing. I am relieved that her suffering is at an end. I believe her spirit is still around, unfettered and free at last.

Update 6/26/2011. I continue to be surprised, more than five years after her death, how many page views this post received, usually several dozen or more a day. I assume many of you reading this have lost your mother as well, and perhaps are working on a eulogy for her too. Please feel free to use this as a template and change words as necessary to fit your own mother. Of course, something that comes straight from the heart will usually resonate the most. My heart goes out to anyone who is going through the loss of a parent. Please know that grief is a process you will get through, and that grieving is actually both good and necessary.

If you want to see a picture of my mother and learn more about her and how she raised us, click here.

85 Years and 8 Months

The Thinker by Rodin

My mother died this morning at 7:42 a.m. She died at Renaissance Gardens, a nursing home at Riderwood, a retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. While she died peacefully, her condition (Progressive Supranuclear Palsy) made her last few months quite unpleasant. While we are of course grieved to have her gone from this life, we are also relieved that she is no longer in pain or distress.

A picture of my mother, taken in Christmas 2004.

She was born in the midst of the Great Depression in Bay City, Michigan. Her parents, poor Polish immigrants, somehow raised twelve children while eking out a living that kept the family in poverty for most of her childhood. Since she grew up in adversity, she knew adversity. It shaped her entire outlook on life. Despite being in a desperately poor family, she was able to latch on to the American Dream somehow. Partially because there was a war on, and partially because her older sister Essie and her husband found the money, she went to nursing school in Washington, D.C. There at Catholic University she met a tall, blond and skinny man six years her junior named Jim.

While she never expected to be married, Jim was persuasive. They were married on June 21st, 1950 in Bay City, Michigan. Over the course of their 55-year marriage, they raised eight children. I am one of them. An engineer’s salary greatly exceeded her father’s salary as a butcher, but my siblings and I still lived a fairly Spartan and no-frills existence. Somehow, Mom and Dad raised eight of us. We absorbed their work and education ethics. Among my eight siblings, three have PhDs and three others (including myself) have graduate degrees. My marriage of twenty years is in the middle of the pack. My sister Doris celebrated thirty years of marriage this summer. My parents can also count nine grandchildren to their credit.

My mother was a submissive mouse of a woman to her husband and was too shy to make many friends. She was only truly comfortable with her own sisters. She seemed a tyrant to us children growing up. We do not hold that against her. She was playing from the same script she learned at her mother’s knees. While my Dad was invariably calm and logical, my mother was the full of emotion. To call her a tyrant though is to paint too broad a brush. She was also a mother who gave of herself to an almost dysfunctional degree. She would take no day off. Even on vacations, she was making meals and washing clothes. Despite eight of us to care for our house was always immaculate. She changed our bed sheets weekly. There was never a trace of dust on the furniture. The dining room floor was waxed weekly, whether it needed it or not. (Much later in life, she realized that Mop-N-Glow was good enough.)

She filled our tummies with delicious and healthy foods that had most of us salivating for more. She expressed her passion mostly in her cooking. Many dishes, such as spaghetti sauce, she made from scratch. Her pressure cooker steaming away and the percolator filling the house with aromas of Maxwell House are memories none of us could possibly forget. The yellow cakes with chocolate frosting that she made for my father seemed as numerous as stars in the sky. Whether cooking, cleaning or just fussing she was always in motion. She expressed her love through action.

Yet she discounted her own abilities. Despite having earned a B.S. degree in nursing, working as a teacher for a number of years, operating as scrub and psychiatric nurses, she considered herself stupid. She idolized my father’s intellect and generally allowed him to make the important decisions. She grew up steeped in the mysticism of Catholicism. My father also felt similar devotional inclinations. Our childhood years were full of devout and some might argue dysfunctional Catholicism. Daily rosaries, weekly masses and periodic trips to the confessional were an accepted part of growing up, as were parochial schools, when they could afford it. Every morning before they started the day they prayed together at the side of their bed. We knew our mortal from our venial sins. We were always looking over our shoulders wondering if God was frowning at us for our latest minor transgressions.

After her children had flown the coup, my mother was a bit lost. She never returned to work so instead invested more energy being the good submissive wife who catered to my father. Too much togetherness between them was probably not healthy. However, they had their values and there was no changing them. Marriage meant forever because God himself had joined them. Both played their marriage script, often sniping at each other in a tired passive-aggressive fashion, to the bitter end.

As my mother declined, their roles reversed, much to my mother’s horror. All she knew how to do was to give. It was infuriating to her not to be able to give, but to have others take care of her. Every little decline added to her unhappy state. My father floundered a bit in his new caretaker role. My family stepped in to support him. Our family (principally my sister Mary) saw the obvious. When it was clear they could not manage a house together anymore, we worked through the logistics of moving them from Michigan to Maryland.

It was family in the end that I think brought home to my mother the realization that she was indeed not just loved, but cherished. For my sister Mary and me, who live locally, caring for her meant a lot of grunt work. For me it was weekly visits. Mary did the same but supplemented it with so much more. Every day was a challenge for her to make my mother’s declining life have some meaning. Others visited when they could, which was surprisingly often, considering it meant plane rides.

The end of my mother’s life is really but a footnote to a long life that spanned 85 years and 8 months exactly. My mother’s life was about service to family. To her husband and children it was about doing things to place us in a safe and stable family environment. Nevertheless, she also had something of a previous life. She was not married until the ripe age of 30. Before marriage, she was a good but unnoticed woman who won affection by being at her parent’s beck and call. Her acts were quite extraordinary. For example, she cared for her severely mentally ill mother while nursing her colicky first child, my sister Lee Ann. This meant years of constant interruption and almost no sleep. No grunt soldier slogging through the Rhineland worked harder.

Now she is at rest. We know what her life was about, but I sometimes wonder why she went to such extraordinarily lengths for us. For now we do not analyze, we simply mourn her absence. Millions of us die every year, yet each of us has powerful individual life stories. Her life story too is very powerful. Yet to me at least she remains something of an enigma.

I feel that whatever she is supposed to do, her journey is not over. I think she has other lives ahead in other bodies. This life was a lesson for her. If she is granted another one, I hope it is one where she will have some time for reflection and ease. I hope it is one where she no longer basks in someone else’s life, but is one where she becomes the person she was meant to be. That is my hope for her. It is my hope that death for her is not the end. Rather, I hope she is a chrysalis and through her death she is transformed into the beautiful butterfly so hard for any but her family to see. It is this hope that gives me comfort while, understandably, I am feeling for a while adrift without my moorings.

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