My mother passed recently, and I found myself doing the graveside eulogy at the funeral.
Aunt Gert said it best. She didn’t speak much after her stroke, but as we gathered at her place after Joe’s funeral, she turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “This sucks!” In my opinion, truer words were never spoken.
I find myself at this sort of gathering far too often for my liking. As I get older, I imagine the frequency with which we gather to mourn will only increase, and I’m not looking forward to it.
Funerals are tricky things, especially when it comes to speaking on behalf of the dearly departed. Jerry Seinfeld once said that the only thing people feared worse than death was public speaking and went on to infer that at any given funeral the person delivering the eulogy would gladly switch places with the person in the box. While not entirely true, there’s something to that. Quite often, the people who speak at funerals don’t know the deceased as well as everyone else, because speaking about the passing of a loved one is one of the hardest things a human being could ever do. So please bear with me.
I think I made up my mind to speak here today the first time I came to a funeral in Watford. We gathered for my grandmother that day, with the eulogy presented by the minister from her church. As he spoke about her, I got the feeling that although he definitely knew who my grandma was he didn’t truly know her as others did. For starters, she never told him just how much she hated her nickname, and he called her Winnie at least 15 times that day, much to the chagrin of everyone who knew better.
So I’m here today to speak about the mother that I remember, in hopes that my memory of her speaks clearly to your memory of her.
If anything, my mom was generous to a fault. She’d often mention how hard it was to make ends meet and then turn around and lavish her grandchildren with bags full of presents. She made sure cards were in the mail for almost any occasion, even some that really could’ve passed unnoticed, and quite often there’d be a cheque slipped in there too. I know when my brother Mike broke his leg and couldn’t work for several weeks she didn’t hesitate to help him out. She would have done the same for any of us.
When she wasn’t being generous with what little money she had, she was generous with her time while her body was still able. I know Grandma, Uncle Joe, Aunt Gert and Aunt Ede all appreciated the time she spent as a caregiver in their twilight years. With her training as a nurse, I don’t think it ever occurred to my mom that someone else could help out from time to time; she gave of herself as only she could.
A bona fide creature of habit, my mom liked schedules, even though she seemed to have a fair bit of time on her hands. You never ended a phone conversation with her without knowing when she expected to have the next one. In my youth, I used to resent the h*** out of that. It’s only been more recently that I’ve appreciated knowing that I’d hear her voice at least once a week, usually at 7PM on a Sunday, unless that was when they were showing the Amazing Race that week.
But I wasn’t the only one on her call list. My mom was a gatherer of stories, calling through a list of friends and relations on a weekly basis, making sure everyone was up to date on everyone else’s news and events. She was a one-woman Facebook before Mark Zuckerberg came along.
For anyone who was ever on her call list, you’ll know that my mom had a unique storytelling style. Say what you like about it, you have to admit it was distinctive and it was all her own. She was the undisputed master of the non sequitur digression, jumping from one story to another with seemingly no connection, save than every fragment had something to do with someone she knew.
She’d start off telling you about something that happened to one of her friends from Cambridge, which would somehow remind of Cousin Trish’s antics, and then slide into something that one of her grandchildren did recently, followed by a remembrance of the ghost at Uncle Frank’s farm, and so on in a way that would just make your head spin. She seemed to leave every thread dangling, nothing truly finished. The only thing to do was to accept your fate, glaze over, and let her finish, because she always managed to come full circle somehow. She’d finish up by finally completing the first thread of her story, and I’m pretty sure that in her mind all the disparate fragments along the way were necessary back-story to drive home the final point. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we stumble across a treasure trove of meticulously plotted conversation outlines that will help us get a better sense of the connections she saw.
Her stories sometimes had vivid characters, especially when she went way back in her memories. About once a year she’d have cause to recall her old high school Latin teacher, a soft-spoken man who required a microphone and miniature public address system to make himself heard as he made her class conjugate verbs in a windowless room illuminated by a single, bare light bulb. I don’t think the bulb actually swung freely back and forth, but in my imagination it always did.
And of course the moment one of her other stories involved anything remotely dangerous she’d recall her old patient, the musician who broke his neck jumping into a pond. He might have played violin or piano, and she was never quite sure which Eastern European country he came from, but she always clearly remembered his drop-dead gorgeous wife who stood by his hospital bed and announced she was leaving him because a quadriplegic can’t support anyone and she had better things to do than take care of a cripple. Maybe it’s the little details like that that helped shape my love for the written word. If so, I’m truly grateful.
During one of our last conversations, she expressed regret about her failing eyesight because it meant that she could never write a book, even if it only would’ve been a “tawdry bodice-ripper” – her words, not mine. I’d always thought that if my mother ever did write a book it would be called How to Get Around London without Ever Turning Left. Regardless of your starting point or your destination, every route would somehow put you onto Colborne Street (she loved four-way stops), and some of the streets would be labeled with the names she knew from the ‘50’s, but she’d get you there, eventually.
We teased her a lot, you see, but it came from a place of love. Say what you like; my mom put a lot of love into this world. She cared for her elders, she gave birth to four relatively awesome kids, and in return we gave her five completely awesome grandkids. In the last few years, I think her greatest joy came from being a grandmother. She couldn’t get around very well anymore, but she was most content just being near her grandkids, to see the results of what she put into motion, watching them as they grew up bit by bit. The five of you should take comfort that you likely made her happier than she’d ever imagined possible.
A few weeks ago, my mom called me on a Saturday night by mistake. She’d lost track of the days, apparently, and I had my hands full at the time – I couldn’t spend more than a couple of minutes chatting. No one ever tells you when it’s your last chance to do something. It was a quick and cordial chat, and we ended saying we loved each other, and then I hung up and turned my attention back to what I was doing, completely unaware that she’d never call me again. I’d give anything to go back and get a just few more minutes of her time.
You can’t tell by looking, but there’s a hole right here in the middle of my chest. Medical science has yet to develop an instrument that can detect it, but it’s there nonetheless. It’s heavy, it’s gaping, the wind blows right through it, and sometimes it hurts like h*** with no warning. I don’t know if it will ever heal completely, because every Sunday night at seven it will tear open again and again. Some might see this affliction as a terrible burden, but I don’t. Now, as I look around, I know that I’m not the only one suffering so. This is a burden we all shoulder together, and we do it gladly; it keeps her memory alive. As long as we have that, I think we’ll be alright.