Saturday, July 16, 2005

A death in the family

My mother died last Sunday July 10. I've been feeling very strange about this whole thing. The first couple of days, I barely cried. Now it seems that everything reminds me of my mother. I was in a restaurant and James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" and when it got to the part where he says, "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I'd see you again" I found tears welling up in my eyes.
My friend Kristi came over to offer her condolences this afternoon, and she started talking about losing her mother 12 years ago, and soon she was crying and apologizing that she came over to cheer me up and here she was breaking down. I guess it takes a while to adjust to losing a parent.
Last Sunday, I was at a party at a neighbor's house, and I had to leave to pick up my son from work. I walked home to get my car, and noticed the answering machine light blinking. It was my very distraught sister-in-law Michelle, telling me to call my brother, she had tried to reach me on my cell phone (but I had given it to my son in case he need to reach me), no, wait, she was sorry to tell me this on an answering machine instead of in person, but my mom had passed that afternoon. I calmly got in my car, and while I was sitting there waiting for Nick to finish work, I dialed my brother. My mother had been dead just about an hour. He explained how he and my brothers Pat and Albert happened to be there, along with my Aunt Virginia, how my mother's breathing got raspy and labored, and the home caregiver tried to clear her throat, but it didn't help. She just gasped and stopped breathing. She was 86. She was a very loving mother who was great with kids. We'll miss her a lot.
I wrote a eulogy and read it with a shaky voice at the funeral. Here it is:
My mother was born in Boston of purely Irish stock, a fact that, despite her natural humility, she was fiercely proud of. Until she met and married my father, she’d lived all 28 years of her life in Boston and Chicago. When I got older, I sometimes wondered how my mother adjusted to life in a remote area of upstate New York. But she moved her working girl city glamour to a small farm on the Cape Vincent Road in Clayton, and while I’m sure it was difficult at first, out there without many friends, without a car, with a husband who regularly worked the night shift, with eventually seven children, she first adjusted to it and then came to enjoy it. Make no mistake: it was hard work: there was produce to be picked and sold on the roadside stand, cats, dog, chickens and our donkey to be fed, we made maple syrup, canning and freezing produce, we had summer dances in our barn with music by the Regal Tones. When my youngest brother Pat was in school she returned to work, and worked until she retired at age 68. She might have been run ragged by all this, but if she was, she didn’t show it, and she never complained. We didn’t have a lot of material things, but we were rich in lots of other ways, in imagination, in laughter, in music, and especially in love, and my mother was the prime dispenser of the latter.

My mother’s favorite place on this earth was their little bit of paradise on Wellesley Island. I’m sure if the weather had permitted she would have stayed there year-round. She loved the river, and although she didn’t really swim much and sort of enjoyed fishing, the gentle breeze off the river and the spectacular sunsets made her feel like one of God’s chosen people.

She ruled with a firm but loving hand. She was very honest, and perhaps the most ethical person I’ve ever known. She unwaveringly believed in her Catholic faith, and she lived by pithy little sayings, which she dispensed regularly: “Waste not, want not,” “The devil makes work for idle hands” and “The Lord will provide.”
My brothers and I spent some time going through photos the other day. The pictures where she looked the happiest (apart from those taken at her wedding) are where she was holding a baby or a toddler, or even better with 5 or 6 of her grandchildren at a time. She loved children, and once told me that she preferred being with children to being with adults. I think she enjoyed their innocence, because she herself was an innocent, because she was so honest and she believed in the essential goodness of people.

The past few years were not easy for her. She was often in pain, and her mind began to fail over the past few months. Conversations with her on any given day might make sense, or they might not. We realize that she might be in a better place now, but it’s hard for us, her children and grandchildren and friends, to feel like we’re in a better place. She wasn’t much for saying “I love you” but we never ever doubted that she loved all of us deeply. We will miss her but know that she loved us unconditionally. And this love buoys us in our grief over our loss.

My mother’s mother died when she was six, and my mother told me a couple of years ago that over seventy years later, she still missed her mother. I’m sure my mother is pleased to be reunited in heaven with a mother she barely knew. Somehow even without an example to follow, she knew how to be an exemplary mother.

My brothers and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many wonderful caregivers who so lovingly tended my parents over the past years and months: Jennifer, Sarah, Tony, Diane, Nicole, Ashley, Debbie, Britta from Hospice, and especially Maria Balcom and Kendra Kittle who have been there from the beginning.

And I would also like to extend my deepest gratitude to my brothers Gerry and Pat who made it possible for my parents to live in their house, and who worked hard to ensure continuity of care, that the house was kept up, the bills were paid and in general kept the ball rolling for my parents after they no longer could care for themselves. Your efforts are appreciated more than you’ll ever know. My parents are so fortunate to have you as their children.

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