Saturday, September 3, 2011

My eulogy for my mother

(Written to be a speech, obviously)

A few years back, one of those chain emails made the rounds of the Internet. It was called something like, “things our mothers said”, and I remember it mostly because I was pretty sure my mother never said anything on the list. I was never told to wear clean underwear in case I was in an accident, never asked if I thought she was born yesterday, never reminded that money doesn’t grow on trees. I might have been warned about the starving children in China, though, and I was definitely told that if I didn’t behave they’d give me back to the Indians. I distinctly remember being very confused at a young age about why the Indians had all the babies.

But there were, of course, things that my mother said that I remember well, and I’m going to talk about three of them today.

The first was “If that’s the worst thing that happens today…” It’s really more of a phrase than a complete sentence, and it has lots of possible options for endings. If that’s the worst thing that happens today, you’re in good shape. If that’s the worst thing that happens today, we’re doing all right. If that’s the worst thing that happens today, life is good. If that’s the worst thing that happens today, we’re lucky.

To me, that phrase really sums up my mother’s attitude toward life. We talk about glass half-empty, glass half-full people – she was more of a “that glass has plenty, more than enough for anything we need” kind of person.

One specific example that I remember well happened this winter. I got the phone call that Dad had had a heart attack and headed straight to the hospital. When I got there, she was annoyed at the way the hospital had made her wait, and worried about what was going on, but not an hour later, she said to me, “We’re so lucky.” Um, lucky? Dad had just had a major heart attack and was in the ICU waiting for what turned out to be quintuple bypass surgery. I didn’t feel all that lucky. But when I said so, she told me that the timing was terrific. He’d been at home, it had been in the daytime, Karen and I were close enough to be there, wonderful neighbors had been at the house even before the ambulance left to offer help, he hadn’t started his cancer treatments yet so it wouldn’t interrupt them – she had a whole list of reasons already why we were blessed. That was who she was: someone who could take the bad news and find the good in it.

Another thing that she used to say was, “You’ll be fine.” Now, “you’ll be fine” was sometimes, maybe often, a kick in the pants. As a pediatric nurse, she worked with seriously ill and injured children. She told us how when we were little, she would sometimes come home from working at the hospital and hold her healthy children and just cry. But that meant she could be pretty tough about her kids’ injuries. In one famous incident – and she might be horrified that I’m sharing this – Karen hurt her finger at school and the school nurse insisted that mom pick her up in the middle of the day. Mom was so annoyed by this that she actually told Karen that if that finger wasn’t broken, she was gonna break it herself. Fortunately, for both of them, the finger was broken – in two places – so she didn’t have to live up to her threat. But “you’ll be fine” definitely often meant, “get over it.”

Sometimes, though, “you’ll be fine” meant “I believe in you, I know you can do this.” On one important occasion in my life, I called her in tears. I was making a decision, a big decision, and the people around me – some of them anyway – didn’t agree with it. My mom could easily, reasonably, have disagreed herself. And maybe she did. But she didn’t say so. Instead, her “you’ll be fine” gave me the strength and the courage to do what I wanted to do. And it was the best decision of my life.

Sometimes, though, “you’ll be fine” doesn’t quite cut it, and Mom had an answer then, too.

When Rory, my son, was 8, he broke his arm on a trampoline. Now I know a broken arm doesn’t sound like much – kids break bones, and two of his cousins have broken their arms, too. But Rory snapped both bones of his forearm. The bones didn’t break the skin, but they were sticking out of his arm, and his arm shifted around as if it had become a tentacle. It was horrifying. And the emergency room was pretty much a nightmare – he wound up having surgery in the middle of the night, his morphine drip had a kink in the line so he wasn’t getting any pain medication – it was just bad. But I was fine. Apart from one brief incident when I vomited, after I’d bumped him and he’d screamed. Apart from that, I was fine. I was calm and efficient, managed the whole thing, dealt with the paperwork, called people to let them know what had happened – I was fine.

Until my mom called me back, and then I burst into tears. And her answer to that was not “you’ll be fine” (which obviously I would have been) but “I’ll be right there.” She was on the next plane to Santa Cruz – and we all learned an important life lesson, which is that if you’re flying through Denver in the middle of winter, you should bring some warm clothes even if you don’t intend to get off the plane – but she got to Santa Cruz eventually and stayed with us, taking care of both of us, for a week.

So, “I’ll be right there” – that’s the third thing that my mom would say. Sometimes for the minor stuff, like Rory’s broken arm, sometimes for the slightly more serious stuff, like moving. I don’t know how many times in my life and my siblings’ lives Mom showed up to help us move. For Werner and Maggie, there was a move from California to North Carolina, and another from North Carolina to New York. For me, there was a move to Chicago, a move from Canada to California, a move from California to Florida. Mom was an amazing mover. She could pack and unpack a house like nobody’s business. I remember on my last move to Winter Park being exhausted at the end, and yet Mom, more than 20 years older than me, was still going, cleaning my kitchen so that it was what she considered move-in ready -- a standard that, to be honest, it’s probably never achieved since.

But “I’ll be right there” or “we’ll be right there” was also her answer to life’s truly more serious stuff. When my brother-in-law was in a terrible accident, Karen called my parents from Illinois first thing in the morning. They were there, from New York, by nightfall. When Karen was hospitalized during her pregnancy with Caroline, my parents rented an apartment and spent months in Illinois, helping to take care of Tyler. When she was needed -- when they were needed – my parents would drop everything to help.

I knew when I was thinking about this a month ago that what I wanted to talk about was my mom’s positive attitude toward life, and her faith in and support of the people she loved. But I realized while writing that the words she said, her familiar phrases, add up to what was to me her philosophy of life, and who she was as a mother.

“If that’s the worst thing that happens, you’ll be fine, because I’ll be right there.”

I miss my mother very much.

Please join me in reciting her favorite prayer, the serenity prayer.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next.



  1. Good work, Wendy. I've become the designated eulogy writer and giver in my family ("because you're the writer, Tom"), and I know it's difficult to find the right words at such an emotional time. Well done. And I am sorry for your loss.

  2. Thanks, Tom. This is my first eulogy, and it was really pretty hard to write. If I'd had to do it the week after she died, it would have been an incoherent teary mess, but I'm hoping that I'll be able to manage the delivery (next week) without falling completely to pieces. We'll see.

  3. Such a nicely written and evocative piece. So well-considered and considerate.