Sunday, August 6, 2023

Eulogy for My Mother

So my Mom died a few days before Mother’s Day, on May 14, 2023, to be precise. I’ve sort of been collecting my thoughts these last few months trying to figure out what to say. She was 84.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that I would post a blog about this. Not that bringing myself to write something has been easy. It has not. It has, however, been easy to distract myself from doing it, by finding other things to do, like, oh, I don’t know … visiting cemeteries. But I’ve got skin in the game.

I don’t want this to be maudlin or clich├ęd, like, to everything there is a season, I see her face in the sky, in the trees, in a running stream, all that junk. I do, however, see her face in a Wendy’s Strawberry Frosty and ripe tomatoes. She liked oddball stuff, like sardines, zucchini, black tea, fried green tomatoes, and SPAM. Which I attributed to her being of Welsh descent. I don’t know why.

Her physical health had been on a slow decline for about five years, but mentally, she was sharp. Spoke with her on the phone at least weekly (I live 120 miles away) and visited as often as I could. She loved her three children and four grandchildren. Wait – I’m getting maudlin. Let’s shift gears.

At the Bedside 

She fell in her apartment a few days before she died, and told my brother, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” I don’t really think any of us knew this was the beginning of the end, but I let my three grown children know, so they could visit. And they did. Bless them. And I know Mom enjoyed seeing them. They loved her. Her door was always open to them. It’s funny, they have so many DIFFERENT memories of her than I do. They all seem to have this lasting memory of the view over Wyoming Valley (northeast Pennsylvania) from my parents’ home on the mountain. 

Over the course of the next few days, she slowly got worse. Pain needed morphine; lungs needed oxygen. The afternoon she died, I had only been at her hospital bedside for about an hour when she started to slip away from us. My brother Tim was also there, along with my adult son Chris, and oldest daughter Juli with her new boyfriend. Wondered if this was their first date. I told him this was trial by fire for their relationship. My second oldest daughter, Collette, had been at her bedside for days prior to Mom’s demise. Her last remembrance of her grammy was when grammy was still alive. The next day my Mom was gone. Although I’m glad I was there for my Mom’s last conscious moments, I’m not sure which is easier to handle – being there or not, for that last breath.

Passing Away

When people say someone “passed away,” I always thought this was a lame and silly way of softening the blow. As Indian writer Sadhguru says, “Children are taught never to utter the word [death] at home, unless the God of Death chooses to visit, while the adults are on a quest to invent overly woke euphemisms that try to mask the bluntness of the event…” (Death – An Inside Story, Penguin, 2020).

I was surprised, however, to witness my Mom’s “passing.” That is truly how she seemed to leave us. Over the course of an hour, systems slowly shut down, pulse ox dropped (she was on cardiac monitoring), heart rate slowed, pressure dropped to essentially nothing. It was as if the curtains were slowly being drawn closed. Now I understand the gravestone symbolism of the stone-carved curtains being drawn. 

Did my twenty years’ worth of cemetery photography prepare me in any way for this? It did. I guess it made the inevitable seem more likely. Also made me realize that I’ve only got twenty years before I reach my Mom’s age. But I suppose that just as my Mom will continue to live on through all the people who knew her, I’ll live on in the memories, habits, and behaviors of people I know. 

My Mom liked my daughter Olivia’s fencing demonstration the last time we visited, and I only wish she could’ve heard and seen Olivia play the piano. I wish she could’ve seen rock star Chris on stage. I wish she could’ve seen Juli painting in her studio. I wish she could’ve joined me and Collette at the punk rock flea market. But she continues to live on in all of us.

All my children enjoy music, and my Mom did too. She was a big Tony Bennett fan, and I guess his death recently (July 21, 2023) is what finally prompted me to begin writing this. She and my Dad (also deceased) saw Bennett perform in the early 1960s at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. Kind of glad she wasn’t around to see him go. He was a testament to longevity to her. 

Mom's last uneaten meal, with some forget-me-nots we sent her for Mother's Day.

I wish I got to play, “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” for her on my guitar. If we had held a memorial service or funeral for her, this is the story I probably would have told. “Dooley” was one of the songs I practiced when I took guitar lessons when I was about thirteen. I wanted to play the guitar, but, it seems I didn’t necessarily want to LEARN how to play the guitar. The rare times I would practice at home I would plink out “Dooley” and my Dad would make fun of me. He would say, “Can you do anything other than go, ‘plink, plink, plink?’”  I never progressed while taking those lessons. I chalk it up to a bad teacher and a cheap guitar. Mom and Dad loved that song, but I never got good enough to play it. Now that I am good enough to play it (only took fifty years), I never did play it for my Mom.

Anyway - and this was back in maybe 1970 - she got fed up with my not wanting to practice one day and smashed the guitar over my head! Luckily, it was a cheap wooden acoustic, not a solid-body electric! To this day …. Or rather, to the day she died, she blocked out that episode of our relationship, said she really didn’t remember it. Ah, good times …

My interest in guitar playing resumed a couple years later as I witnessed my older cousin Jerry power chording his Les Paul through Creedence and Rolling Stones tunes. Mom went ahead and bought me a cheap electric with an amp and away I went. 

So here’s the punch line of the story. Mom hated snakes. She went to someone’s house after answering an ad in the “Country Impressions” newspaper to buy me a cheap electric guitar and amp. Legend has it that as she was paying the woman for the equipment, the woman asked her point blank if she was afraid of snakes. My mother probably paled and said “yyyyessss….?” The woman then said “Well, don’t turn around then. Just walk out this door and I’ll bring the guitar.” My mother, of course, whips around to see a giant snake stretched out on the sofa behind her! Mom took the storm door off its hinges as she threw herself outside to safety! But she came home with the guitar and amp for me. That’s what mothers do.

I appreciate all the condolences that people sent. So many heartfelt ones. I’d like to include some of them here, but I can’t really bear to look at them again. Death of a family member can bring out the best in people – and sometimes the worst. One of the most wonderful things that happened was when my childhood friend George called me to talk. We “came up” together, as is current parlance. He told me that my Mom was like a mother to him. Then he changed that and said, no she wasn’t “like a mother, she WAS my second mother!” George’s Mom (also deceased) made me feel as at home at their house as my Mom made George feel at home at our house. He said he would often have two dinners, one at my house and one when he returned to his own house. Pork chops, Shake ‘n’ Bake chicken. My mother fed people.

My brother, bless him, took care of our Mom for years and sorted through so much afterward – clearing out her apartment, notifying Social Security et. al. of her passing, picking up Mom’s ashes from the funeral home, speaking with friends and relatives about Mom’s death. I am so grateful that he did all that.

As for a legacy of sorts, my Mom wrote down in a spiral notebook things she wanted my thirteen-year-old daughter Olivia to read after Mom was gone. My Mom told me a few years ago that she was doing this, and would tell me things she was writing. As difficult as it was to talk to her about this at times, I’m so glad she did it. Olivia is the youngest of my children and therefore knew her grandma the least. I have the notebook, and while not confidential, I still can’t bear to open it. At some point, I’ll give it to Olivia. No doubt its written in cursive. My Mom was so thrilled that Olivia taught herself to write in cursive, even though it was no longer taught in school.

Mom was in severe pain for the last two years of her life. It’s really horrible that medical science couldn’t relieve her pain. I guess that's partly because medicine isn't all science - its mostly an art. You're lucky to get a good doctor. As Pulitzer Prize finalist Percival Everett says in his novel, “Dr. No,” “I was reminded that what we see is really all we know; everything else is induction, deduction, or simply guesswork.”

On the way back to Philadelphia the day she died, my son Chris and I stopped at a turnpike rest stop and I pulled up alongside a car that ironically had this placard on the side. My Mom loved all kinds of fish in cans - sardines, herring, whatever other fish they tin. I posted this photo with the caption below on Facebook the day she died. May 14. 

“This is for my mom. For those of you who knew her, you may have known that she liked tinned fish. Sardines and stuff like that. I used to joke with her all the time about how gross I thought that was. My mom died today at 2 PM. Mom, wherever you are, I hope there’s a lot less pain and a lot more tinned fish. Love you.”