My husband's eulogy for his mom.
When my mother was pregnant with me she didn’t know how she could do it. She’d been so crazy about my brother, how could she possibly have room in her heart for another? She was telling me about it last summer, her understanding of motherhood. It was a joy, a wonder. She said, “You give birth to this person and you just fall in love for life.”
In May of 1972 I hit the jackpot and became the son of a beautiful woman whose heart expanded to include me, and who smiled at me with such adoration that I couldn’t help but to conclude that all the world was my picnic basket, that groups of people and even adults were new friends to make, that everything was going to be all right, I would be kept warm and clothed and fed and feeling significant in a competitive world where thousands of little kids like me were born every day. Think of that, she made me feel that way, even as she was facing something as hard as the failure of her first marriage. When she had no income to count on, no security for herself, she found a way to give it to me.
There would be trees, a house. A line across the page where the Earth met the sky, and above that a sun hovering with rays and possibly eyes and a smile. The pictures were not working out, and I kept ripping them out of the pad and wheeling them into the air by my bed, hoping the next try would turn out better. I don’t know if it was something that I just did at that age, but on this night, before I gave up on a drawing I’d write, “I love Mom.” I did it again and again, writing, “I love Mom,”then throwing the page into the air.
Sometime after I fell asleep my mother would come in to shut off my light. This was our habit. I was afraid of the dark. She’d see the scatter of pages across the blue area rug and on the wood floor, and with a closer look she would see all of my sunny declarations. One by one she picked them up and set the pile on a desk or on a small table that was near the window, and in the morning I saw that she’d written me back, how on each page it said, “I love you, too.”
I’ll remember her beautiful face, her perceptiveness, her laughter, her thoughtfulness. I’ll remember her heart, and how it expanded for us. But I remember the contractions too, the times when we pushed her too far. She was our peace maker, our referee. It wasn’t a role that she volunteered for but there she was, living with three males, and there were times when it would exact from her something less than sweet.
My point is, my mother was strong.
Take for example the night of the hip check.
My brother and I were playing floor hockey after supper. We were, as we used to say, down cella’. To be fair, I was a pain. The kind of painful little brother who got hooked on his older brother and followed him. No one could understand why I kept going down cella’ with him when it almost always ended so badly for me.
So my brother was checking me into the paneled wall, slashing me, tripping me, and my mother could hear it all, the repeated thuds and the squeals and the protests, and Dad was out of town on business which was great because that’s when Jay could really explore his more sadistic feelings for me. I mean, if you’re going to have a little brother, he can’t be writing “I love Mom” on pictures of sunshine with smiley faces. Such cloying sweetness, that would need to be beaten out of him.
And on this night it was happening. I was being beaten in one way or another and my mother would come to the top of the stairs and yell, “Jay, leave him alone!”
He would hear that and call back up, “Okay, okay.” And he would leave me alone.
Until he wouldn’t.
So that, finally, my mother would drop the sponge into the sink, or would stop whatever it was that she’d been doing, and the next thing we knew our Mom, so sweet and kind, was a demonic wraith flying down the stairs, vaulting across the thin red and black carpet as all the kindness and sweetness was chased from her face, as she was gritting her teeth now and bearing down like a bull, a street fighter, a regular hockey goon, and throwing her 120-pound body hip-first into her first son, my assailant, and launching him, skinny boy with straight straw hair, flying sideways with shock on his face, landing crumpled on his side deep inside a plywood toy box.
It was -- awesome.
It was -- just.
It was -- more than a little frightening.
And I was as shocked as my brother was.
As we all left the cellar in silence.
Ahead of our mother, our peace maker, our referee.
Yes, my mother was strong, strong enough to keep her heart open even when enduring her worst nightmare, which was to lose one of the loves of her life, my brother Jay. When I think of it sometimes I think of an artist I heard about in Boston, and it’s a story I want to tell you because it’s a story that I love. This artist was a woman who also lost a beloved son, a young boy who, before dying of cancer, had said, “Mom, when I go to heaven, I’m going to paint the sky for you.”
And when the boy died the mother went back to her painting and painted skies and horizons in different places, different lights, and in different moods. Here was the Jersey shoreline, here was the top of a Ferris wheel, here were the tops of trees on the coast of Maine. There were blue skies with scudding clouds, there were skies of marble gray, there were yellow skies, and orange, and I recall one particular sky in different shades of red with something dark and dramatic in it too, and I remember thinking this woman could’ve been ruined with anger and spite at the unfairness of it all and instead she was showing this strength, making this beautiful work and finding something like peace once a day, or once in a while, painting the
sky with her son.
My mother had that.
Consider that only six months after my brother’s death she agreed to go to Colorado. She had been trying to find her way through the grief, unsure that it was even possible, when on a good ski day it occurred to her like a message she had not expected to receive, that she was actually having fun out there. It was not so much a thought as it was something that she felt. I talked to her on the phone at night and I could hear her smile when she told me. It was like she could see color again. It was more than that. She’d realized that she did want to live.
“Jay would want this for me,” she said. “Jay would want me to be enjoying this.”
Would sadness come back to her the next day, the next moment? Sure it could. That was the struggle, and that struggle could have ruined her. But there was this strength that caused her to try harder than that, to look for another way. To find a place where she could be with Jay, to try and paint the sky with him.
Yes my mother was strong and I believe she was always making her way toward peace. It was where she was headed when she out for her walk, when she was driving the car, swimming in the pool, those places she went to work out life’s challenges. I know she was often trying to work out our challenges too.
It was her strength that caused her to look for the part in the clouds, for the un-sad story, for the reason to smile.
My mother knew blue skies, she knew smooth ice for skating, she knew standing on a mountaintop with her boys and her daughter-in-law with a whole ski day ahead. She knew what it was like to be the prettiest girl in the room. She must have. She knew a man she could love and count on, a man with whom she shared values, interests, and laughter, and she was devoted to him for 39 years. She loved her husband’s family like it was her own. She liked to hear good news about her sisters and her brother and their kids and grand kids, and she loved to pass it on. She put her husband before her. She put her kids before her. On the day that she was diagnosed with MDS she told me through tears, “Well, the one piece of good news is
that it’s not hereditary. It would be random for you to get it.” And before her bone marrow transplant she said to me, “If I don’t make it through this,I want you to take care of Dad. I want him to be happy.”
She was Mary. Look at her, if you can, in your mind. That woman who was always working toward peace. Look at the joy and happiness in her face when she listens to your good news. Look at that smile, those teeth, those eyes. Look at that quiet example she set, how important it is to be loving and kind.
How clear it becomes in times like this, that it’s all that matters.
It is difficult to accept that she is gone from her body, that in this one sense she has left us. This person who worried so much about me, who always cared, the woman who said, “Kurty, don’t worry. You can brag about yourself to me.” The one who always loved me, no matter how hard I made it. The one who fell in love with me for life. The one with whom I wrote the best thing I ever wrote, that story made up of just two sentences.
The one that goes, “I love Mom.”
And then goes, “I love you, too.”
That story, I’m glad to say, is one that never ends.