As we passed Memorial Day this week, I found myself thinking of the people I have lost the last few years. I lost my secretary several years ago, who died young of lung cancer (she was a smoker), I lost my uncle, who died in his sixties of complications related to birth defects, I lost a dear friend who committed suicide after a lengthy battle with bipolar disorder, I lost a grandfather and a grandmother (one from each side) who were both in their nineties, a friend’s family (his wife and two children) died in a car accident, and I lost my mother. Each of these deaths was very different and affected me in different ways. I spoke at the funerals of my uncle, my grandfather and my mother, and was happy to be able to honor them. My grandparents were old enough that there was nothing really sad about their passing, other than the fact that we cannot visit them now. They were ready to pass on and had said so many times, so we were able to celebrate their lives and talk about their great qualities and why we loved them. It was difficult and heart-breaking to attend the funerals of those who died young and unexpectedly. I don’t know if I will ever fully understand my friend who committed suicide. It seemed to me that he had everything to live for, but I’m told that there’s no way to understand the power of that particular mental illness over those who suffer from it, so all I can do is just be grateful that I knew my friend while he was with us.
Of all these deaths, however, the one that affected me most profoundly by far was the death of my mother. I’m still struggling with it in some ways. At the time, I knew I wanted to speak at her funeral and try to express some of what I was feeling, but I was not up to the job. I couldn’t even put my thoughts in any kind of order, or really get anything down on paper. I wrote her obituary, and helped organize the funeral, and those things seemed to take up all the available time between her death and when I found myself standing at the pulpit at her funeral. I thought that some things would come to me, but they didn’t. As much as I wanted to be there for my mom, I just couldn’t shake the fact that I didn’t want to be there at all. My dad and my mother’s best friend gave really beautiful tributes to her, both of which I think about and go back and read sometimes even now. But somehow I couldn’t figure out how to put two words together about my mom, and now that is the chief memory I have of her funeral: my spectacularly insufficient speech. It’s a failure I suffer over every time I think about it. Why couldn’t I speak about her? It has been over five years now and I still don’t know.
Maybe it’s because my feelings about my mom have never been anything I have put into words before, and I don’t know how. As I write this, I realize that I still don’t have the right words. As I think about her, my feelings are mainly wrapped up in childhood memories. I remember how good she always smelled. I remember the feel of her terry cloth robe and the soft scuff of her slippers on the floor. I remember how much I loved to make her laugh. She had a great laugh and a kind of sarcastic sense of humor, which is great in a friend but not always great in a mom. She was not an easy audience. Most of the things I wrote prior to reaching adulthood were written with the purpose of trying to impress her, which was a tall order. I loved to stay up late with her and watch the Tonight Show, which she loved to make fun of. I remember she let me stay up late once to watch “Son of Godzilla,” which, as a nine year old, I was so ecstatic about that I almost couldn’t breathe. She watched the whole thing with me, which was too awesome for words. A few years later, I returned the favor by going with her to a movie in the theater that she wanted to see but which my dad wouldn’t go to for some reason. The movie was “Sleuth.” It’s one of my favorite movies to this day, and I guarantee you it’s not because of Michael Caine’s brilliant acting.
It’s not too much to say that for me, my mom is my childhood, since nearly every memory I have before high school involves her directly or indirectly. I think that part of the problem is that I never really got to know her as a person apart from her role as my mom. I don’t think that is something that happens easily. Maybe it only happens after you spend time with your mother after you are an adult and have some perspective distance from your childhood and the role that your mother played in it. Maybe it never happens for most people. I don’t think I got enough time with my mother for that to happen. I’m sorry about that, because I would like to have known her more as a friend. As members of our Church, we know certain things about what happens when we die. We know we will see our family members again. But somehow, that’s not much comfort to me right now.
I watched my mother die and I didn’t know what to say. My last words to her were to ask if she wanted me to bring her father to see her. She said no in a way that meant she thought I was crazy for even suggesting it. She didn’t want to die. She was beautiful. I miss her.