Imperfect Serenity

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005


It has been a week since my mother died at home. The hospice nurse and I sat with her and held her hands as her spirit left, a moment that was harder for me than I had expected. I was so grateful that the nurse had just arrived; she ministered to both me and my mother with her gentle presence. It was especially good to have the nurse there afterwards, to talk about how much she liked my mother and to wait with me until the funeral director arrived. The funeral director is an old friend of our family’s, so she also talked about my mother’s strength and wit. From those first moments after she was gone, I started being able to see my mom though the eyes of her many friends, instead of through the loving but sometimes judgmental eyes of a daughter.

That realization makes me sad, but in general, I haven’t felt as sad as I suspect I will in January, when the rush of things to do subsides. Mom died just two days before school let out for winter break, so I had two days to plan the funeral, do the Christmas shopping, plan Megan’s birthday party, and start getting ready for the trip we will now take to Wisconsin for Christmas. I’ve been pretty task oriented up until this afternoon, which is the first time I’ve sat down to write, other than writing the eulogy I gave my mother after her burial mass. I’m not sure I’m ready to say much else about this week, so I think I will just post the eulogy and express my thanks to all of you who have been “holding us in the Light” or sending prayers or kind words our way. Thank you.

I wouldn’t have even tried to get up here today, except that a week ago my mother called me over to her bed and said, “So are you going to get up and give a speech at my funeral?”

She was very weak, and had a hard time talking, so I sat close and said very earnestly, “Sure mom, what do you want me to say?”

And she said, “Just say everything flattering. And then when it’s over, people can say, ‘Now, wasn’t that a bunch of baloney!”

And that’s one of the things I want you to know about my mother: she kept her sense of humor right up to the end. She made lots of jokes about death, which I think was very Irish of her. The Irish like to laugh at death, both in literature and at wakes, and my mother surprised a lot of people at the quirky things she would say about her own demise. For example, a few weeks ago when her hospice nurse asked her how she was, my mother said, “I’m hanging on like a loose tooth.”

Many people remarked about how openly she faced her death, and humor was part of that. When our friend Kelley had to put her dog Cagney to sleep last summer, Kelley was afraid to tell my mother because, as some of you know, my mom always dog sat for Cagney when Kelley was away, and mom really loved that dog. But I knew how my mom would react when she heard the news. She said, “Poor thing. I wish someone would get me a veterinarian.” Later she told people that Kelley’s dogs were waiting for her in heaven.

Along with her sense of humor, my mom also kept her wits amazingly intact during her illness. Although she managed to get me a lot more formal education that she ever had, she was always telling me about things that were going on in the world. In fact, that was how I knew she was really sick last winter: when she stopped watching the evening news. A few days later I knew the antibiotics were working when she said, “I hate that Dick Cheney!”

She certainly wasn’t one to shy away from controversy. Although she never missed mass when she was well, when she heard that the Vatican didn’t want Roman Catholics reading the Da Vinci Code, she said, “Hey, get me a copy of that book.”

In fact my hardest job last summer was keeping her stocked in good books because she went through them so quickly. But even after her eyes got too weak to read, she was still always thinking, planning, organizing.

For example, just a week before she died she had me read her entire address book to her so she could tell me who to call for her funeral. Let me tell you, this is an extremely considerate thing to do for your children because that book was full of auto mechanics and furniture repair men as well as friends, many of whom had left this life before her. By sorting out who was who for me, mom literally saved me hours on the phone.

But there was another gift that came from the phone book, as well. As I called through the list of people she had told me to star, I realized how many extraordinary friendships she had. I talked to people from St. Matthias parish whom she had known for decades. I talked to friends she had met through Irish solidarity work in the 1980s and people she knew from Ravenhill in the 60’s and 70’s. I talked to a friend she had met when they were both patients in Temple Hospital in the 50’s and heard about how they’d still meet for lunch decades later. I talked to a friend she met in the Signal Core during WWII and someone from West Catholic High School and cousins who remembered her from their youths. I hadn’t even realized that this was something I had learned from my mother: to hold onto good friendships.

Planning for today, I was very touched by how many of her friends and my friends wanted to be here today. One even left home at 3:45 am to get here. When I think about the friends of my generation as we face the second half of our own lives, I know that I’ll consider myself very lucky if I can hold onto my sense of humor, my interest in the world, and especially my friends as long as my mom did.

Thank you all for coming.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


This time nine years ago I was waiting for my daughter Megan to be born. Her due date was December 2nd, but she wasn’t born until the 20th after we finally induced labor. The long, uncertain wait for her arrival was complicated by the fact that I had fractured my elbow the day before Thanksgiving. For his part, Tom was working full-time while getting his MSW, and he had several papers due in mid-December. So I had to wait, trusting that, despite my impatience for Megan to be born, the timing would all work out.

Nine years later, I sit waiting for my mother to die, which everyone seems certain will happen soon, though no one knows how soon. We are anticipating sadness rather than joy, but still the feelings and the waiting are mixed. My mother is now suffering so much that it will be a relief to see her chest stop heaving. It will be a relief to plan Megan’s birthday party, not to mention Christmas, without wondering if Mom will still need us then. It will be a relief to be home again in the evenings as the kids struggle with homework. But it will be a painful relief, like childbirth.

My mother, for her part, is also impatient. Last night after dinner she said, “Now give me my sleeping pill, turn off the light, and then hit me over the head with a hammer.” She can barely talk, but she still makes jokes like this daily.

I’m trying to remember that waiting usually has a purpose in the cosmic plan. By the time Megan was born, my arm was healed and Tom was done his papers. More importantly, I was better prepared psychologically than I would have been in early December. The timing was in fact perfect, even though the waiting had been difficult. Yesterday I thought of this as I realized I still had some unfinished business with my mother. Although we’ve said our goodbyes in various ways already, some very old anger toward my mother surfaced in me yesterday morning. It was surprising, an old issue from the past that would have been fruitless to reopen with her now. She’s too weak and just a little too confused to understand why I would raise an ancient fight. But the surfacing of my resentment gave me the chance to forgive her while she was still alive, even though I decided not to tell her about it. The conversations we did have provided the space for me to feel some healing with her, for which I’m grateful.

Having done my little piece of spiritual work, I half expected her to die last night, but alas I still can’t predict the cosmic plan. Unlike pregnancy, where passively waiting becomes dangerous to the baby after awhile, there’s nothing we can do now but wait and pray and appreciate life while it’s here. It’s not impossible that we could still be waiting during Megan’s birthday party, or even during Christmas, though for my mother’s sake, I hope we’re not. Still, the coming of Christmas reminds me of Mary, that great patient waiter, who trusted in God’s plan at both ends of her son’s life. As it did nine years ago, Advent means much more this year than holiday sales and the television airing of It’s a Wonderful Life, which by the way, it is.

Friday, December 02, 2005

No Day But Today

This blog has taken a low priority lately. So has selling my book, cleaning the basement, and preparing for my class, which is nearing its end. My mom is getting even weaker, barely able to sit up in bed, so most of my week has been spent coordinating care for her. At least I finally got her to hire an aid for several hours a day. She also got a catheter, so she’s not hobbling to the commode by herself in the middle of the night. Both of these are a huge relief for me.

I’m also trying to cut down on my stress by avoiding committee meetings and anything that requires my mental or emotional energy. I did, though, sneak out to a movie this week: Rent, which is partly about people living with AIDS. There’s a song that recurs through the film about living in the present that I found very moving. There was another song asking how you measure a year, or a life, and the answer proposed was that we should measure our time here in love. I want to find the soundtrack to Rent so I can listen to these lyrics again, but for the time being, fragments of them are drifting through my thoughts. On the whole I felt the message was that our time on earth is so short, we should use it to love.

I got another reminder yesterday of how short our time on earth is. My mom wanted to go through her address book and tell me who to call when she dies. As I turned the faded pages and read off the names of her friends, my mother said, “No, she’s dead… Oh, he died too” to most of the entries. Stuck in between the original pages of the book were business cards and scraps of paper, with the numbers of various doctors, mechanics, and thrift stores. Although my mother will never use these numbers again, I couldn’t pull them out and recycle them, not yet. But a day is coming where I’ll have to go through my mother’s mountains of papers and decide what to keep and what to throw away. I’ll get to decide what fragments of her life are worth preserving, a daunting responsibility.

Yesterday on the radio I heard someone quote C.S. Lewis as saying that eventually our memories of a person replace the person themselves. As a writer I wonder how much I should write about my mother and whether writing about her helps me to understand her or actually distances me from the real person before me. I think of things she says—like last week when she told the nurse that she was “hanging on life a loose tooth”—and I want to preserve her wit and courage. And then I’m reminded again to just be present to her now. I think the song lyric said, "There's only day but today."

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