My mother was a difficult person to love, but that did not stop us from loving her. Her sister, Janie, who spent the most time with her over these past few years, caring for her and managing her estate, rose to the challenge, loving mom through the hardest time of my mother’s life when her independence was surrendered and her memories, many painful, pre-occupied her thinking.
What I miss the most about my mother is the sound of her singing and the way in which it made me feel grounded and safe and full of hope. She had an amazing voice, much bigger than her five-foot stature and she was happiest when she was lost in song.
But happiness did not come easily for my mother, who slipped in and out of depression throughout her lifetime. She was a person who held onto pain and lashed out at those who loved her most.
When my mother was fourteen-years-old, she was called to the school swimming pool where she was asked to identify her sixteen-year-old brother’s body. My uncle George, whom I would never meet, was an expert swimmer, an athlete on the school swim team. Mom argued with him earlier that same day and during their short spat she told her brother to drop dead. A couple of hours later, she stood over his lifeless body feeling responsible. She would have to tell their mother what had happened. And she would carry the guilt of her last words to her brother for the rest of her life.
The longer we live, the more pain we accumulate as disappointments and loss continue to wound us. Some people are better at letting go of these burdensome emotions and replacing them with good memories in the process of healing. Others, like my mother, are not. Still, in all my mother’s sharp confrontations that I witnessed both as a spectator and as a participant, she never wished pain or harm on anyone. The agonizing lesson from the death of her brother would never be forgotten.
As a matter-of-fact, and in spite of her hard edge, it is honest to say that my mother was a humanitarian. She fed anyone who visited our home, embraced people of all ethnicities and sexual orientation and never hesitated to make up a bed for whomever needed it. In her midlife, she bred and raised puppies into show dogs that she treated as children, assisting in the birth of newborn puppies and nurturing the old, retired animals until they passed. This made for a very lively scene in her home.
Above all, mom adored her grandbabies, showing off their photographs to anyone whose ears and eyes she could catch. And any time mom was stuck in a downward spiral, when she was in physical or emotional torment, stories of her grandchildren, their faces and their voices softened her, lessened her pain and brought her immediate happiness.
Aging may or may not be graceful as bodies fail, minds fade and filters dissolve. My mother never had much of a filter to begin with. Sometimes, this characteristic made her very funny. My Aunt Janie will share some of that with you [Janie caught my almost 79- year-old mother watching porn and when asked “what are YOU watching?!!” she was told, “I don’t know, but you’re paying for it.”...] Other times, it made mom difficult to say the least. We certainly never had to question what she was stirring up in her thoughts. Mom liked confrontation. Mom loved reaction. And that made her, a very animated story-teller.
The dinner table was never boring when I was a little girl. The meal was never quick. My parents sat for, what felt like hours, over our evening meals chatting, while my mother dominated many of the conversations. I was spellbound as I sank into the tales that my mother could tell so colorfully. The ones I remember most are the Biblical stories she told us. We were not religious. We did not attend Sunday mass. Still, my early teachings from the Bible came from my mother who had a falling out with the Catholic Church but did not let that stop her from sharing stories from the Bible with us around the dinner table. Her fall-out with the Church was due to a rejection she faced from the priest over her second daughter, my older sister Renee, who was born with Down Syndrome. Renee was denied communion due to her disability and my mother could not accept that refusal.
I want to share a remarkable thing my parents did when Renee was born, a detail that should not be forgotten as we say goodbye to mom today. It was 1959 when my mother gave birth to Renee. What she did next rose above all standards of the time. She and my father brought Renee home from the hospital and raised my sister just as they raised all of their five children. In 1959 this was not common. Couples that gave birth to disabled infants were more likely to transfer the care of their children to an isolated institution, as was recommended by healthcare professionals. Any agony felt was buried as these parents announced the “death” of their unacceptable child to family and community. I will, forever, be grateful to my mother and my father for this act of love and acceptance that would impact my life profoundly.
I was born after Renee and no one would ever partner my life and impress upon my heart for as long as my sister Renee did and continues to do today, even though I can no longer hold her in my arms or feel her little pat on my shoulder.
Renee shaped me more than my parents ever could. Renee gave me a voice when I thought I had none. Renee gave me courage; She taught me how to advocate and she reminded me over and over again that I was not alone even when I felt the most lonely. It’s hard for me to bring my sister back here and let her go a second time, but I have to tell you, this was not my idea. Renee’s ashes have been by my bedside since she passed in 2013 and I was fully invested in the commitment that my sister’s ashes would be buried along with mine. Then, one night a week or so ago, while sitting in my bed, feeling heavy with the loss of my mother, Renee’s ashes somehow told me they needed to go home. I was shocked. “What?” “Are you kidding me? We’ve been together for so long!” I said, I would think about it. I would sleep on it. I would talk with Janie and we would see….Maybe. Maybe.
Well, My mother will be buried next to her mother, my Grandma Alice, who died too young, leaving my mother with little children, a newborn and a son, not yet conceived.
My sister, Renee will be buried next to both of them. It is good. And Janie tells me of the many family members that we have resting at Holy Sepulchre. Our father is there too. It is where Renee’s remains belong.
Saying goodbye to our parents hurts. No matter how the relationships played out. As we say goodbye today I want to offer a gift to everyone here and especially to my family, a gift from my mother to you, if you will accept it. Let my mother and all those we have loved who have passed on before us, carry away the troublesome shortcomings, disappointments and pain that life dishes out. Let scars be smoothed today. Move forward loving deeply with grace and appreciation for the lessons our parents have taught us in whatever way they could.