Seeking My Best Self

trying to make sense of my life – and lose some weight

Eulogy for Mom

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Mom & Me, 2007

Mom died on December 7, 2014. She slipped in the shower, hit her temple, and passed immediately. A freak accident. A totally unexpected loss. My last parent – gone.

We held services this Monday, December 15, 2014. My daughter, a Lutheran seminarian, gifted us with lovely liturgical service at the cemetery in the morning, while my brother’s church poured out their love with a beautiful praise service in the afternoon. Nicholas sang at both, and Gabriel and Hanna provided scripture readings. I gave the eulogy. It was a family affair – which is just how Mom would have wanted it.

Here is the eulogy:

“We’ve all seen families torn apart by greed after a family death. Otherwise loving people turn ugly when it comes time for inheritance. Not my brother. As we sat together in Mom’s living room on that terrible day of her passing, his eyes wandered slowly around, and then he spoke. “Cherie, I know that you’ve always wanted it, so it’s yours…

…you can have Mom’s dustbuster.”

Anyone who knew Mom more than five minutes knows that she had a penchant for ‘clean’. One might even gently, and with great love, call it an obsession. And yes, this quirk could be exasperating. But we all have quirks. What Mom also had was a huge heart filled with love for everyone. She expressed it through true Syrian hospitality – which meant that every person who walked through her door was automatically ‘family.’ Welcome. Loved. And expected to eat, and eat a lot.

She was a woman who loved to laugh. She had a great sense of humor (my brother inherited it from her.)  I loved to make her laugh, and did so the last time I talked with her. After I hung up the phone, I told Bryan, “I guess when it comes to our mothers, we never grow up. Robin Williams became a comedian because when he was a little boy, he made his mom laugh, and he wanted to do it again and again. He craved his mother’s approval. And so do I. Still. At age 57, making my mom laugh matters more to me than almost anything else.” It made my day, and I think it made hers, too. I’m glad that’s my last memory of Mom.

Mom was a voracious reader. She especially loved romance novels. She, her sister Lyn and my daughter Ariel traded them around like baseball cards. It was a hobby that drew them close. Mom liked her family to be close. Most of her life centered around family. She loved her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren, and talked often of them. She believed that she was the one who nicknamed Isabelle ‘Izzy’. It tickled her to believe so.

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Mom & Me 2008

Speaking of grandchildren. Some of you know that Mom had some mild dementia in the past couple of years. Thinking back, I realize it must have manifested far earlier than I realized: about the time the grandchildren came along. You see, things that were REALLY important to her when Mike & I were growing up suddenly slipped her mind when it came to the grandkids.

For example, when I was a child, I had to have the contents of the refrigerator memorized, because I had about 1.2 seconds to open, grab, and close the door. Any longer, and Mom would be unhappy with me – and she could hear that door from ANY part of the house.

But I remember the day when my youngest, Nicholas, toddled into the kitchen with his cousin, David. They told Grandma they were hungry. She walked them to the refrigerator and opened the door.

“What would you like?” she asked.

“I no know,” Nick replied.

They proceeded to point to EVERY container in that refrigerator. “Whatsat?” they asked. And Mom patiently told them. Over and over. The door was open for at least two minutes. At the time, I wondered who this person was, and what she’d done with my Mom.

On another occasion, David & Eric were terribly ill – vomiting & diarrhea. Corinna was exhausted and ill herself. Mom called, and when she discovered what was going on, she & Dad went over there, packed the up kids, and brought them back to her home – brought these ultimate mess machines into her tidy home – and cared for them until they – and Corinna – were well.

Mom 2014

Mom 2014

So, either an alien abduction/swap thing happened, or Mom was a bit confused even back then. Or I suppose it could have been her extravagant love for her grandchildren.

Mom was a very organized person. She worked as a bookkeeper for United Grocers for many years. She helped me with my filing and books when I first started my photography studio. I also asked her to write my thank-you notes to my clients, because her hand writing was beautiful. I think it was a peek into the artistic person that lived inside.

I was far into adulthood before I saw much of that side of my mother. I learned that she was a bit of a rebel in her teen years. For example, in the mid-1950’s, cashmere sweaters were ‘the’ fashion statement, but my grandparents were very thrifty people, and didn’t approval of frivolous spending. Mom was undeterred. She would buy a new sweater, leave it in the bottom of her drawer for a month, and then wear it.

“Is that a new sweater?” my grandmother would ask.

“No, Mom,” she would reply. “I’ve had it for a long time.” She didn’t lie to her parents, but she was creative!

Some of you may not know that Dad was not my biological father. My mom eloped with a sailor at age 17 (he was barely 18.) I found a copy of the marriage certificate – she lied about her age! The witnesses were two of her best high school friends. I occasionally heard stories about the antics of these three girls, but this was their most madcap adventure.

Mom & Dad's wedding day

Mom & Dad’s wedding day

Like many adventures, it was ill-advised. She returned to my grandparent’s home two or three years later with me in tow. Then she met Dad, who bore a striking resemblance to a Marlboro man, married him, had another child, and happily lived her life.

Dad adored Mom. He loved this sometimes irascible, exotic beauty. To the day of his death, he treated her like his own fairy princess. When Dad died, a big part of Mom died, too. I don’t think she ever really recovered.

Her passing is way too soon. My family is extraordinarily long-lived, and I expected another decade or two to enjoy her. It reminds me to appreciate everyone now, in this moment, because there is no guarantee of future moments. I loved my mom, and I know you all did, too. I will miss her. Oh, how I will miss her.”

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Death Comes When We Do Not Struggle Against It

struggle“I’m sorry but I can’t take any more. My apologies to the world for being the awful person I am. I’m of no value to anyone any more. Even God doesn’t want me. Please make sure my dog goes to someone who will love him as much as I do.”

A friend, who I’ll call Rick, posted this message on Facebook yesterday at 11:30 am. I found it about 45 minutes later. By then, others had seen it and called the police. Friends called one another in dismay and fright. “Have you seen him? Have they found him?” The answer was no.

I spent most of the afternoon scouring parks near his house, because when I told Bryan about the post, he responded, “Rick has his dog with him. Muscle memory will kick in, and he’ll walk the dog in a familiar place. Let’s go search. Perhaps we can find him.”  It was as good a plan as any. It gave me something to do besides just sit and wait – because, to be honest, sitting and waiting was leading to crying and shaking.

Some of you know that I’ve been through this before. One terrible morning eleven years ago, I too called the police. They coaxed me away from my home, away from my despondent husband and his gun. They led me to a neighbor’s house where I waited…and waited…and waited through the long afternoon, until an officer knelt by my chair and gave me the news  no one ever wants to hear.

So yesterday we hiked in the rain and the cold. We searched three rustic parks and covered acres of ground. We didn’t find Rick, but someone else did. He’s alive and safe, and for that we’re overjoyed.

Why would an upbeat, intelligent, well-loved person try to take his life? It’s a question people are asking about Rick today. It’s a question many asked after my husband died.

I researched and wrote about suicide during my MFA studies. We read much about teen suicide, and many believe it’s a malaise of the young. But I found that, contrary to popular belief, young adults aren’t the largest population of suicides. They attempt in large numbers, but they do not succeed as often as the middle-aged. Suicide frequency actually reaches its peak between ages fifty-five and sixty-five.

Regardless of age, research shows that people don’t want to die. What they want is for pain to end. Suicide – death – is the final barricade between them and unbearable emotional agony. What triggers a suicide attempt? For instance, was the torment stronger yesterday for Rick? Did it press in on my late husband more cloyingly on October 3, 2002? Maybe, but maybe not. This sounds trite, but I what I found was that suicide results when a human fails to strive to remain living. Life continues because we work at it; death results when we do not. Whether we refuse food or wade into a river with rocks in our pockets, death comes when we do not struggle against it.

There’s a tired platitude that says God never gives us more than we can handle. Bullshit. I disagree. There have been many days when I’ve collapsed under the burden of worry, of grief, of all the stresses and strains that come with living in this human container. (By the by: I don’t believe God bestows pain and suffering upon us. She/He does not loom over us with a scoop, dumping burdens into our life like wrapped caramels into a plastic bag, watching us stretch and distort, seeing how much we can hold before we totally give way.) We are all sometimes pushed by life beyond the breaking point. We are all blown-out bags.

What makes the difference between those who continue to work at living and those who don’t? Two things: others and ourselves.

Over 150 people posted messages on Rick’s Facebook page yesterday. One-hundred-and-fifty people who were ready to drop everything and rush to his side. One-hundred-and-fifty friends, family, clients and even strangers who prayed and worried and loved. At my husband’s funeral, over five-hundred people attended. Five-hundred people, any one of whom would have dived head-first into the sludge pond by the Rickreall dairy to save Lee from drowning in his despair.

One of my favorite books is The Curse of Chalion by Margaret McMaster Bujold. In it Cazaril, the protagonist, asks a local saint why he was tapped on the shoulder to save the day. Why was Cazaril chosen by the gods? The local saint replies that Cazaril was not the only one chosen; a hundred may have been sent, but Cazaril was the only one who listened, who acted, who arrived. When I first read this passage, I thought, “Let me be one who arrives.” I determined then and there to be more deliberate about being open to nudges that cause us to act on behalf of another.

This passage came to mind as we searched for Rick yesterday. You see, he reached out to me via email more than a month ago. He didn’t tell me what was causing him pain, but he did tell me he was discouraged, and he asked for a word of encouragement. I was happy to talk,  happy that he had asked for help. After a few email exchanges, he indicated he was doing better. I checked in with him a couple more times. He didn’t seem despondent, but he didn’t seem like his usual self, either. Our last exchange was two weeks ago.

I failed him. I should have seen the signs. I should have pushed a little more and insisted on a face-to-face meeting. I should have kept more consistent correspondence, whether he responded or not. I, of all people, should have known better than to believe the social face of a person who’s admitted he’s in pain.

This was my self-talk, expressed tearfully to Bryan. “No. Just, no.” he said. “You reached out. You were a good friend. You are not responsible for another person’s actions. We cannot control what another person does.”

And that is the second thing that makes the difference between life and death: ourselves. We have to choose to shout out when our boat is being swamped. We have to choose grab the saving hand, to be drawn up from the depths. Sometimes, we have to choose to let others breathe for us when our lungs are still.

Bryan is right. I did reach out, both to my husband and to Rick. So did many others. My late husband did not choose to accept this help. Rick, thank goodness, did.

Struggle, my friend, struggle. May we all continue to struggle. May we all be blessed with one-hundred Cazaril’s, who listen and arrive.

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Travel Light, Travel Far

I’ve finished my first adulthood, and I’m ready for the second. You see, I think the years from our mid-twenties to our mid-fifties are just a practice round, where we learn the game, become familiar with the equipment and master the rules. After that we’re ready to play like pros, now that we have the maturity and experience necessary to really smack the ball.

Why, then, does society act as if later life are the years of decline rather than ascendancy? Why are we encouraged to become cautious RIGHT when we should be fearless? I really like what Anne Morrow Lindbergh has to say about mid-life. In her book, Gift from the Sea, she says,

“The signs that presage <second adulthood> are so similar, it seems to me, to those in early adolescence: discontent, restlessness, doubt, despair, longing. But now these are interpreted falsely as signs of decay.”

In other words, the exact same symptoms that we understand as signals of growth the first time around, we misinterpret as decline and impending death the next. Instead of looking forward to our second awakening, we run from it, choosing to become static displays rather than seeing how far we can fly.

My motto for this second era is: travel light, travel far. It’s the time to declutter, to empty my home (and my mind) of that which is useless or merely ornamental.  I don’t need possessions or arcane knowledge to prove my worth. Besides, at best they are the measure of a past self, not the person in the present mirror.

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The Grace of Grandma Betz

hanna grandmaThis has been a death-filled two weeks. It started when my friend, Cher, had to make the choice to put down darling Mo, a fifteen year-old chihuahua, her constant companion through joy and travail. Next was my friend David’s cat, also fifteen. Then Ryan’s ancient kitty (Guess how old?) Then Neil & Miriam’s  gentle Katie, a – you guessed it – fifteen year-old Chow. (Interesting that most of my closest friends were in ‘pet acquisition’ mode a decade and a half ago.)

Death hit closer to home yesterday, not a pet, but a beloved grandparent – Hanna’s grandma. Hanna and my son Nicholas’ wedding is less than two weeks away. In a time that should filled with nothing but anticipatory joy, death has elbowed in.

That’s not fair. I’m still a momma bear at heart, and I want to step between my children and the dark interloper, hold my hands up and say, “No! You will not bring sorrow here!”

But I can’t do that. No one can. We can’t shield each other from the pain of a loved one’s passing. In fact, we shouldn’t, because grief reminds us that we love and have been loved. It reminds us that we matter, that our lives – and the lives of those we mourn – have meaning.

Hanna’s grandma lived an optimistic, active life, even in the face of cancer. She remained positive and determined, winning round after round. But when it became clear she would not prevail in the last skirmish, she acquiesced with grace. She modeled how to live courageously and die well. It’s what we all hope for – to live fully and die peacefully.

These recent encounters with mortality remind me that I have only one go-round in this configuration of space/time. I want to live it with gusto, like Hanna’s grandma. I want to experience it with exuberant joy, like our beloved pets.

It’s what drives me to personal improvement. It’s not so that the surface looks prettier – though I’m shallow enough to consider that a significant bonus. No, as I float through this amorphous cloud called ‘being’, I want the physical strength and spiritual wisdom to appreciate it fully. Because then maybe, just maybe, I’ll have the grace of Grandma Betz when it’s time to let it go.

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