Encomium

August 30, 2002

I said: Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.

I was in a church for the first time in forever. The church where I had served its first ever mass as an altar boy. The church where I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. The church where my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The church where my sister was married. The church where I almost got married.

My father said: Obviously you’ll deliver the eulogy.

Question: How will I get through it?

How did you get through it, friends and family asked.

Answer: I don’t know.

(Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.

Fortunately, I was able to convey this simple truth many times in my adult life. One of the unexpected blessings of the past few weeks was that I had the opportunity to repeat it, often, and in so doing, I understood that the greatest gift I could give my mother was showing her that she was the greatest gift in my life.

Everyone that cares about my mother, or cares about one of us who love her, has had a certain heaviness in their hearts these past five years, as she has bravely battled this illness which ultimately claimed her body—only to ensure that her spirit could survive, like a million small fires inside of all our hearts. And so the hearts that once were burdened should be relieved, aided by the knowledge and acceptance that she found peace, that she was reminded, repeatedly and without reservation, how dearly she was loved every moment these past two weeks, that her act of dying defies death, because I can assure you, she is with me right now, and she has already found ways to comfort and console me that I could never have conceived.)

Longfellow wrote:

Lives of great men remind us

We may make our lives sublime

And departing leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time.

(The time was World War II, and like so many others of her remarkable generation, the little baby girl her parents named Linda came into the world on August 23, 1943, while her father, Martin, was half a world away honorably doing his duty for the country his own father had only recently learned to call home.

The first of seven siblings, she became in many regards a mother long before giving birth. It was a role she had already, in large part, perfected and prepared herself for—a preparation that would serve her well when she became a young mother, suddenly several thousand miles from the family she lived with and then left, along with her husband, having the courage and conviction to make their way and create a life of their own.

And so: a daughter, an older sister (always the older sister), a wife (always the same wife, married to the same man she fell in love with four decades ago), a mother (always a mother, making the fulfillment of others her primary purpose) and finally, a grandmother, a role she cherished and illustrated—against all probability—that her capacity for love and generosity was even more abundant: it was inextinguishable, unending…infinite.

And, of course, while the job of Grandma was one she was ideally suited for, she certainly had more than sufficient opportunity to see this function performed flawlessly by her own mother, who showed her the way to move on in the world, as a woman, a wife, mother and grandmother. Like everyone, the premature passing of her mother, Susan, indelibly shook her and while this was a loss she (and we) never fully recovered from. Nevertheless, she found the power to persevere, and intensify her already considerable efforts to bestow joy and hope to everyone in her life. And in this way, she defeated the darkness and in her fashion, turned the impetus for grief into the opportunity for great giving.)

She said: I’ll never leave you.

Neither of us realized, then, that in addition to comforting me—like she always did—she was also preparing me for this moment.

(Each time we imitate the example my mother set—in living; in dying—we are celebrating her life, and reassuring each other that there is only one way to live.

How wonderful, and humbling, to acknowledge that all the tools, which enable you to pursue what you love in life, are directly traceable to the encouragement of that person who put you first, above herself, and dedicated her life—made it her job—to make your life as positive and productive as possible.

The reason I can confidently and enthusiastically proclaim that my mother is still around is because of the obsessions that infuse my identity: the passion for art and expression, the advocation of justice and tolerance, the unending pursuit of honesty, integrity and compassion—these are inexorable imprints, they are, in fact, the essence of my mother, and her soul is in my soul, as it always has been, as it always will be.)

Shelley wrote:

O Wind, If Winter comes

Can Spring be far behind?

(What will I remember? I’ll remember everything. The things I’ve expressed and the things I saw, the things I still see in the eyes and actions of those around me. I will remember her as my first teacher and first friend, the woman who brought me into the world and allowed me to help her leave it. I will remember that soft, sweet silence, just like she had gone to sleep. Only more.

Everything that is good about me is because of my mother. I said that to her, then, and I say this to you, now, in the hope that when you see me, you see my mother, and when you see yourselves—especially when you reflect upon the ways in which her influence and example inspired and encouraged you—you will see my mother, and we can all do our part to honor her memory, and make sure that she never leaves us.)

I say: Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.

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