On October 27, 2012, I had to eulogize my mother. It’s one of the worst things I’ve had to do. Second only to talking to the coroner moments after I was notified of her death (are you sure?). Or maybe second only to talking to the crematorium (how long will it take?). Or maybe picking out her urn (that’s a nice one). Or maybe walking into her apartment for the first time after she passed (the stuff).
Or maybe actually sitting down to write the eulogy I had to deliver.
Over the course of two evenings – and even late into the morning of my mom’s funeral mass – I sat down in my hotel room in the Valley at the end of two very long weeks and wrote something. By no means is it, or could it ever have been, good enough. But I did deliver it that sunny Saturday afternoon, sandwiched between a baptism and a wedding.
I decided to share it publicly, well after the fact, because I want it to live, and because I want people who knew her – and didn’t – to read how she was memorialized that day. This is not the whole story. One day I will tell that. This is simply my goodbye.
We all endure many life stages. My mom began hers in Indiana – the middle as I like to call it. She picked up a strange obsession for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Two nights before she passed away she called and left a voice mail boasting about the team’s 6-0 record.
She then became a California kid and the rest was history. She got dirty. She ran. She fell. She jumped. She skated. She rode. She got up to no good, as they say. And she no doubt smiled a lot. She loved roller derby. I found – and kept (along with two of my baby teeth…the woman kept everything) a letter by the Roller Derby Association or whatever the official organization was called, in responding to her request for information on the closest roller derby training school. She was 16.
She loved. She lost. And then she had me at the age of 22, a single parent with no training and little guidance. She raised me the best she could, making the tough decision when it wasn’t popular (it’s never popular) to receive social services – the food stamps, the welfare, the Medi-Cal – to give me a shot. Us a shot.
It wouldn’t be long before one health issue after another began to plague her. These issues that required a daily intake of an incomprehensible amount of medication. That forced her to stop playing softball. That squandered her roller derby dream for good. But she fortified her armor, shoring up her ability to withstand any challenge that was thrown her way. She dealt with the effects of that medication the best she could. She had and recovered from a stroke, regaining her ability to walk when she was in her mid-thirties.
And she fought. She fought to be a parent when people tried to take me away. It could not have been easy – I have an attitude problem. In addition to the baby teeth she kept, I also found my many letters to Santa. I was a little bossy, even to him, telling him where in the Sears Wishbook he could find the items I requested. This is the kid my mom had to deal with and protect.
She kept meticulous records of my development. Last week I opened a sealed envelope that was labeled ‘Cathi’s first year out of the womb.’ In it were sheets of paper in her handwriting. A journal. I was able to read about how much she loved me on my first day of life. She wrote about how I could turn myself over in the crib on my own after only four weeks and that she would not have believed it had she not seen it for herself. That earned a few exclamation marks.
And then I started to get older. She put me in sports. Thank god. She gave me pen and paper. And how did I repay her?
One day we were in the K-mart at Valley Plaza in North Hollywood. There was a barrel of watermelon candy sitting unguarded in a barren aisle. Un. Guarded. Perhaps I felt I had a right to that candy. I was five, so of course I did. I easily swiped a few pieces. But did I wait until later that night to break open my loot? Nope. Once in the car, I reached into my pocket for the few pieces (only few!) of candy I swiped and tore open the wrappers. One by one I shoved the hard candy into my mouth. It tasted so good. But then:
“What are you eating?” my mom asked from the front seat.
“Nnthng,” I was barely able to reply, my mouth full of candy, the scent of sugar and watermelon wafting through the air.
“What. Are. You. Eating?” she asked, finally turning in her seat to watch my struggle.
She held out her hand. I looked in her eyes, suddenly afraid of what could possibly happen. There was no way out. I leaned forward and spit my loot into the cupped palm of her hand.
There might have been some yelling. Some questions, such as “Where did this come from,” etc. But I could only hear one thing: “No Dukes of Hazzard for you tonight!” I was devastated. No Bo. No Luke. No. Daisy.
I never stole again.
Then there was the time she took me to see Ghostbusters. I was 11 and so scared that the marshmallow thing at the end was coming after me, that I forced her to stay up one night and play Battleship. I can still see her heavy eyelids wanting so badly to close. But she knew I was afraid and that she alone could protect me from the marshmallow. (I won all the games we played, by the way.)
Then there was the time we took a train ride to Texas that Christmas to be with my grandparents. That was the year she (or perhaps Santa) bought me a guitar. My mom played once upon a time and she wanted to play, too. I did take some lessons, and then I quit. Last year, my mom bought a guitar, deciding to learn to play again. It’s mine now. I won’t quit this time.
Then there was the time I bought markers from Disneyland and took them home and they were dried up. She insisted we work on a letter of complaint to the powers that be. I got new markers. That arrived dry. Whatever. There was the Grand Ole Opry, and the amusement park and I made her go on the roller coaster with me seven times. She did happily.
And then there was last summer. It was 3 a.m. on a Saturday and I had surrounded myself in bed with work. I was overcome with stress and pressure and confusion. I called my mom. Did I think she could fix it? No. Did I want her to? No. I knew she couldn’t. I just needed my mom. I was 38.
Years ago, my mom said one of her biggest fears was having to rely on people toward the end of her life. Despite her best attempts, through the years, her body endured one hit after another and, unfortunately, her fear became realized.
At least that’s how it seemed. I’d actually argue that she was the one people relied on. Sure, she needed help to perform the most mundane activities associated with life. But there was a fight in her that accompanied everything she did.
She fought through over-medicated states. She fought through the incessant poking and prodding of this doctor and that.
She fought against the restrictions that at times kept her from getting herself in and out of bed.….even if it meant she’d fall. Even if it meant she’d have to endure lectures from me over the phone. The words I said were good. They made sense. But even as they came out of my mouth, I knew they were futile. My mother didn’t listen. And she wasn’t gonna be told what to do.
And she fought paralysis – this time the result of a botched spinal surgery – every once in a while trying to see if just maybe she might have regained the ability to walk as she did years before.
She fought for everything. In the end she was still fighting. But her acceptance filled her with strength and provided the character that infected everyone with whom she came into contact. With my mom you’d get honesty. Compassion. Support. Encouragement. And yes, sometimes anger. Even if she had just come home tired from the doctor. Even if she could barely keep her eyes open in the middle of the afternoon. She was there and she expected you to be right there with her.
She did the very hard work every day to remain sober. This year she celebrated 17 years of sobriety. She found fulfillment in her work with Operation Gratitude in support of our troops overseas, exchanging letters with appreciative soldiers who received gifts she herself packaged. She developed a community here and forged best friendships that will live on in memories forever.
Mom, I stand up here as the most imperfect of daughters entering the next phase of my life without you in it. You will not see me turn 40, which you teased me about in the voicemail you left me on my 39th birthday a couple of months ago. We had a good go together even though we were often apart. It wasn’t always easy, I know. I was a difficult kid with an attitude and a misunderstanding way back then of the difficulties you had to endure and the sacrifices you made for me. And I’m sure I made it harder. For the rest of my life, I will hold onto the memories and recall your fight, letting it inspire me as I amble through the life I’ve got left.
As we all gather here today to bear the sorrow of your passing, we know that your spirit has evolved into something beyond this world. Your fight is over and you are somewhere free. You’ve left us, confident that we no longer need to rely on you. You’ve shed your wheels. Put a bat in your hand and skates on your feet. You’re now where you need to be, because I know you’d have it no other way.
Mom, keep watching over me, because I will always need you to make sure I’m okay. I love you.
Rest in peace.