These are the words I offered tonight, Friday, August 3rd, 2018 at the wake celebrating my mother’s life on the eve of her funeral.
When I was a young adult and had been paying my own rent for a year or two, it occurred to me that if I were to lose either or both of my parents, I would be alright. After all, I had a job and was paying my own bills, and that was all there really was to being an adult, right?
A few failures and heartbreaks later, I realized just how wrong I’d been. Being an adult is so much more than knowing how to take care of yourself. It is also knowing how to care for others and the world we share, and making the decision to do so over and over again, even when it isn’t easy. This is one of the many things I learned from my mother.
A decade or so later I’d begun to worry about what it would feel like to lose my mother. In times of stress or moments of victory, she was the person I wanted to share my successes and failures with. She was always delighted to hear from me. She supported all my endeavors. She shared my vision. She would say things to me like, “I want more of your voice in the world.” With her loving-kindness and devoted attention, my mother held a mirror up to my life that reflected back the best of who I could be, and did not dwell on my obvious shortcomings. Driving home after a week with Mom and Dad over the holidays, Kerry would sometimes need to remind me that I wasn’t entirely the person my mom thought I was.
None of us are entirely the person we wish we could be, but we all need people who decide to keep showing us the best of what we still might be. For me, that person was my mother and I now know that she was that person for many of you as well.
Many people mistook this quality of my mother’s for sweetness or naiveté. It was not. Mom had lived through enough in her lifetime that she had every right to be jaded. No one could have blamed her if she’d decided to lower her expectations for the world. She could be petty or jealous or insecure or angry like any of us. What we experienced as her reflexive instinct for love and loyalty wasn’t some miraculous gift. It was a quality she cultivated, practiced, and chose, over and over again.
One of the elements of Mom’s personality that made this possible was her humility. She was a working-class, Irish Catholic girl born in Boston the 1940s. School didn’t come easy. She didn’t grow up hearing how smart she was and, as a result, she always assumed she had something to learn from everyone she met. People sensed this about her, that she wasn’t condescending to them or looking down her nose at them. She knew what it was to be underestimated, and as a result she had a special love for those the world counts out.
She ended up with two children who numbered among those the world counts out. A gay son and a developmentally delayed daughter. And heaven help you if you ever came for one of her children. Then you saw how tough she could be. But still, Mom’s toughness wasn’t what the world calls tough. Mom’s toughness was a refusal to remain silent about the violence carried out against the bodies and souls of children, children from all walks of life, vulnerable children like her own children, vulnerable like she had also been. Mom’s toughness was a doubling down on the power of relationships. She would enter the fray equipped with pictures of me and Tara and say, “I’ve heard what you say about gay people,” or “I understand you intend to cut funding to people living with disabilities and chronic illnesses,” and then “I’d like to tell you about my family.” Mom refused to return violence for violence. Instead, Mom opted for the love that does not give up on anyone, even those who have given up on you, or those who have given up on themselves.
Mom did not give up. Even when she learned that she had Stage 4 ovarian cancer, she chose to continue living, each day of her life a decision to be fully alive on her own terms. One of the first things she told us after she got diagnosed was that she didn’t want people to talk about “fighting” cancer, or “beating” cancer. She said, “my body is not a battlefield” and “if this is how I die, it will not be a failure.” She actively pursued healing and health. Even in her last days of life as she lay upon her deathbed, we marveled at how she extended her arms and legs, stretching her aching body like a dancer preparing to take the stage.
It’s only been three days, and already I miss her so much. I miss the feeling of her arms around me, giving the hugs only your mom knows how to give. And I miss her voice. It’s been years since I’ve heard her voice at full strength, a voice that was at once pure in tone and full of emotion. Even as she grew weak, the music in my mother remained strong. She would go for walks in the morning, and by afternoon I’d have a voicemail or text message with an audio file of a song that had come to her as she traveled the paths around our home. She was made of music. The world needs more of her voice.
Thankfully, the world is full of people she taught to sing: infants and children in Kindermusik, fellow choir members, labyrinth walkers, Spirations sisters, neighbors and strangers, family and friends. Her song, her voice, is in us. We can cultivate it. We can practice it. We can choose it again and again. It is love, stronger than death.
We love you, Mom.