Sharing my life and love of cross stitch. Thoughts about this and that.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Surprisingly Not Sad Memories of Mom's Visitation and Funeral - Memories of Mom

[Please excuse my need to document these things, for myself if for no one else. Writing is how I end up working through many issues in my life.]
Mom, January 2011
My mother, Helen Dorrace Taylor McMillen, was 84, almost 85, and she and Dad had been married 64 years when she died on Monday, June 27th. We genuinely expected Mother to outlive almost all of us, her children. The same was Dad's hope for himself. He once told me, as he sobbed during a previous serious medical event in her more recent years, that he hoped he'd go first because he didn't know what he would ever do without her. We all fully expected Mom to be there for us, and for us to care for when it came time, well into her 90's at least, maybe past 100, and that we or others coming after us would gratefully and joyfully celebrate my mother's amazing resilience to serious ills and the infirmities of advancing age. All these she viewed as inconveniences, which she quietly and gently accepted with little complaint, deeming them each just a part of life. We also truly anticipated that we would have the many opportunities to celebrate and toast my parents' 65th and 70th and 75th, maybe even their 80th anniversary, next year and in the many years we realistically expected for her ahead.
We, or at least I,  may celebrate them in remembrance of my mother anyway.
Photo: My brother, a professional musician/arranger/etc from LA, on trombone with my great-nephews (1st cousins - each a son of one of my sister's twin sons) playing Jim's overnight sort of  New Orleans jazz-style arrangement of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" at Mother's brief graveside service Tuesday, July 5th. Reed, age 12 and already very musical in his own right, (far right) has only been playing horn for 9 months but was likely note perfect. Travis (16) has played longer but not really that interested in it so far, played just as well, both despite little time to practice - especially together with their Uncle Jim. Surprisingly, but not really, it was my brother who had the hardest time - difficult to sing or to play with choked up throat through rolling tears. This was the boys first non-school  performance and experience playing with a real professional. We were very proud of each and all. Their efforts were wonderful and meaningful to us all. Thank you, gentlemen. The family is so proud and appreciative. Mom / GGMom would have loved it.  Photo by one of the Moms.
"Never leave anything unsaid," Mom told us through the years as her family and friends her passed on, and out of the blue as well. I would add "nor unasked." I wish there was little left unsaid, but really there was and will always be. I wish Mother had broken through our thick skulls by confiding or at least more broadly and openly hinted or simply told us if she had a premonition her days were more numbered than we believed and so wanted. Though she had not bothered with a photo for the Church directory for years, she made a point to get the one above taken earlier this year. Dad doesn't think it looks like her. He prefers the one from just a few years ago where she's openly laughing and her eyes are lit up with an inner glow of mirth; the one of his young wife in a pensive mood; the one in which where she's looking lovingly down on my then 2 or 3 months-old baby brother, the same Jim as above, unsteadily holding up his head and staring "huh?" at the world from where she held him over her shoulder; the snapshots with her face full of delight and love for him and her children. 
"Linda, I'm not sure I'll ever finish these quilts." "Sure you will," I answered brightly only 2-1/2 weeks ago. I hadn't understood, and it didn't occur to me to ask why she would say that at that moment. "Betty, I won't leave the hospital," she struggled to say. "Yes, you will, Mom, Every one is working very hard to help you get well so we can make sure you get home," the night before and again in the early morning before she died. We now realize that Mom knew long before we understood and had accepted she never could nor would. Never again to go back to her bricks and cedar home just down the hill. Betty, bless her, told me later that when she had said "home" she also meant Mom's heavenly one. Thank you, Betty. I was too wrapped up in my own disbelief and dismay and probably denial to think that clearly. I think Mom knew. Although Mom in recent years often plopped herself on the arm of Dad's recliner and told him how lucky they were to have had so many years together, he later told us that only 2 or 3 days before her final trip to the ER that she had slid on down into his lap (something she had rarely ever done), wrapped her arms around his neck and told him how much she loved him and how much she had appreciated their long life together and for their family. Dad says he now believes she had a premonition. Perhaps that was her gentle way of trying to help him prepare and was telling him those things she wanted him most and always to remember. But there are so many things she didn't say that I wished I had simply asked her about in recent years and months and weeks and days. Perhaps, maybe, some day or year or millennia, however it is time or nontime or non-linear time works on the other side, I and we will all get those eternal opportunities to speak again of all those things probably left unsaid after all and ask all those unasked questions just to hear her answers.
More Words of Wisdom:
 "Don't simply give up, ever. You're too important and worth more than that, you know." I wish I believed in me as much as she always ALWAYS did. I wish you were here right now to tell me that yet again, Mom.
"Linda, change the things you have control over and can change. Accept the things you cannot and move on." Her constant mantra to me as well, the person who almost never accepts anything gently nor quietly nor usually without a lot of complaining nor struggle nor occasional real fear, and often gets bogged down in the details and memories. I wish I had listened better and tried harder and inherited more of her can-do no- matter-what-the-odds spirit. I do try and Mom, I promise I will keep trying to live up to your simple philosophy of life, your hopes and your many many prayers for me. Maybe if * I * live long enough there's still hope for me yet. 
Hi, Mom. I'm working to accept your death and will do my best to move on with my life to honor you. It's hard, you know.
"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." I do try but I am nowhere near perfect on that one.
"Fools names and fools faces always appear in public places." Gotcha. That one took - permanently.
Mother never swore. She said nothing at all or maybe "Fiddle-dee-dee" or "Fiddlesticks," and when really frustrated the occasional "Dern" or "Darn It." Those were as far as she would go, and promptly chastised us if we said anything more brazen in her presence as well. 
So many other wonderful Mom and family memories. Her 100 or more typed-pages memoir, I've Had a Good Life, written a decade ago while she still retained her wonderful memories in vivid detail, printed and bound by Dad, is a treasure for us all. Maybe we should start adding our memories of her as addendum to that. But that would make it our book, not hers, wouldn't it? So maybe not.
Visitation - Sunday, July 3rd: I absolutely dreaded it but was determined to plow through as best I could. Mom would expect that of me and of us. I wasn't about to disappoint her or them. It's been a long time since I was comfortable or brave enough to venture to one. I've always felt awkward and never knew what to say to a grieving family, almost none of whom I had previously met, if any. Turns out that doesn't matter. One's mere presence and fumbled words, no matter how brief nor how few, are meaningful to family and other friends in and of themselves. And the open casket, which always seemed somewhat morbid to me, was not morbid nor constantly overwhelming nor necessarily sad at all. We knew she wasn't in it and that was a happy thought. My mother had a deep and abiding faith and had no fear of death, so neither should I for her. I'm still a work in progress re myself on that, Mom. Seeing the quiet peaceful body, which in this life was my Mother's, did bring momentary hard tears but then almost as quickly fond memories of our too short time together. And it gave me another opportunity to see her as she almost really was, much less upsetting than her days and hours in the hospital (that for some reason I want to remember, too) another opportunity to tell her I loved her and to say goodbye one more time. 
It surprised me that I took great comfort and felt a loving peace and could even smile knowing her body would be in the white casket with pink liner which she had picked out for herself almost 20 years ago, the one in which she was to be buried in the spot that she and Dad had selected in the almost-just-across-the-street-from-home cemetery (even if the essence of the person I knew as my Mother wasn't really inside or there), on the side of a small hill overlooking the trees and shrubs and landscaped lawn and flower beds surrounding a beautiful pond with fountain below, in the section designated by a large white statue of praying hands, which in winter we'll likely be able to see at a short distance away as we turn off of or on to the street where she lived for the past 50 years. Knowing that would be her resting place, I've been concerned for a long time that as I drove by I would burst into tears and would have to drive a different route. Instead, I think maybe I will smile knowing at least her body is so close, and maybe from time to time her spirit will be, too - our Guardian Angel looking down on us from a terrace looking out from the small hill above.
We had asked for charitable donations rather than flowers, but I had received an very nice arrangement from the local Ham Radio Club I belong to (quite unexpected), a couple of peace lilies from my sister's employer and in-laws, a basket of indoor plants (??) that Dad will be able to take care of, and later a beautiful arrangement of pink gladiolas and large white lilies sent by a long time volunteer co-worker and friend who could not be at either visitation nor funeral. Though not expected, I was happy there were even those few after all. The casket piece was beautiful with a variety of colorful flowers and fillers, though overall color scheme and flower types looked similar to but only somewhat like the bright-flowered pictured selection. To be honest, I personally preferred the slightly gentler look. Or maybe my memory is just way off on that. It is dealing with a whole lot of more important things at present. Visitation included Dad and each and all of Mother's three generations of decedents (3 children, 3 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren). A variety of people dropped by: her or our old or current friends and neighbors, acquaintances from her 50-year church membership (most of that time anyway) along with several who knew her from the even greater number of years she's been involved in volunteer activities. Individuals she's been out of contact with for decades came to offer their condolences, too. But that was okay. I realized it meant they remembered her, or us, fondly still after all this time. Mom's nephew, his wife and his daughter drove the 5 something hours from Tulsa despite the fact my 66-year-old cousin, Bill, is on round 3 of chemo and very very ill. I'd asked them not to risk his fragile health, but he insisted on coming to honor his Aunt Helen. It had been many years since I've seen him. He's almost the age that Mom's father was when he passed,. Though it's been 46 years, Bill looks so much like the Pa I remember and loved, I spontaneously exclaimed so without thinking. Hugging him was hugging all those memories of my long-ago-deceased grandparents. Bill's sister, my cousin Janet, wanted to make the almost 10-hours drive from southern Louisiana, but she's also undergoing chemo (breast cancer). We so appreciated just her desire to be here for her Aunt Helen. Perhaps when she gets past these first medically difficult months, she'll be able to visit later.
It was strange. Or maybe my brain and emotions were on hold. There was this beautiful, if slightly frail woman laying in a casket dressed in my mother's clothes who at first and occasionally thereafter, from the corner of my eye and sometimes in plain sight, appeared to be breathing who looked so very like my mother - but wasn't. Except for a moment's hesitation as I first entered the room and approached her and specific moments of sudden tears when a memory suddenly crossed my mind, I didn't feel really that overwhelmingly sad about it. In fact, more often I smiled (that was MY mother) and whispered to her from time to time hoping, I guess, that she was somewhere nearby and watching and might answer. Mom, am I weird or  just plain nuts or something? I asked if she was proud of how we were handling her unexpected passing as a loving and cohesive family and to please help us each as she could in the coming days and years. I love you so much, Mom.
Shortly after the end of the visitation period and followed by my cousin 
Bill's family, we drove the block or so home, anticipating but not knowing if anyone else would then drop by the house - and were relieved no one did, particularly as one of my nephew's wives took a turn and passed out in Mom's sewing room. Having eaten an hour or so before, her blood sugar, which I tested immediately, was much lower than it probably should have been. A full-strength soda helped and she seemed okay to go home 30 minutes minutes later. I hope that's all it is.
My Dad, who has primarily lived alone with Mother for the past 30 years (except for brief stays by one of us kids or grand-kids in temporary transition - which I'm sure grated on his nerves), has had great difficulty physically and emotionally dealing with all the people and activity that has surrounded him this past week. I asked Dad at some point in the past few days if he had ever lived alone? Sure, the US Air Corp during WWII. But Dad, you were in the barracks surrounded by other young men. Oh, that's right. He had already moved back in with his parents and was living at home when discharged. A few months later he met (on April Fools Day), got engaged (on Halloween) and married Mom (a week before Valentine's), then they moved in together in the same boarding house where my mother had been living. I was their Christmas baby, then came Betty, and many years later, Jim. The only times Dad has live alone, if it could be called that, during the past 86 of his years were the occasional month or longer periods he was in a motel while doing oil field experiments in California or Canada more than 30 years ago. Not quite the same, is it? When my brother and wife leave the back bedroom to return to LA tomorrow after their extended visit, Dad will be truly be alone for the first time in his life; for the first time in Mom and Dad's now 50-year-old house; the house he alone designed and had built for Mom and us kids; the home they created around and for us. I know it will be very very difficult for him.
Formal services at her church - 10 a.m., Tuesday, July 5th: The minister opened with a prayer. She'd been provided a copy and had read Mother's entire book of memories. She spoke of Mom's life from Mom's own perspective and often in Mom's own words. It was so thoughtful that she took the time to read and get to know Mom. Dr. Katie had assumed the ministry of the church only 2 or 3 weeks before Mom's even then infrequent attendance had ended, though Mom had continued participating in CWF when she felt well enough and probably knew her there. It was an honor and very moving that she had taken her weekend and holiday to read Mom's book and prepare her words. Jim and I then each spoke of our Memories of Mother. At one point he even sang a verse of the lullaby (Tura-Lura-Lura) which she'd sung to us every day before each nap and at bedtime from the time we were born, which we've since sung to our children, then grandchildren as they came. Because we have, he said it was, therefore, a piece of my Mom still lives in each of us, her descendants (a continuing theme in his presentation). There are MANY pieces of Mom and her Mom and Dad, and their parents and so on inside each of us. My fuzzy, sleep-deprived, foggy brain initially couldn't think of anything I might say until the wee hours just before that dawn when everything suddenly went crystal clear and resulted in 7 pages of single-spaced typed prose and/or bullet-points (some over-lap between them) More thought and attempts at editing, as you can guess by now, only made 2 pages turn into 4, then 6 and and finally 7, which, of course I knew, had to be severely edited down to only the most important thoughts. In the meantime I had to get SOME sleep before the funeral - 2 hours would have to suffice. I got to Dad's house just before everyone left for the church. Jim and I made sure we were in the same car, where he quickly skimmed my pages in the 2 minute trip to the church. Half or more of it had to go. With his keen insight and input and using the thick black marker he'd grabbed off the kitchen counter for that purpose, together we managed in 3 or less editorially brutal minutes, sitting there in the front row of sanctuary chairs (no pews) right in front of Mom's open casket with people starting to mill around us, to do so. It was absolutely necessary. Once started, absent black redacts for me and notes to himself to limit his personal remarks, both Jim and I could and would probably have talked on and on for hours and hours about our Mom. His remarks were much longer, more humorous at times (as is his natural state of being, despite the fact he is incredibly introspective and serious at other times) and more emotional than mine. I read. He had notes, but was often extemporaneous. At one point he even sang the first verse of  "Over in Killarny" (Tura-Lura-Lura) following that up with the comment that until a week ago he didn't realize what the lyrics, "I wish that I could hear her sing that song to me today ..., " had actually meant, and that Mom's songs and lullabys would live on and carry though us as well. A comforting thought. Since she never sought praise nor the spotlight for anything she did or accomplished, I suspect Mom was quite relieved that we kept our Memories of Mom down to maybe 3 or 4 minutes for me (I spoke slowly) and perhaps 10 to 15 for Jim. Momma, can you hear us? Momma, did you hear us?
I'll share those other memories elsewhere, even if only for myself and for you.
My daughter followed with an emotional, tear-filled reading from "There's No Such Place as Far Away" and her husband sang "How Great Thou Art," equally tear-filled and difficult for him to get through. Though he'd sung solo in church many, many times, it was his first funeral. He confided in advance that he so wished it wasn't for someone he loved so much. He's known Mom for less than 2 years and the depth of his emotion surprised and made me feel so much closer to him at the same time. The minister's Bible passage reading and homily that initially left us wondering what that had to do with death, was wrapped up with (a close paraphrase): "As Jesus took time out of his busy last [as it turned out] day to visit his disciple's very ill mother-in-law, take her hand and heal her, so, too, can you all be assured that admist all the strife and grief and joy in the world, He took the time to be beside Helen, held her hand, healed and lead her into God's kingdom." Ah, yes, He would do just that, wouldn't He?
It's been many years since I've attended any funeral because they often upset me greatly (memories, I suppose, of the passage of all of grandparents by the time I was 20, and the related generations above me). But this was peaceful and very meaningful. Smiles and quiet chuckles as Jim and I spoke were wonderful to see and hear.  I hope Mom was there and saw and heard as well. I truly appreciated each and everyone who came, whether they stayed to express their condolences and said nice things about our Mother, or not. In my remarks, I had described Mom as a "compassionate pragmatist."  As she had told us many times over many years, and quoted by Jim in his remarks, "Funerals are for the living; the dead have no need for one."  Yes, yes she was a compassionate pragmatist, along with many mary other things as well. Perhaps I will attend more funerals for those I knew or were loved by my friends and acquaintances. At my age, those will be more and more of a certainty.
On to the Cemetery: After the short receiving gathering, which sort of started out as a "line" but quickly became clump, my final last goodbye knowing it would be the very last time I ever see her again - but only for now I truly hope, the closure of her casket (which I am glad I didn't see - too much, that would probably have too much for me), casket was rolled outside and the pall-bearers (Mom's 2 grandsons, 2 of her great-grandsons, my brother-in-law, and my son-in-law) lifted it into the hearse, and they then rejoined their respective families in their respective cars. As each vehicle was occupied by family members or neighbor or friend, each left the church parking lot personal vehicle by personal vehicle to drive the 5 short blocks to the near-graveside location in the cemetery. The intent had been so my brother and his young trumpeteers could set up and be ready to play as the hearse and other mourners arrived. Shortly after we had all left one by one, the Funeral Director's car and the hearse followed on their own. I wondered of coming in absolutely last rather than leading a procession behind was a first for them? Not exactly as anticipated, but it worked just fine for us. We'd advised them in advance: no family cars, no formal procession and no escort necessary.
After all arrived, pall bearers moved casket to a metal dias under the typical canvas shade, and the Brass Trio finished their tribute and joined us across the roadway. Some of us sat for the very brief ceremony under the stifling canopy, which consisted simply of a final prayer and minister's shaking of hands and brief condolence to each of us. For those that wanted to and/or had not seen the exact location of Mother's plot, it was a short walk to the actual grave site where we stood a few moments, each in our own thoughts under the scorching Texas sun. This brief but meaningful ceremony was followed immediately by a fried chicken lunch for family and friends back at the church, prepared with love by three of mother's long-time church friends. 
Overall, it was as nonformal as a formal funeral could be without being considered informal (if you understand what I mean), and we believe just as personal, meaningful and non-fussy as as Mother would have wanted.
It was very odd. Because her grave is in some sort of underground 2-vault-deep mausoleum that sits 4' below ground level at the top, it was very deep. My brother later commented that seeing it and understanding it was for "eternity" (to which I added "or for at least a few hundred or thousands of years" - the earth and the sun and the universe having their own cycles of life and death and rebirth that will profoundly affect and change all on this small planet - I tend to think on the really long term), [he continued:] "... looking into that permanent pit was a good recommendation to opt for cremation instead. He has a weird sense of humor and often uses such to express his innermost thoughts at times. I also recognized the attempt to handle is own grief. 
Though Dad's name is already on the marker which comes with the gravesite, he will be cremated and scattered elsewhere. Although I really really want at least some bit of my atoms and molecules shot into space to rejoin the dust that has created everything so far and maybe some scattered and recycled into new life here, I also don't want Mom to be alone by herself in that deep hole in the ground and would rest there with her until some hopeful future judgment day or until the end of the world. I don't know if that even matters to anyone but me. 
That may have been the body she had in this life, but the person and the soul that is or was my mother is not really in that grave. I think at times I almost see or feel her - or so wish she is still -  sitting in the passenger seat beside me and find myself spontaneously talking to her as I have when she's ridden with me in the past, and as I have here. It's very odd. I know she's gone, that she has passed on and is buried, that she is somewhere better than here, with God and her family I trust, and I am very strangely and quiet unexpectedly so far okay with that. Maybe I'm still numb and dealing with this a tiny bit at a time and later I will feel differently and suffer the throes of the despair that is loss. And when I think of the next time I need to call her about something family or stitchy or about the progress on her quilts or to just hear her voice or really need for someone to just listen to me ramble on and on or for advice I can't go to anyone else about or for her to remind me of the words to a song or lullabye she used to sing to me or hear her words of simple wisdom or for to give my Mother a gentle hug just because and for her to return her gentle kiss on my cheek but then realize she can never and will never again  be physically there .... I am going to be very very sad and it's going to really really hard.
Somehow, Mom's favorite hymn, "In the Garden," the one she wanted sung at her funeral, wasn't. I don't know how that was missed by the minister or us before the funeral. Other things on our mind, I guess. I think the pianist played it somewhere in there as background music, but that wasn't the same, of course. There was some other hymn listed in the program which I'd heard before but was not meaningful to me, nor to any of us I suspect. I wish now I had just spoken up right then and there and asked to add "In the Gardent" just for Mom. Or had noticed it was missing and asked it be sung instead rather than edit my remarks before hand. Jim had arranged it for him and the boys and planned to play it at the cemetery, but since we all arrived at once, he chose not to, in good part because their short rehersals had not gone as well as he'd expected. 
Back Home: So after we got back to the house (only 4 blocks north of the church - the cemetery beginning at the end of my parent's street), we persuaded Jim and now reluctant pre-teen and teen, to stand on the shady back patio and play for us again. With all gathered close round, cameras and cell phones recording sound and picture, they did just that. Mom finally got her "In the Garden" played very, very well, and as Jim remarked, far improved from their  earlier rehearsal. "Amazing how well terror-induced adrenalin can enhance one's performance skills," he quipped in typical Jim fashion.  On behalf of our mother and great-grandmother, Thank you so much, guys. I love you, Jim.
More Thank You's: We, individually and as a family, are so appreciative for the many things the minister and church members, neighbors, relatives, friends and the funeral home employees have done for and with us during this difficult time, as well as for the family and friends who visited or attended, the persons who could only send cards, for each one who has expressed their memories of and love for Mother as well. And I also thank each of you, my stitching friends, who have taken the time to skim or read these lengthy posts this past two weeks, and for your kind comments and support. I'll need that for a long time to come.

1 comment:

Randy Seaver said...

Thank you for sharing, Linda. I'm glad that you and your family are sharing your thoughts and memories.

Your post tells a reader so much about your mother, you, and your loved ones, and it is all good!

May Helen rest in peace.

{{{{Hugs}}}} Randy