If you missed the first post, it’s here. This was written ten years ago, just after she died.
I held Mom for a while even after her life functions had stopped. It was like I was trying to squeeze the last juice out of an orange. Finally Aran just sorta took my shoulder and was like, “dude, come here,” and we both hugged and cried for a while.
I stood at the window, realizing that this was the worst day of my life, one that I had anticipated for a while. I watched the Bay, the sailboats, the bridge. I have always liked that line from Broadcast News where William Hurt says “I’m tired of feeling bad because I don’t feel worse.” I’ve had a feeling where I see myself as though from my astral form, an alienated character in a movie where the lead is supposed to be feeling more than I do. But this wasn’t that. This was the real thing; this was the beginning and the end; this was what our Big One is supposed to be.
Out the window, I saw my family friends, Ginny and Donald and Lizzie, approaching. They had missed Mom by maybe ten minutes. Ginny’s jaw dropped. Lizzie’s eyes were full of tears. I appreciated that, somehow. I knew everyone was looking at me, and I didn’t really know how I looked. I also didn’t really care.
Alison came a couple of minutes later. She was a wreck, eyes and face blubbering. Mom only met her a couple of years ago, as part of a breast cancer survivor group. It sorta amazed me that Alison let herself become so attached to Mom. Beyond all other people I met, Alison was bitterly cynical about breast cancer and doctors’ ability to treat it. Ginny didn’t quite seem remorseful enough, but her can-do East Coast-ness wasn’t entirely unwelcome.
The nurse came in and had me sign some forms. I didn’t even read them. That’s how they get you, I guess. She also asked if we wanted a minister. I said, sure. After she left I mused that anything is fine, a rabbi would be fine too. I mentioned that I had noticed that one had just started working there a few days ago. Next thing I know, Alison left to ask about it. Aran said he had to go home. I didn’t appreciate that, but whatever. He left. After 15 minutes we asked about the delay, and the nurse said they were looking for a rabbi. I told her I didn’t care, just send whoever. Sure enough they did. They sent a young blonde who’s probably younger than me. She immediately went to this sort of cloying empathy with me, this psychiatric tone of voice about what I wanted. I found her somewhat repellent. I asked her how long she’d lived in Berkeley. She said a year. I asked if she was a student, she said yes, I asked if she was at GTU (in Jay’s program), she looked a little surprised and said yes. So I had her number. Now I guess I could let her own this moment in her own way. She asked about my mother’s spirituality, and I somehow knew that this girl was Catholic. More considerately than I really wanted to be, I told her the abbreviated version of my mother’s experience with Catholicism. Anyway as it turned out she gave a very nice blessing over Mom’s deathbed, with a salient quote from St. Francis of Assisi. They did name the city after the man; it was appropriate.
Of course, Ginny offered dinner and bed. I told her I would take her up on it. I still had to wait for my friend Lucas to arrive. I could have called, but I couldn’t. He was supposed to come at 5. By 5:10, waiting for him in the room with my mother’s warm corpse had become a bit agonizing. I called him at about 5:20 and asked him where he was. He said that he was right outside. I said, trying not to sound like an ass, when you say right outside, do you mean…? He waved his sweater and I saw him. I told him that he was too late. Mom was dead. There was no way for him to know. When we’d spoken that morning there was every reason to think she’d live a week or more. He said “that’s bunk” and came on up. Lucas insisted on coming with us to Ginny’s house. I love Lucas without reservations, and that was nice of him.
I walked outside Alta Bates hospital and first felt the sun’s warmth without my mother being alive. Two ten-year-old kids crossed our path, walking down the street, chatting and laughing, dribbling a basketball. I thought: even though a part of me wants the world to stop, a much larger part of me loves these two kids. They are life. People should be enjoying their life all the time. If Mom’s life meant anything, it was that.
Lizzie drove my car, which was a little disconcerting. I was being thrust into this mode where anyone would do anything for me. I didn’t want people to fuss; on the other hand, it was kind of nice. I called Dad, because one, I knew he’d be bent out of shape if I didn’t, and two, I wouldn’t have to talk to him for too long. I had an excuse for just about any behavior at this point. I told him very simply, and I knew he’d say, how long ago, and when I said, a couple of hours, that would be that, and it was. I told him I had to go, and he was the first to say, “If you need anything at all, please call, anything…” I would hear those words more than 100 times. It’s cool. On the other hand, I’m never gonna call.
Willie called, randomly. I had Lucas tell him the news. Lucas and Willie are my two friends that have also lost their mothers – way too soon. Willie called back a minute later to ask me something. I got on the phone with him. He said, do I want him to call and tell everyone? I said, okay.
We arrived at Ginny and Donald’s house. It was like I had just come back from the Iraq war; I could do no wrong, and I was waited on hand and foot. When I asked if anyone minded if I used my cell, they didn’t. I called Maureen. She sounded like someone had punched her. “Oh Daniel! Oh Daniel!” She was crying immediately. And that brought on a new round of waterworks from me. I said, “I know. I know.” She would tell her Mom, of course, and Colleen. I also called Valerie. She asked if I wanted her to come up. I said no, at least not yet. I could not really fathom what the next step was going to be.
We sat on Ginny’s balcony, sipping tea, with a truly panoramic view of the Bay Area – from San Jose to San Pablo Bay as the sun sets behind the Golden Gate Bridge. How could Mom go to heaven when she was already there? I realized where Mom’s ceremony would need to be – in the same place where Valerie and I had obliquely discussed marrying – the Berkeley Rose Garden. I also realized that I had to be the one to come up with the idea. I smiled that Ginny had let that process happen. I suggested it, and everyone agreed. How could they not? My phone rang a bit, but I stopped answering it, with the exception of my uncle Jim, who is now the last of my grandmother’s six kids. I did call my boss’s cell to tell him that I wouldn’t be in for at least a week; that my mother was dead. He kept saying “No way!” He told me to take as much time as I needed.
I asked Lucas what it was like to lose his mother. He said that I’m going to go through everything. There were times when he was angry at his mother and he would stop himself; “why am I angry at Mom?” He told me to just do whatever I wanted, all the time, from now on. I could not possibly be inconsiderate or rude. Don’t let anyone tell me different. In fact that turned out to be the exact same thing that a lot of people would tell me over the next few days.
Lucas went home at the end of the evening, around 11. I got into Andrew’s old bed, Lizzie got into hers. I woke up after an hour or so; it was maybe 1. I couldn’t sleep. I went out to the living room, looked out across the patio out into the tranquil Bay and City at night. I went back to Lizzie’s door, which she had left ajar. I opened it just a little and listened to her breathe for about five minutes. I felt myself relax. Life goes on, in some way. I got back into Andrew’s bed.
The next day I listened to messages. Colleen left a wonderful message that really touched me with how choked-up she was. She said she’d be flying out from DC at once. Daniel said “I am SO FUCKING sorry…” The profanity seemed atonal. I called him back. He said he was booking a flight and coming up the next day. I asked why. He said he would take care of everything that had to be done that I didn’t feel like doing. Valerie had probably meant to make the same offer. I wasn’t ready for her then, but I felt ready for Daniel now. He said he had Tuesday and Wednesday free. I called Valerie and told her if she wanted to come up Wednesday that would be great. It worked better for her schedule anyway. On that Monday Lizzie and I went to the movies; we paid for one and saw three. Sneaking pictures is part of my grieving process. I don’t remember which ones we saw; I do remember holding her hand and arm for the third one. That felt nice. It seemed like dozens of people were calling; I mostly didn’t answer.
The next day I started dealing with issues. More accurately, I had Daniel dealing with them. We met with my lawyer and we met with the Neptune Society to deal with Mom’s remains. (That eventually cost about $2000, which I understand is cheap.) There were a million other issues. We had to cancel the new voice mail, we had to return the $1000 medical chair that Mom had purchased on Saturday, we had to deal with Mom’s renters, we had to figure out property management. Everyone wanted to know if I would sell or rent furnished or rent unfurnished. Above all else we had to deal with Mom’s memorial service, which I scheduled for noon on Saturday. No matter what time I set it, someone wouldn’t be able to come, so I just played the odds. I asked Rachel and Rebecca to take care of the literature. I assigned other people various roles. I had to deal with the City of Berkeley and a chair-and-table party company. Setting up the 150 white chairs and four white tables in the Rose Garden’s little amphitheater would eventually cost around $900.
The house was filling with flowers. Starting Wednesday and continuing for the next few days, a cadre of women emerged to help me with all of Mom’s stuff. That was a blessing. I really didn’t want to deal with any of it. Mom’s old friend Nancy arrived from Florida, and Rosemary came over as well. All of the old network arrived from the woodwork. Rachel and Rebecca and Almira helped out. We all found some strange, unexpected things that I won’t detail on this public forum. Two enormous piles developed in the garage: the Dump pile and the Donate pile. I could have garage-saled or craigslisted the Dump, but I was in no mood for either. Valerie arrived that Wednesday evening. I slept with her in Mom’s former bed. That felt pretty strange.
On Thursday, I got the news that Maureen had tracked down our long-lost cousin Mike. He didn’t call her back so I called and talked him into coming to the service. Dad told me he wanted to come to the house and go with me to the service. I would promise no such thing. But I wound up doing it with Mike anyway.
Danny came up on Thursday. His presence had been difficult to arrange, because he lives in a remote Zen center in Tassajara. I don’t know if it was the fact that I had called him weeks before to ask him to talk to Mom about being on chemo, or the fact that I asked him to sing at Mom’s service, but he found a way to get to my house that Thursday, and he spent much of the next two days excavating Mom’s basement.
It would not be accurate to say that I never answered the phone. I did. But people who leave their caller ID unblocked were far more likely to actually get me when they called. I had Valerie pick up where Daniel left off, mostly making phone calls. It was emotionally draining for me to contact certain people whom I knew would never learn the news unless I (or Valerie) told them. I had to call Bill, Debra, Laura, Kevin, and others. I carried Mom’s address books with me wherever I went. I would say to a machine, “I don’t know how to say this, but my mother has died. The service is this Saturday at noon in the Berkeley Rose Garden. Call me back.” They always did, pretty quickly. People always wanted to know how she died, and I hated to say that I wasn’t even sure. Many people had many opinions, and everyone meant well. Oh you have to rent to such and such a person. Oh you need to give her clothes to this place that specializes in poor women. (We tried, but those places don’t want dresses.) Someone did give me the good idea of having an envelope for Breast Cancer Action (San Francisco), the place that Mom believed in, because they refuse contributions from any company that uses any cancerous toxins (www.bcaction.org).
My old friend Andrea, who lost her father two years ago, gave me the best advice of anyone. I pointed out that every single person I spoke with told me that they would do anything for me. She told me what to tell them: check in with me in a few months out of the clear blue sky.
The tribes were gathering. Colleen came in from DC. Matt would come down from Seattle. Cialin would come from Oregon. Jim and Julie and Brian would come up from Irvine. And I also smiled at the thought of the arrival of many of my LA friends, including Anton, Snowden, Chris, Kieron, Erica, and both Daniels (not me).
On Friday, while Rosemary and Nancy cleaned, I mostly hung out with Valerie, Maureen and Colleen. I took the three of them up to the Rose Garden, which is about a block-and-a-half walk from Mom’s house. The service would be at the Garden; the post-service gathering would be at Mom’s. Valerie was already working with Larry to get the catered food there. We moved around the furniture to accommodate all the guests. Anyway, I could see that the three girls were happy to get a sneak preview of what the ceremony would be like. I tried to get my cousins to take as much of Mom’s stuff as they would. They said they felt like vultures. I told them that it’s either them or the Salvation Army; why not keep stuff in the family? I also told them that I’ve now written a new will, and they get Mom’s house if I suddenly die. Not sure how they felt about that.
Other random friends of my mother showed up, to connect with me. I could hardly blame people for wanting a piece of me; I’m all that’s left of Mom. Maureen and Colleen went home before nightfall. Carol and her husband and her son Seth came over for a dinner to celebrate my Mom. That was very pleasant.
Late that night, after many machinations, my cousin Mike showed up. He unloaded about five duffel bags’ worth of stuff into my house. He mentioned a few things about his life that broke my heart, and I could only guess how much more he wasn’t telling me. Mike was letting his life fall through the cracks, and it was killing me, but there was nothing I could do right then.
On Saturday, July 2, Live 8 day, I woke up and dressed in a very nice green collared shirt and suit pants. Some people had asked me how I would dress. Valerie lingered behind to help Larry lay out the catering; then she came over to the service. As I mentioned before, I walked up with Mike. By the time I arrived, Lucas and Willie had been there for a while. They were doing the unsung, underappreciated work of setup. At the last minute, Lucas needed some extra Velcro for the body of the podium; I realized that I needed to bring some extra framed photos of Mom, and did. Rachel and Rebecca ostensibly greeted people, although they were neither thorough nor necessary. They had made the guestbook and one-sheets, and those were big hits with everyone including me. The one-sheet was really just photos of Mom, with these words written around them: “A Light on the Planet • Mother • Leader • Hugger • Thinker • Supporter • Sister • Activist • Believer • Artist • Warrior • Naturalist • Chocolate Lover • Woman of Joy • Adventurer”. On the back (or front?) was her bumper sticker: Don’t Postpone Joy. Indeed. I eschewed the idea of a formal program, because I didn’t feel that Mom would have wanted something that structured. It was all in my head, although I told every scheduled speaker who they were following.
Almost everyone who was anyone to me was there. All 150 chairs were taken, and maybe about 50 other people stood around. Everyone waited to say hi to me. It was like my wedding, although I hated that thought – not fair to have this happen before my wedding. One stunning moment was when my uncle Jim arrived, bawling behind his sunglasses. We hugged for a minute; I felt everyone’s eyes watching us. This loss belonged to the two of us, more than to anyone else. I could have had Jim help me with all the various planning, but I knew he wouldn’t want to do it. (I ran a few things by him anyway.) Jim had always maintained a real detachment from our family’s emotional issues; if someone got serious, he would bring it back to happy. That’s what was so crazy about seeing him so sorrowful right then, for the first time. I had already thought for about a year that there wasn’t really any more maturing for me to do as an adult; it’s not like I should think that I will know more later, this is life, this is it, and I know as much as anyone (besides people who have focused on specific disciplines). That hug was the final end of innocence, perhaps for both of us.
We took a few pre-service photos of all the cousins, well, except Aran, who didn’t manage to get there on time. It was still unprecedented to have me, Maureen, Colleen, Mike, Brian, and even Norine (Mike’s sister) together in a picture. Norine was quite a coup; I’m glad that she was willing to see the family at least in this case. Aran managed to get there before it was over, so we took some photos with him at the end. I sat between Maureen and Colleen, per my request, holding their hands. Our hands got a bit uncomfortable with the intense heat of the day, but that’s all good. Valerie understood that I needed to be with family then, and she sat in a row with my closest friends.
Anton started things off by taking the podium to thank everyone for coming. Anton had agreed to be a sort of de-facto master of ceremonies, and he was terrific. I think his girlfriend Snowden, and mother Jean, sitting in the audience, were proud. His first job was introducing Danny, who performed Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles.” I didn’t think much of the choice at first, but Danny sold me on it before the service. He really sold it in front of the crowd. People applauded; I wasn’t sure what the etiquette would be, but people wound up clapping after every presenter.
The first speaker was Almira, who looked almost regal in her tea-green dress. I had composed a too-brief summary of Mom’s life, which she read. She then said in a tone that stopped just short of derisiveness: that’s the part Daniel wrote, now here’s my personal elegy for Norine. And it was lovely.
The next person was John, in a nice suit, who said that I had asked him to say a blessing. John is Mom’s kind of guy: a Jew that became ordained by the Universal Life Church. John said a few things that I had told him about Mom’s spirituality – she grew up Catholic and wasn’t thrilled about it, but kept some vestiges; she admired Judaism and Buddhism and liked to speculate about what sort of beast she’d be reincarnated as. John said a few things in a few other languages and some nice sentiments in English. He also added some personal remarks about growing up with my Mom – as all of my friends did.
After John, my aunt Ginger (Jim’s ex-wife, Aran’s mother) performed, with her daughter Anna, a song I didn’t know called “We Shall Meet Again.” It was quite wonderful.
My friend (and ex) Sarah came to the podium to read, one, some words that Mom had written against the policies of the city council, and two, some words that Mom had written to explain why she was running for city council. I always enjoy seeing Sarah.
Kieron took the podium to read a poem that I had written for Mom. It was all about summing up her life and glory. I sorta wish I’d have told Kieron – or he had proactively mentioned – that I actually wrote that poem earlier this year, for Mother’s Day, before I even knew she was sick. But whatever, people don’t need to know everything. People besides you, dear reader.
Danny came up with his guitar again, and told the audience that he would perform a song they all knew, and that he wanted them to sing along, “to fill this amphitheater with voices.” He hadn’t wanted to perform a cliché like this song, but I talked him into it; it was just too perfect for Mom in too many ways. He did “Imagine,” and sure enough most of us sang along, although, I definitely noticed, not everyone.
After that I scheduled speakers whom I had just asked to say whatever they pleased. The first was Carol, who briskly welcomed everyone there, pointed out the beauty of the location, and explained that she dressed in pink because it was one of Mom’s favorite colors. Mom liked things bright and happy, and she wouldn’t have wanted us to mope. Instead of spending a lot on flowers, she would have wanted us to give to breast cancer research. Good that Carol got the plug in. It was also right of us to gather over the creek that Mom fought to save; I think Carol or someone threw that in, which was good.
Next up was perhaps my closest friend, Matt. His speech might have been my favorite part. He really got choked up. He said he couldn’t believe that he’d never see her again. He said that when he told Mom that he was entering law school, she said “You always did like to argue, Matt.” Everyone liked that. Chris later told me that Matt’s speech really said it all, and I was really happy to hear that from him, because if there was one more person I really would have liked to have heard on that podium, it was him.
Nancy went next, and she was profound and sublime. She had the experience of her own son, my old friend, dying, to draw from, and she didn’t disappoint.
Last on the formal schedule (in my head) was Rachel. Rachel talked about how Mom had known her father since the 60s; she liked to say that Mom knew her before she was born. Mom became surrogate grandmother to Rachel’s child when Rachel moved into an apartment across the street that Mom had found for her. Rachel had really been shaken by the whole thing, and that all came out well in the eulogy.
Anton took the podium to say that we were now done with the scheduled speakers. He also plugged Breast Cancer Action. He mentioned the after-service at Mom’s house. He also said that if anyone wanted to come up and just say something, this would be a good time. He started with himself, and mentioned some nice memories of our growing up together.
Danny came up next. You can’t keep this guy off the stage! Seriously he had some nice things to say as well – of course. I think my old au pair and treasured friend Bill was next. He said that Norine always made him feel like family. Many other people said many other appropriate, beautiful things. My cousin Brian actually went up there. I didn’t want to ask any of the family to take the stage (except Ginger, with her terrific singing voice) – and I know I didn’t want to say anything in front of everyone – but Brian really pulled off a nice little eulogy up there. I hadn’t been sure how much his Aunt Norine had meant to him, but I understood it then.
After the service, we took photos. I got the feeling that Anna wanted to be in them with us, and I felt a little bad when she sorta approached and then sorta left. I made sure to tell her, as soon as I could break away, that I considered her part of my family. That was a long break away; many, many people came up to me then. I didn’t get a chance to thank Jane for spending to make sure Cialin came – I wish I had. I lingered with my male cousins – Aran, Mike, and Brian. Mike was crying hard. He said this was the whirlwind. He was right.
I wondered if Mom’s house would be all solemn with people. By the time I got there, it was in raucous swing. That was fine by me. Matt’s wife, Corrie, got me a plate of food, which was very much appreciated. I couldn’t really talk to too many people, but some good conversations were had nonetheless.
That evening, Jim and Julie hosted a family dinner at Skates. Sadly, Mike and Norine didn’t make it, and nor did our estranged uncle Kevin, though all three were at the memorial. It was Aran and Jazmin and me and Valerie and Brian and Maureen and Colleen and Aunt Margaret and Robert (maybe Jim’s oldest friend).
That night, it was an Irish wake at the Albatross. I couldn’t talk any of my family into it. But it was fine just to get drunk with Valerie, Willie, Anton, Snowden, Danny, and Daniel P. I wonder if anyone invited Paul? I was blasted; I didn’t even remember going home with Daniel and Valerie. I threw up in Mom’s sink several times. But I felt fine…all things considered.
Since Mom’s death, it’s been hard for me to answer “How are you?” honestly. On one level, I am fine, but on another, this is going to be a difficult thing for the rest of my life. I can always find new ways to miss her, new things that we would have shared if she was here. I really never imagined life without her. I miss her all the time. I dream about her being alive, and then I wake up and realize she’s gone, and it’s like losing her all over again.
Her eulogies remain in my mind. I always wondered if Mom felt like she needed to do more on earth. Everyone at the service acted like she had done more than enough. I find a truth in between. Even if you do temp work, programming computers, for your entire professional life, it does not mean that you have wasted a day. As long as you live creatively, and live by humane ideals and encourage others to do so, you’ve made the world a better place than you found it. You’ve provided inspiration, not in the way that the famous do, but in a way that touches the hearts of the rest of us more profoundly. You’ve given us the strength to behave with dignity and morality in our lives. That’s not nothing. It might be everything.
Mom, I am so happy with the way you raised me. I wouldn’t have changed a thing. You gave me my life, and for it I thank you. I will always live in a way that honors everything that you did and everything that you were and are. I love you, and I will always be with you, in this world, or any other.