Grief and a Eulogy

Carrying my brother during a hike on Angel Island

I’ll be honest: I am sort of limping along right now.

The only thing I really want to do is grieve.  Full-time.  I would like to be a full-time griever.  In a perfect world, these would be the only things on my to-do list – and even these would be completely optional – for as long as necessary:

  • Wake up…whenever.
  • Eat.  Or don’t.
  • Cry, moan, keen, wail or blubber.
  • Throw things.
  • Talk.
  • Don’t talk.
  • Take a hot bath.
  • Sit and stare into space.
  • Drink wine.
  • Sleep.
  • Write.
  • Read.
I wish grief were like a global-wide snow day and the whole world would shut down for a while.  But life has continued on around me as if nothing has changed.  For the last two weeks, instead of being a full-time griever, I’ve been taking care of my kids, my job, my grieving father and handling what can only be described, inelegantly, as Death Shit: logistical tasks like ordering casket sprays, selecting burial clothes or coordinating the transfer of a body across state lines…all the practical matters that have to be addressed in the weeks that follow the passing of an important person in your life.
It may sound morbid and depressing (maybe it is morbid and depressing!) but if I could experience my mom’s service again – the viewing, the ceremony, the burial – as many times over for as long as I wanted to, I would.  Those five hours represented the only time in the last two weeks when the world felt right – when everyone around me was united by our shared grief and nothing else.
My brother (left) and my cousin at the reception following my mom's memorial and burial services
My brother (left) and my cousin at the reception following my mom’s memorial and burial services
Me and some of my cousins
Me and some of my cousins
My mom's close friend and twin sister
My mom’s close friend and twin sister
But the clock tick-tick-ticks towards the buzzer that will signal the end of my allotted mourning period (or so it feels).
Tomorrow, I’ll see my dad off and return to work.  I’ll read and reply to emails, attend meetings and schedule new ones.  I’ll put on makeup and curl my hair.  I’ll plan my son’s birthday celebration and order Halloween costumes for my kids.  I will try, try, try to return to my normal life, even though I feel like a hollowed out shell of a person, and hope that it will start to heal me – this normalcy – eventually.
Among the more positive tasks on the list of Death Shit to deal with was crafting some sort of eulogy for my mom’s service.  Knowing others would be sharing their reflections about my mom, too, I consoled myself with the thought that, together, we might paint a picture of my mom’s life that resembled something close to the truth.
My mom and my brother circa 1972
My mom and my brother circa 1972
My mom and me at my childhood home in Oakland, California
My mom, her 70’s ‘Fro and me at my childhood home in Oakland, California
My head is clouded at the best of times.  There were many moments these past two weeks when I wondered if I knew my mom at all – if any woman can ever be fully known.  A woman – a lifetime – is greater than the sum of its parts.  And I was only one part of her life.  I cannot possibly memorialize the complexities and nuances of her soul, her personality, her 72 years of living in a 10 minute eulogy.
What follows is my feeble attempt at reflecting on my mom’s life, what she taught me and my feelings about both:

In Roman mythology, Diana was the goddess of the hunt, the moon and a protector of women.  She was the daughter of Jupiter – the Romans’ version of Zeus – and the twin sister of Apollo, the god of light and music.

According to the ancient Romans, Diana was a maiden goddess who swore never to marry.  She was known for her independence and physical strength.  Shakespeare alludes to Diana in at least ten of his most famous works.  In ancient art and sculpture, she is often portrayed with a bow and a quiver of arrows, wearing a short tunic and hunting boots.  Sometimes she is depicted with a pack of wild dogs at her heels.

She is fierce and strong.  She is feared and revered.  Diana is the inspiration behind Diana Prince – also known as Wonder Woman; a super-powered heroine, an Amazonian princess and the female equal to Superman.

I don’t know if my grandparents gave my mother’s name much thought.  Did they have some clairvoyant premonition about the woman she would become?  Regardless, whether you knew her as Diana, Dida, Dani or Didi, you no doubt see the resemblance my mom bore to her namesake.

As a little girl, my mom seemed immortal to me; a powerful, magnetic and sometimes imposing woman.  A force to be reckoned with.  She moved through life not so much like the proverbial “pistol”, but like a bullet shot from it; a small, dense, slug of iron and energy on a sure and unstoppable trajectory.

She was competent and capable.  Intensely loyal.  Protective.  Slightly subversive and irreverent – sometimes breaking the rules just to prove she couldn’t be mastered.  She was impetuous and independent.  I always loved to hear her tell the story of when, as a young high school cheerleader, she would shoot free throws during halftime in front of the student body.  Because, why not?  Who was going to challenge a pint-sized, blond powerhouse who could hit you in the head with a rock from 40 yards away?  (That actually happened…. You can ask her sister, Kathy.)

She had Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in education.  Before she became a mother, she taught PE at Butler Junior High School in Seattle and coached the women’s volleyball team at Merritt College here in Oakland.

As my husband can attest, she was a big supporter of Title Nine and many of her heroes were women with exceptional physical or mental strength and courage – usually athletes.  Women like Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova, Brandi Chastain and the US Women’s Soccer Team.  

My mom was a very tactile, physical person.  Almost as soon as I learned the awful news that my mom had passed away, I began to think about her hands.  I was overcome by a compelling need to see, touch and hold her hands one more time.  When I finally did, I felt like Thomas, fingering Jesus’ wounds, needing to really know with my mind and my body that she was gone. 

My mom’s cool, dry hands with their neatly trimmed and usually unpainted nails embodied so much of her spirit and are deeply connected to many of my memories of her:

  • Hands holding a book as she reads to me, seated on her lap in a rocking chair in my room as a little girl
  • Her small, finely boned fingers counting my vertebrae – an affectionate gesture I loved and found soothing as a child, laying beside her on her bed
  • Hands on her well-worn leather bound bible at the donut shop or Fats or Pete’s coffee in Berkley – places she would take me to eat while she read and studied her bible
  • Hands in my hair, curling it into the perfect bowl cut when I was little or pulling it back into a ponytail after I dislocated my elbow in junior high.
  • Hands giving another driver the finger while Scott and I ducked to the floor of the car, humiliated
  • Hands that taught Scott and me how to throw a baseball, dribble a basketball, properly pull up a weed and plant flowers in the yard
  • Hands that cupped the heads of my newborn babies – two of which she saw born with her own eyes – and tickled their necks and toes as they got older
  • Hands that clapped and cheered for me and for my kids, more loudly than anyone else’s
  • Hands on a racket, a golf club, a hiking stick

Her hands were functional, working hands.  And they were always cold.  Among my mom’s many ailments was her “nards”; a bastardized moniker for “Raynaud’s Disease” – a vascular condition associated with cold hands and feet – that only my mom could have come up with.  I don’t know if she had actually been diagnosed with Raynaud’s or if she had just diagnosed herself, but she would often excuse her cold hands with the self-deprecating, yet informative response, “Sorry.  It’s my nards.” 

Later in her life, after she had been sick for some time and her own muscles had atrophied, she used to hold my hand in hers and explore the muscles in my forearm with the other, admiring the health and strength she felt there.  It was a funny little habit of hers that I’d often see her repeat with my friends and people she’d meet.  It was odd behavior, but I also knew it to be a tremendous compliment.  If mom ever squeezed, groped or caressed your forearm, take heart: it meant she liked you.

As a young mom and adult, my mom excelled at tennis and golf.  She was a truly exceptional skier.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw my mom ski powder:

 I was a teenager and had somehow gotten “stuck” skiing with my parents instead of my friends one day.  My friends and I would always head straight for the moguls – especially a steep double-black with three foot deep moguls that ran right under the chairlift, called “Highline”.  It was the perfect place for us to fan out our teenage peacock feathers.

But my parents wanted no part of Highline.  They wanted “first tracks” and since it had snowed several inches of airy soft powder the night before, we got off at the top of chair 11 and headed down a long, traversing catwalk to “Outer Mongolia”; a broad-faced and often deserted run at the very outer boundary of Vail Mountain, far away from the crowds.  

Experienced skiers know that moguls and powder call for two totally different techniques.  As an inexperienced powder skiier, I foolishly and with much hubris, attacked “Outer Mongolia” the way I skied “Highline”.  I sunk and got stuck and fell and ruined the snow for the poor soul who came after us.  And as I stood there, brushing snow off of me and cursing under my breath, I watched my mom’s tiny form rise and fall effortlessly and elegantly through the new fallen snow.  She FLOATED down that mountain.  I can still remember the sound her skies made – the faint squeak of her ski boots on compressed snow.  At that moment, she seemed lighter than air.  She seemed born to make fresh tracks in the powder with only us and God watching.  It was beautiful.

The loss of her strength and vitality was very painful for my mom.  For the first 50 years of her life, she had absolute, unconscious confidence in her physiological matter.  It was deeply tied to her identity and self-worth.  Her body was reliable, trustworthy – infallible, she thought (and I did too, at times).  Just like the goddess Diana, my mom’s mental and physical fortitude provided her everything she needed: independence, protection, pleasure, the ability to take care of herself and her family.  But unlike the immortal goddess, my mom’s mortal body began to fail her.

There’s an Indigo Girls song that refers to a woman having a “predator of pain inside her.”  I think that’s how my mom felt.  The pain she felt in her fleshly body was great, but her emotional pain over the loss of her physical strength and health may have been even more intolerable.

My mom (right) with her twin sister
My mom (right) with her twin sister
A family photo while I was in college (I'm pretty sure the all-denim ensemble was my idea.)
A family photo while I was in college (I’m pretty sure the all-denim ensemble was my idea.)

As her daughter, there were many times in life when I wanted less “Diana the hunter” and more “Gaia the earth mother”.  Less “Scarlet O’Hara” and more “Melanie Hamilton”.  Less “Wonder Woman” and more “Marge Simpson”.  Sometimes I got a bullet when I wanted a big, soft feather pillow.

But I’ve also grown to truly appreciate the image of womanhood my mom shaped for me.  She believed herself to be every bit as capable of an role or responsibility as an other person.  If she limited her options, it was because she chose to – not because she was inherently unequal to the task.  She really was like Wonder Woman in that way.  

I have never doubted my value or importance in the world as a woman.  It has never occurred to me to feel inferior or in any way limited because of my gender.  It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I realized how uncommon this is.  But this belief, this truth that’s inside me, has informed every important decision I’ve made.  It guided my choice for a mate and my choice in friends.  It has shaped my life into what it is today.   This core belief sculpted me into a very different person than who I might have been under the influence of a more docile, less confident and fearless woman.  And I owe that to my mom.  (And my dad who cherished and respected these qualities in her.)

I’m profoundly grateful to her for leaving this legacy of strength inside me and inside her two beautiful, strong, self-assured granddaughters who will no doubt expand this legacy even further.

My mom with my daughter at kindergarten graduation

It’s a legacy she also left for her three grandsons who are being raised to view women as their equals and will seek out like-minded, secure women as friends and partners, just like their fathers and grandfathers have done.

Two days after my mom died, Scott and my dad and I were on a hike together in Flagstaff and, in a moment of levity, we wondered whether my mom’s heavenly body was tall or if she was still short, but now had a four foot vertical jump so that she could finally spike a volleyball the way she always wanted to.  It’s a comforting thought that makes me smile.

When I was writing these remarks, I had a hard time knowing how to end them.  It’s so tempting to rely on some cliche or trite phrase in order to not become totally oppressed by the sadness I feel.  No matter how you choose to view it, no matter how comforting it is to know that her suffering has ended, death is depressing and mysterious and really, really sad.

But I find sincere comfort in knowing how passionately she loved these five grandchildren – how much pleasure she took from being in their presence, listening to them, observing them, appreciating their unique personalities, gifts and ways of experiencing the world.  

(To the grandkids) She really, really loved you.

Her contribution to them – genetically, spiritually – is evident to me and in that way, she will live on and continue to be with us in a joyful way.

I love you, mom.  Thank you for being with us.

My parents in La Quinta at Christmas a few years ago
My parents in La Quinta last Christmas
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8 thoughts on “Grief and a Eulogy

  1. There have been two times that I have sat in my office at work and cried so hard. The death and passing of Cherly Buntich (St. Bede Family) and that of your moms. I cried because I know the pain and longing that would be left behind for everyone. Especially for the grandchildren and of the many memories that are yet to be created. When my grandmother passed away, I wanted her to be there during those special events, Christmas, my children’s birthday, and so many other events. So I began lighting a candle to remind me and our family that she was still there, for the big dinners, and during the happy birthday singing to our children at the dinner table. Lots of prayers to you at this time for strength and healing. Love and hugs.

  2. Beautiful. I’m so sorry for your loss. Still grieving my dad. Awfully hard. You will get through this, though it feels like you never will, time heals. All my thoughts and prayers for you Tracy. ❤️
    Katie Marsh

  3. Wonderful and real and raw piece of beauty here Tracy. You are growing into a very deep and beautiful souled woman. My thoughts are with you and your family during this time. May God use you to draw Himself nearer to you and others during this time of grief. Love you friend!

  4. My mom died last September, and I often find myself thinking, day-dreaming, almost craving being back at the time of the funeral. I rehash my eulogy (speaking of, yours was truly stunning) and I remember the evenings with friends and family all around me. It was raw and it was real and it meant I was still physically connected to her.
    Now this new world, the one where my phone never says “Mom Cell” in the texts or calls, the one where I can’t watch Law and Order while holding her hand on the couch, the one where I go out to dinner and watch movies and laugh and go to birthday parties like everything is normal, this NEW world is so absurdly foreign. Everyone says it’s gets better with time, and I believe that, but I also want it to be ok to not get better. I loved her more than any human in this world, as I know from your words that you did the same for your mom. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok for time to not heal all wounds because not all wounds are bad. This wound, this gaping cavern in your chest and mine, was left by love. And I’m ok with sometimes just sitting in that cavern (preferably with wine and in pajamas) and feeling that loving pain.
    From one grieving daughter to another, thank you for your words and candor. Makes me feel a little less alone in this grief land. I don’t know you, but am sending you strength and love.

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