In the last conversation I had with my mom – this was about ten days before she died – I asked her what she still wanted to accomplish, what was on her bucket list? I sat at the foot of her bed in the darkness of the early evening, the mood set by the ambient glow from the hall light and the white-noise purr of a sleeping cat, and we mused about how she would like to spend her last days, a period once so distant and abstract, but now on her doorstep. She told me there were two things she intended to prioritize above everything else: to finish some aprons, and to spend as much time as possible with the people most important to her.
It wasn’t until later that struck me as odd. It wasn’t that she wanted to see Paris or live to her next birthday or something understandably self-indulgent. It wasn’t as though she felt her life was incomplete unless she sang echoes off the acoustic rocks of the Grand Canyon or stared awestruck at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Nor did she appraise her life as meaningless unless she saw Hamilton on Broadway or James Taylor at Carnegie Hall. Rather, she wanted to use her remaining precious and finite time to carefully and intentionally wrap her friends and family in the fabric of her love.
Indeed, if there was anything my mom had in abundance – apart from romance novels, or multi-thousand-piece puzzles, or wall art with the word “joy” – it was friends. She had more devoted friends than any one person could possibly hope for. These last few months I saw countless people dedicate their time and energies into comforting and encouraging her. Even as her autonomy was stripped away, as she was brought low by the anchor of her cancer, she was hoisted high by your love; as her body sank into the grave of her illness, her spirit soared under the winds of your affection. I watched in awe as some of you tenderly rubbed lotion on her ailing feet, or scrubbed the bathroom sink she no longer had the strength to clean herself, or even just popped in to offer a word of friendly encouragement. Your contributions were noticed, and they were cherished.
She said towards the very end that there were many people to whom she still had things to say, but in the haze of her illness she couldn’t quite clutch their names from the fog or recall what she had intended to tell them. But I feel confident I can summarize what she wanted to say to each of you: that she loved you deeply, and she was infinitely grateful that you were in her life.
True to form, in that last conversation, my mom wasn’t especially interested in dwelling on the minutia of her plans for her final days. She was far more interested in knowing what plans I was making for myself, what roadmaps I was drawing for my future. She asked, perhaps as a provocation, if I was making plans to marry my girlfriend (though what sort of mother would she be if she didn’t?).
I told her – and Gracia, I hope this doesn’t catch you off guard – that I didn’t know yet, but I was giving it serious thought. I shifted a little closer on the bed and took her hand in mine – a moment that echoed with both devastation and joy in the hours shortly before her death as she clutched that same hand tightly and persistently as though it were all that was keeping her alive.
She asked me what I’d want my wedding to be like, if I were to get married, and I told her how I’d want it to be: ankle deep in the cool waters of the Baptism River, surrounded by the surreal colors and the brisk beauty of a North Shore autumn, wearing Red Wing boots and Pendleton flannel, circled by my closest friends perched on rocks above us like cherubs.
“That sounds like exactly the sort of thing that you would want,” she said to me. I think she meant it as a compliment. “I just wish I could be there for it.”
I squeezed her hand and kissed her forehead. “I do too,” I whispered. It was clear she was getting tired, so I left her room to let her sleep. Looking back, I wish I’d stayed until she dozed off, until her snores chased the startled cat from the room.
In a heartbreaking essay about the stillbirth of his first son, the art historian Matthew Milliner tells what could be described as the miraculous origin story of St. Clement, the Bishop of Rome:
The Emperor Trajan had Clement thrown into the sea with an anchor around his neck. When Clement’s companions prayed to see the martyr’s body, the “sea drew back three miles, and all walked out dry-shod and found a small building prepared by God in the shape of a temple, and within, in an ark, the body of St. Clement and the anchor beside him.”
The story then grows even more odd. Each year, at the anniversary of Clement’s death, the sea drew back for visitors. One year, a woman went out to the shrine with her little son, and the child fell asleep. When the ceremony was finished and the sound of the inrushing tide was heard, the woman was terrified and forgot her son in her hurry to get ashore with the rest of the crowd. It was there she remembered, and loud were the cries and lamentations she addressed to heaven, wailing and running up and down the beach, hoping she might see the child’s body cast up by the waves. When all hope was gone, she went home and mourned and wept for a whole year.
At the next anniversary of Clement’s death, when the sea dutifully drew back, the grieving woman was the first to the tomb. She prayed at the shrine, and when she arose, the child—as if nothing had happened—was fast asleep where he had been left. “Thinking that he must be dead she moved closer, ready to gather up the lifeless body; but, when she saw that he was sleeping, she quickly awakened him and, in full sight of the crowd, lifted him in her arms.”
I know what our modern sensibilities would make of such stories, but for my part it rings true. In the perplexing mercy of death, God set aside the anchor of cancer that was tied to her neck and now cradles her in the ark of his arms. While my mother may not have been a saint, or conjured miracles, her love was as bountiful as her books. Although for now she sleeps, when the tide of this world recedes, I will hold her hand again.
Audio of this eulogy, delivered 2/9/19 at Rockpoint Church, can be found here.