The Lessons

About two weeks ago my mom went into the hospital. She was very, very weak and ill. About ten days ago she was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. She elected palliative care only and was transferred to hospice. The next day she told her priest that she was ready to go. Three days later, a week ago Sunday, she died. I am convinced that she was lucid nearly to the very end and never once displayed any fear or, indeed, expressed anything but concern for others.

All of my siblings and I had come into town to be with her. Over the next several days the spouses and her grandchildren arrived to rejoice in her life and mourn her passing.

We elected to have her visitation and funeral on Friday and Saturday, respectively. It made for a rather tired and glum Thanksgiving but it maximized the attendance by the family and the likelihood that others would attend as well.

She was laid out at the same funeral home that had taken care of my father forty years ago. The turnout wasn’t enormous—perhaps twenty people other than the immediate family but they were people from every stage of her life. One of the women with whom she started teaching school nearly 70 years ago. Elementary and high school friends of mine and my sisters’. Neighbors. The woman for whom she had worked at the St. Louis Board of Education. Members of her church group. Some of the sister’s colleagues.

The funeral mass was wonderful. One of my sisters and I had planned it and nearly every family member contributed in some way: singing, reading, writing the remembrances that were read at the end of mass by representatives of her grandchildren (my nephew, Michael) and her children (me).

She was piped out of the church to the tune of “Over the sea to Skye”, buried in the family plot next to my father and with my sister who died at birth, my maternal grandmother, and my Schuler grandparents.

After she was interred we returned to the house in which she had lived for fifty years for a party with plenty of food, Guinness, and Irish musicians. It was a lovely, healing event, attended by the immediate family, my cousin Joan who had known my mother since my mom’s girlhood, my mom’s cousin Wally, my closest living relative, and a few neighbors and friends. There was plenty of singing and dancing and at times the paid musicians were more there to be entertained than entertaining as they jammed with old family friend Dave Surkamp.

All of these things were according to her express wishes.

There were, oh, so many lessons learned, some hard, some light. My mom in death was as she had been in life, a continued inspiration and example. I learned how much both of my parents had affected so many people’s lives. I learned what remarkable, beautiful things a group of talented, intelligent, self-motivating people can accomplish in an astonishingly brief period of time, even under the most trying of circumstances.

I learned how much my mother had been loved. As the Wizard put it, a heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others. She had a great heart.

I learned that there is nothing easy, dignified, or beautiful about death. My mother struggled enormously for the last day or so, until I leaned over and whispered to her “Your job is over. It’s my job now. It’s time to go to sleep, Colleen.” Ten minutes later she was dead.

I have learned that dying is unconscionably expensive. Once you have made the decision of a funeral home, a traditional visitation, funeral, and interment of the sort my mom wanted is essentially a sunk cost with little room for optimization. I have learned that the services that a good funeral director provides are probably worth it.

I have learned that being the executor of my mom’s will is a tremendous amount of work and will be for the foreseeable future and that cleaning and clearing a house that’s been lived in for fifty years and that’s filled with the possessions of not only the generations that have lived there but those who preceded them and is layered with the the memories those things embody is a gargantuan task.

I have learned that my lessons are just beginning.

Thanks to all of you who have left kind messages here and at Outside the Beltway. You have no idea how supportive they have been.

10 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    Very well said Dave. I’m sure your mother was rightfully proud of her son.

    My own mother died three years ago and I completely understand what you say about the financial costs of death and the challenge in executing a will and dealing with a house of full of stuff. You definitely have your work cut out for you, but you will find there are a lot of great moments as you rediscover things and memories you’d forgotten. The most difficult part for us was deciding which of my mother’s things to keep and which to dispose of. This is actually something our family hasn’t fully completed yet – we still have a storage area with some of my Mom’s things.

  • I commented on your last post too; I would like to say that I have been following your ‘fast’ blog for a while, and I think i will enjoy it even more because…you have a human face now, and a wonderful heart.

  • A superb post Dave.

    My apologies, I do not use an RSS reader and just saw these posts today -my condolences for your loss in what must be a difficult time.

  • me.conner Link

    First condolanse, for your family’s loss, God has a timeline for all of us. We just need to make every day count, 20 or 200,000 mourners does not matter. Eternity is to long not to carefully consider on a daily basis. Few remember anything but the lasting impressions that people make in our lives.
    My wife and I just moved from our home of 37 years. Three grown children in different communities, with our 11 grandchildren living with them. We had to get a large dumpster just to dispose of ‘things’ we no longer wanted. We moved into a house twice as big . . . and it’s full. People collect ‘junk’ and we should be more focused on retaining memories / built on LOVE.

  • Dave, my condolences to you on your loss. It’s obvious that your mother was a lovely and good human being. The consolation is that Shakespeare was wrong. With people such as your mother, the good isn’t interred with their bones. It lives on in the hearts and minds of their friends and families.

  • Dave
    Excellent writing. Thanks.

  • What a blessing and an inspiration you mother must have been to you all.

    My heart and prayers are with you, because while you have been through a terrible ordeal, the next weeks and months will be a time of adjusting to your loss.

    God bless.

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