Thank you all for coming today.
I've written and re-written this speech a thousand times in my head since the day a little over three years ago that my mother told me she had cancer. Somehow in my heart I knew that this would be it, the thing every child dreads and denies for as long as possible. In my mind I craft the speech over and over again, coming up with all sorts of clever, eloquent and profound things to say. Sometimes they are incredibly witty, sometimes deep and moving. Many times I moved myself to tears composing it.
But now that I'm faced with the actual need to do it in earnest words escape me, and I feel such an emptyness that I just stare and stare at the computer screen without knowing what to say.
It is a trite cliché of funerals to say of the deceased that she touched every person in the room in some profound way, and I suppose this is as good a place as any to start, not because it's such a good cliché, but because in this case it is undoubtedly, even embarrassingly, true. My mother had a personality that could not be ignored, indeed, refused to be ignored, and I think it can be safely said that every person who spent more than a little time with her came away with some sort of "Wow" moment. I know that friends of mine to whom I introduced her always came away incredibly impressed. She was a big person, big in the sense of someone with a big soul who demanded to be treated seriously. You got the feeling of being with someone who knew things, who knew all the answers to all of the questions, and who was sure that she knew the answers.
She didn't know all the answers, of course; nobody does. And her life was tough, very tough. An immigrant, a single mom stuck with four very unruly brats, in the South, in the 1960's, was a very tough thing, a hardship we can't even understand in this more accepting day and age. But she worked hard, went back to school, got her Ph.D. when she was already in her 40's, and created a very successful career for herself as a professor. I can't say that she moulded those four brats into outstanding citizens (none of us is Republican, for instance), but we went to school, stayed out of jail, got respectable jobs and created families of our own. And were immesurably enriched by this remarkable woman's intellect and class.
Class. Now that's a word she liked to use. She was very accepting of all people, no matter what their background, but she also liked point out who had class and who didn't. And no wonder. She was a very classy lady. She had an aristocratic demeanor and poise that just oozed class. She tried to be classy in the way she dressed and in general in the way she presented herself in the world. She tried very hard to impress this on us boys, with mixed success. But we definitely learned to recognize it when we saw it.
It is for educators that the cliché about touching people's lives is used the most, but in her case again it's not just a cliché. There seemed always to be an endless parade of former students coming to visit her, from ten and even twenty years back, who had been changed in some way by their contact with her. In a good way, one must imagine; perhaps there were some touched in a bad way, but they never came to visit. I was always impressed by this. For all the good teachers I myself had during my college career, I never had one I was compelled to visit ten years later. Yet there was something about my mother that drew these students back like moths to a flame.
All who knew her knew her as a very intelligent woman. In this area it can perhaps be said that she didn't live up to her potential. With a mind like hers she perhaps should have published things, or even done something very big like go into government or something. Not that the government would have had her; she was a bit of lefty in a world in which lefties have become terribly unpopular. She hated hypocrisy, and was always concerned about the underdog, and the problems of social justice. I remember her telling me once that she was a racist. This I found shocking, as I had never known her to say or do anything the least bit racist, but she explained that what she meant was that we are born racists, that if left to nature we will always prefer those who look like us over those who look different, and that it takes a conscious effort of will to overcome this, that mere platitudes and good intentions and lip service to concepts of diversity and justice are not enough by themselves. Even now the insight this represents takes my breath away.
There were a lot of things my mom loved. She loved Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, Blue Bunny Sugar-Free Fudgecicles, Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, the entire book of Ecclesiastes, La Traviata, Machado de Assis, the Andy Griffith Show, and Hyacinth Bucket.
And she loved to shop. I am sure that TJ Maxx and Costco are flying their flags at half-mast today. She loved to go out and look at all the new stuff out there, and buy a substantial part of it. We have several closets full of clothes we need to do something with, and an unbelievable quantity of shoes. The leather industry in Brazil and Indonesia are also in mourning today. She was always proud of the bargains she made, and I remember her telling me not a few times about some jacket or skirt or blouse she had bought for ten cents on the dollar at TJ Maxx ("It's 'Jones of New York'", she would say proudly). But I suspect that buying stuff (fun though that is) wasn't the only reason she loved shopping so much. She loved the social aspect of it. She would talk to the girl behind the jewelry counter, and the checkout person, and other customers at the store. She loved talking to people, and I think this, as much as anything else, gaver her a lot of satisfaction when she went out to the store.
We all have ways in which we identify ourselves, roles that we play in the world at large. Some roles are bigger, leading roles, and some are more minor. My mother's biggest role, the way she identified herself to herself, was not as a teacher, or as an intellectual, or any of those external things. Her leading role, the one that defined her and consumed her, was as a Mother. And so all that stuff earlier about her potential was to illustrate that, while she had the potential to do great things in the world at large, she herself saw her own potential, her major self-identity in the fact that she was a mother, and that's where she put her emphasis. And I can safely speak for my brothers, sisters-in-law, children and nieces and even several of my friends when I say that she was a great mother to all of us. Not just by dint of where she stood on the family tree, but by her deed and act, constantly, through thick and thin, from the time we were born up to her dying breath. How many times did she get up from her sick bed to try to make us something to eat when we came to visit? You couldn't argue with her, tell her to lie back down, that we weren't hungry, or that we would fix something. She didn't believe us, and she didn't trust us to do it ourselves. You would turn your back and there she'd be, frying some potatoes or making some pork chops, always explaining, of course, that they didn't have any fat because she had cooked them a special way that got rid of all the fat. It would drive me mad.
The last ten years were hard ones for her. Her back began to deteriorate, and her knees, and they both caused her excruciating pain. Then the cancer hit, and metastasized, and suddenly the pain she had been in was nothing compared with what she was feeling now. No one should be forced to endure such pain as she did, and it wasn't easy for her, and it was very hard to watch. Thankfully the end, when it came, was without pain. Somehow she figured out how to block it, and she spent the last few days more peacefully than she had been for some time.
Many years ago I was sort of dating this woman, and she came to the house with me one night and met my mother. After they met, my friend took me aside and asked me, 'What's it like'? I didn't understand, and I said 'What do you mean?' And she asked, 'What's it like to have a mother who is so fundamentally good?' I wasn't sure what she was talking about, after all, this was just my Mom, but over the years I've turned this question around in my mind over and over, and I've come to understand it. My mother was fundamentally, profoundly good. Not good in the way we all can be at times, but good in a way that sticks to your ribs, and hurts when it's gone.
So today we finally bid adieu. The body in the box we're going to put into the ground today is not my mother; it is the torture chamber in which she was imprisoned for over ten years. She's free of it now, and I for one am happy. Don't let my broken heart fool you.