Tuesday, September 23, 2014

My Mom: 1936 - 2014

My mom passed away last week at the age of 78. She was in the hospital at the time, but not for anything seemingly life-threatening, so her death came as a shock to all of us. My brothers asked me to do my mother’s eulogy, which I wrote while flying from Phoenix to New York. I was in a middle seat on the flight and I’m sure the people sitting on either side of me wanted nothing to do with the small, middle-aged man getting choked up while writing intensely in a spiral-bound notebook. Fortunately, my seatmates kept to themselves, giving me the privacy I needed to write without having to explain why I was getting emotional.

I’ve debated what to do about my blog over the past few days. As my readers know, the majority of my blog entries are of a personal nature. Given that fact, it seemed ludicrous to me for the first blog entry after my mother’s death to be about anything other than her. For that reason I have decided to reproduce the eulogy I gave. I’m hoping this doesn’t come across as tacky or gauche, but in my mind it would have been even tackier to ignore an event of this significance in my life and instead write about some trivial topic like pizza or Legos. So with that as preface, here is the eulogy:

I apologize if what I’m about to say seems long and rambling, but I wrote this on two hours of sleep while on a five-hour plane ride.
When I was trying to come up with what to say about my mom I just started jotting down a bunch of notes about the things that stood out for me about her. And I ended up taking a lot more notes than I thought I was going to.

One of the first things I thought of was her love for reading. She read pretty much everything. When I was a kid she would take me with her to the library every three weeks. I would get a Curious George book, a Dr. Seuss book, maybe a Maurice Sendak book if I was feeling ambitious. My mom would get a dozen books—each one bigger than the next:  400-page novels, 600-page biographies. We're talking large tomes. And she would read them all…in three weeks…a dozen books. And she never had to renew—not once. And this was on top of reading National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, the newspaper every day, and, of course, TV Guide. The amount of words she would digest on a daily basis was truly amazing. When I think about it now, it's sort of mind-boggling.

These days I also take my kids to the library every three weeks. They each get a few books and I get one book. Maybe two. But if I do get two books I always have to renew the second one. My mom was getting a dozen books…every three weeks.

One last thought on this topic and then I'll move on. About three years ago I joined a book club at my office—it was basically me and a few co-workers. The first book we read was a novel called "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet." It was a great book. It takes place in California during World War II. And the entire time I was reading it I kept on thinking, "My mom would love this book. My mom would love this book." So when I finished the book I spoke to my mom and I told her about it, half expecting she'd already read it since she was such a voracious reader, but to my surprise, she hadn't. But she was so intrigued by the plot that she said as soon as we got off the phone she was going to order it on amazon.com. Of course, what she really meant was as soon as we got off the phone she was going to call up her friend Grace and have her order the book for her on amazon.com, because my mom had no idea how to order anything online. So, thank you, Grace, for doing that. Anyway, about a week later she calls me up to tell me that she read the book and she absolutely loved it, and it was one of the best books she'd ever read. My first thought was, "Amazon standard shipping takes 5 to 7 business days…I spoke to my mom a week ago, so she probably got the book and read it in the same day.” That seemed about right. But my second thought was…well, frankly, I was proud of myself. My mom has read literally thousands of books—she's the world's most voracious reader—and somehow I managed to find a book for her that was now one of her favorites. It just made me happy.

My mom had a very good sense of humor. Everyone who knew my dad knows how funny he was. He was overtly funny; spontaneously funny. But my mom was creatively funny. She would come up with funny ideas and set about implementing them. The best example I can give of this was one year on January, 7th—not quite sure of the year, but I would guess late 70s or early 80s—my mom made a very fancy dinner. She used a table cloth, our best silverware and dishes, lit candles. And when my dad got home and saw all of this he said, "What's going on? What's the occasion?" And my mom, totally deadpan, said, "Don't you know? It's January, 7th." My dad was at a loss and said, "So? What's so special about January, 7th?" And my mom said, "It's Millard Fillmore's birthday." That's right—it was the birthday of the most insignificant president in the history of the United States and my mom decided to have a dinner party in his honor. So that was my mom's unique sense of humor.

So what was my mom like as a mom? Well, let's be honest—she was overprotective. Very overprotective. And of course, as a kid, this bothered me no end. “Why can't I do this?” “Why can't I do that?” “All the other kids are doing it, why can't I?” And I swore I would never be like that when I became a parent. Well…guess what? These days they have a term for parents like me—we're called “Helicopter Parents.” We’re constantly hovering. And I try to make a conscious effort to land that helicopter on the pad. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't. But my mom…well, I'm pretty sure her helicopter didn't even have landing gear.

Sometime in junior high, I think between 7th and 8th grade, some of my friends were going to the beach. I asked my mom if I could go with them and she said, "No." I asked her why not and she said, "Because there's gangs and broken glass." That's right. "Gangs and broken glass." This became a bit of a running joke with me and my brothers. "Gangs and broken glass" became a code phrase to signify extreme overprotectiveness.

As I think most of you know, I live in Arizona. There aren't any beaches there, but we live about a 5-hour drive from San Diego, so Nicole and I have taken the boys there a couple of times. The first time we took our kids to the beach, we parked the car and walked across the parking lot, and the moment we hit the sand, I paused for a split second and did a quick scan—no gangs…no broken glass…okay , let's go.

But my mom's overprotectiveness, her over concern, not only for me and my brothers and our wives and her grandkids—but really for all of her family and friends—just stemmed from the fact that she loved all of the people in her life and wanted them to be safe. It's as simple as that.

And I can tell you this because for the past eight years or so I spoke to my mom at least twice a week. When she called I would give her a quick synopsis of what was going on with us and then she would ask to speak to the boys—first AJ and then James. I'd put it on speaker phone just in case the kids didn't understand what my mom was saying or she didn't understand what they were saying, so I could interpret. And my mom was great about asking the boys questions to get them to talk. It was never just, "How was school today?" It was "What's your favorite subject?" "Did you sing any songs?" "What are your friend's names?" She genuinely wanted to know. More than once I found out something about my kids' day that I didn't even know until they told my mom about it. She was good like that.

Then, when I'd get back on the phone, my mom would give me the rundown on how all of my nephews and nieces were doing. She would go oldest to youngest in each of my brothers' families. First Steve's family—she'd tell me about Michael, then David, then John, then Robert, then Lauren. Then she'd move over to Mark's family and tell me about Alyssa and Alex. She'd tell me about all the important things going on in their lives. And it was clear how very proud she was of all of them and how much she loved them. Then she would tell me about the other family and friends who had things going on in their lives, so I would be up to speed with everything going on back on the East Coast. And it was clear that she cared about everyone she told me about.

I jotted down a lot more notes on my plane trip—about her involvement with the Cooley's Anemia Foundation, about her annual Hanukkah parties, about her love of travel—but really, the last point I made about how much she loved and cared for all of the people in her life, seems like the right place to end.

Thank you for coming out to support our family. It's much appreciated.

(Note: The photo at the top is my mom on her wedding day in 1956. The photo at the bottom is my mom on my wedding day in 2000.)