(NOTE: My mother died on May 28, 2010 at age 80. Here is the text from which I spoke when I delivered the eulogy at her funeral on June 2, 2010 at Lima, Ohio.)
Farewell. When we speak the word ‘farewell’ we are really saying ‘go well,’ ‘travel well,’ ‘be safe and happy on your journey.’ It makes no difference whether that journey be from my house to your house or from this life to that undiscovered country of Death from whose bourne no traveler returns.
Poem no. 712 by Emily Dickinson:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –
I am going to talk about Mom’s life today, but I will begin by speaking of her death. We hear of so many, too many, bad deaths these days, deaths in which agony and suffering continue for days, months or years. Mom’s death was not like that. It was a ‘good’ death, a peaceful death, an easeful death.
Poem no.1100 by Emily Dickinson
The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying -- this to Us
Made Nature different
We noticed smallest things --
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicized -- as 'twere.
As We went out and in
Between Her final Room
And Rooms where Those to be alive
Tomorrow were, a Blame
That Others could exist
While She must finish quite
A Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite --
We waited while She passed --
It was a narrow time --
Too jostled were Our Souls to speak
At length the notice came.
She mentioned, and forgot --
Then lightly as a Reed
Bent to the Water, struggled scarce --
Consented, and was dead --
And We -- We placed the Hair --
And drew the Head erect --
And then an awful leisure was
Belief to regulate --
There was ever less ease and peace in the final months and weeks of her life. She was suffering physically from congestive heart failure and a host of respiratory ailments, and even worse for those of us who loved her, she was suffering mentally from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. We all know that during the past months she was only ‘Mom’ sometimes, in relatively brief flashes of lucidity–a good day or a good hour in which she seemed her old self–but over the past few weeks even those flashes began to disappear. Her final weeks were rough, her final days were very bad. But her death, remarkably, was surpassingly gentle. Dylan Thomas writes: "Do not go gentle in that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light". Mom had her share of anger and frustration (and, yes, rage) under the dark clouds of her illnesses, but when death came she defied Dylan Thomas and did indeed go gentle into that good night. Her death was peaceful. At 5:30 on the morning of May 28, she rose from her chair (something she had not been able to do without assistance all the previous day) and walked out to the kitchen window, where the sun was just beginning to rise. She would have heard the sound of birds chirping as the first thin line of daylight pinked the eastern horizon.
From Dickinson no.294:
The doomed regard the sunrise
With Different delight
Because when next it burns abroad
They doubt to witness it
Dad woke, saw her standing at the window, and led her back to her chair, where she returned to sleep. When I checked on her at 9:10, she was sleeping and breathing as well as she had been for the past two weeks. When I checked her again ten minutes later, her breathing had ceased and she was dead. It was as easy as that. Donnabelle Oard eased out of her life as gently as a summer breeze.
When I recounted this story to a friend the day Mom died, he wrote back, "I think your mother had a happy death." He was speaking of that look out the window. "One last look," he wrote me, "but this time into the Open." This was an allusion to Rilke’s eighth Duino Elegy, where the poet describes the mass of human beings as "spectators, always, everywhere, / turned toward the world of objects, never outward." He writes: "With all its eyes the natural world looks out / into the Open. Only our eyes are turned backward... Never, not for a single day, do we have / before us that pure space into which flowers / endlessly open." One of the few exceptions to this rule is the case of someone near death. "For, nearing death, one doesn’t see death, but stares beyond..." Mom, a few hours before she died, was staring beyond.
Such was her death. Her life is something all of us know about. But we each know a different part. We are all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle–like the ones Mom used to spend hours putting together–and if you could magically fit all of our little memory pieces together, you would see a picture of Mom. Believers and nonbelievers can argue about the afterlife unto eternity, but there remains one form of immortality that is absolutely inarguable. Mom lives on in the memories of every one of us–everyone on this room and everyone who came yesterday. We all keep her alive through our individual acts of remembering. And even Mom’s great-great-grandchildren as yet unborn will remember her in their way, since without Mom, her descendants would quite literally never have existed. Their lives (and all of ours, my brothers and sister and nieces and nephews into the second generation)–our very lives are a constant unconscious act of remembrance.
So let us consider Mom’s life. Donnabelle Jones Golden Oard, to give her her full name, lived a long and full life. When Mom was born in September 1929, the stock market crash that sparked the Great Depression was still a month away, Prohibition was the law of the land, Al Capone ruled Chicago, movies had only just begun to talk, when people spoke of "the war" they meant World War One, and in Washington the Republicans were fouling everything up. At Mom’s death, we are in the midst of a recession caused by the most recent stock market crash, Prohibition and Capone are the stuff of history books and gangster movies, silent films are a relic of a distant time, and in Washington the Republicans are still fouling everything up. (And Mom, as a lifelong Democrat, would surely approve that message.) Over the course of her life, she married twice, raised six children, worked in a factory, and performed for decades the countless labors we euphemize under the titles of ‘housekeeping’ and ‘motherhood’: cooking, cleaning, washing, driving, especially driving. Mom was forever picking us up and dropping us off. She traveled the length of this country, from New York City before I was born to Los Angeles in the 1980s, to those many trips to her favorite place, Las Vegas, in the 90s. From Portland to Myrtle Beach to Dallas to New Orleans to Albuquerque–Mom traveled to all those places, and more besides. And we mustn’t forget to numerous trips to Aunt Lucy’s in Anderson, and those journeys to Springfield and elsewhere in search of antiques–especially decorative teapots, Occupied Japan ceramics, and blue glass. With Mom, anything blue would do.
While I was assembling those photo boards over there a couple days ago, I began to look, to really look for the first time, at photographs of Mom. Our mothers’ faces are so familiar to us that we don’t really see them until they come to us in old photographs, the familiar defamiliarized by the passage of time. I saw Mom’s face make the journey from girlhood to adolescence, adulthood, middle age, old age. And yet it was always the same face, that same smile. (It’s easy to see, looking at the photograph in the middle of the top row, that Mike’s daughter Kristen inherited her Grandma Oard’s smile.) Look at that little girl, that little Donnabelle Jones–or "Babe," as she was and is known to Aunt Lucy’s side of the family–whom we see in that tiny cluster of school pictures in the top corner, that Depression-era schoolgirl, daughter of Andy and Pansy Jones, whom we see in the next picture standing in a garden run riot with flowers and plants. (A brief digression on Jones family nicknames: Aunt Lucy’s family call Mom "Babe." Andy and Eleanor’s family call her "Dobbie," short for Donnabelle. Our side of the family calls Andy "Noonie." but Aunt Lucy is Aunt Lucy to all of us.) When I look at those first, small pictures, I wonder: Can that little girl really be my Mom? I have a hard time believing it, since by the time I was born, Mom was already middle-aged. I guess we all, to a greater or lesser extent, have a hard time believing that our parents were also young people at one time.
As we move across the row of photos to images of the 1940s schoolgirl and young adult, I see a Donnabelle whom I begin to recognize. Posing on the edge of a fountain with Evelyn or in somebody’s backyard with Ruth, yes, this is Mom: a woman who always had a good time with her friends. (A brief digression: When Mom was in the hospital years ago, Evelyn, who was in a wheelchair and on oxygen at the time, visited her and asked, "How are you feeling, Donna?" Mom, who had just had a mastectomy, gave her customary answer: "Oh, I’m fine." Evelyn immediately responded, "Are you lying?" and Mom answered, "Yeah." Then Mom asked Evelyn how she was feeling. "I’m fine," Evelyn said. Mom asked her, "Are you lying?" And Evelyn said, "Yeah.")
In 1948 Mom married Arthur Lewis "Lewie" Golden, father of Ed, David and Susan, who was killed in a car crash in 1954. One of my favorite photos on this board is that snapshot of Mom as a young mother with a very young Ed. Almost twenty years separated the birth of her first child and her last, so Mom spent roughly thirty years of her life in the role we see her performing for the first time here: a mother caring for her young child. Many years after this photograph was taken, I was that child, and when I think back on my childhood with Mom, we always seem to be sitting in the car somewhere, playing some sort of game to pass the time. Twenty Questions was a favorite, I recall. (So many memories of games: board games–playing games with Kristen, etc.)
Mom married William Clinton ‘Bill’ Oard in 1959 and they remained together for the rest of her life, more than fifty years. The first part of the their life together, those Pine Street Years long renowned in family fable and legend, are commemorated here by two photos showing Mom in the kitchen. [one presiding at birthday party, other cooking] And I want everyone here to take this opportunity to consider how many meals Mom must have prepared in the course of her lifetime. The number would boggle the mind. That’s a lot of hamburgers and spaghetti, a lot of beef and noodles–and a whole lot of Mom’s delicious homemade macaroni and cheese. The kitchen was Mom’s space, her workplace, (and Mom was the disciplinarian there; all of us boys felt the "spoon with holes in it" across our backsides at one time or another) so there’s a great pathos in the fact that her final act on earth was to walk into her kitchen and look out her window. This was an act of defiance of the disease that had robbed her of the ability to prepare meals.
The last 25 years of Mom’s life, the period from the mid-1980s until about two years ago, was probably the time in which she had the most fun. This was her period of traveling. She enjoyed every minute of her trips to Vegas, and we all know that if there is a heaven, Mom has already found its casino. She’s playing the slots and listening to the Rat Pack, who are booked to perform in the lounge for all eternity. Several of the pictures on the other board show Mom at various of Dad’s naval reunions, where she got to know Marge, who became Mom’s best friend during the last decade of her life. After Marge and Herman moved back to Ohio, they and Mom and Dad played cards weekly, a fact that reminds me that I could not find any pictures of Mom doing something she enjoyed for many years: playing cards with Bob and Agnes, Don and Evelyn, Tom and Marylou. Those of us who were there should probably think back for a minute and remember those long, late Saturday night card games. The pictures in our heads are probably better than any that might have been captured by a camera. (And that goes for all this stuff: In fact, right now I would like us to take a moment of silence, and think of a time when you saw Mom truly enjoying her self, having a good time. Save that memory. It’s something to treasure.)
One of Mom’s favorite CDs featured Tony Bennett singing "My Favorite Things." Here, in no particular order are a few of Mom’s favorite things: Days of Our Lives (Every afternoon at 1:00 during my childhood, the voice of Macdonald Carey would say, "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives" and Mom would light a cigarette [she still smoked then] and sit down to watch the latest adventures of Doug and Julie); slot machines (she loved that one-armed bandit); board games (from Monopoly and Upwords to Scrabble and Sorry–and then there was checkers. I could never beat Mom at checkers. I still want a rematch); garage sales (both as buyer and seller, Mom loved browsing at garage sales and she always enjoyed having her own–there’s a beautiful photograph showing Mom and Lucy standing in front of Mom’s garage during a sale: it was taken in the morning and is illuminated by sunlight dappled by its passage through the trees); the Lawrence Welk Show (Mom never missed Lawrence Welk. Probably the last really good day she ever had was a Saturday during her last hospitalization when Susan and Ed visited and we all watched Lawrence Welk together. I don’t think Mom was ever that lively again.); Bob Evans (she always ordered the same thing: Sunshine Skillet, and it was always delicious); Loretta Lynn (Mom saw Loretta Lynn in concert at Memorial Hall back in the sixties, and every time the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter was on TV, she watched it. That movie made her a fan of Tommy Lee Jones, but she was really predisposed to like Tommy Lee since Mom half-seriously considered everyone named Jones to be at least a distant relative. Whenever a Tommy Lee Jones movie came on TV, I would always tease her: "There’s your cousin, Mom! There’s cousin Tommy Lee!") Back in the 1940s Mom was a big fan of Spencer Tracy, and she saw all the Tracy-Hepburn movies, but probably her favorite movie from that era, the one she continued to re-watch on video into her final years, was Laura with Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. And she was also a major fan of classic Hollywood musicals: especially Judy Garland, but also Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra. She told me that Sinatra’s version of "I’ll Be Seeing You" was her favorite song.
I'll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through
I'll be seeing you
In every lovely summer's day
And everything that's bright and gay;
I'll always think of you that way;
I'll find you in the morning sun
And when the night is new
I'll be looking at the moon
But I'll be seeing you
Her CD collection was eclectic, everything from Boxcar Willie to the Bee Gees, from Benny Goodman to the Beach Boys, Patsy Cline to Elvis Presley. In fact, another of her favorite songs was Bob Seger singing "Old Time Rock n Roll." She loved the Rat Pack and always preferred the original Oceans 11 to the George Clooney remake (although Clooney was one of her favorite actors of recent years). She loved family get-togethers: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and all those summer Saturdays and Sundays during the 1970s and 80s. When I say the word "volleyball," those long ago summer weekends should return to the minds of everyone who was there. But in a different category from all these mere things, Mom’s favorite ‘thing’ was seeing her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She loved you, and I hope you all realize how happy you made her when you visited.
When Mom was in the hospital a few weeks ago, sometimes spending most of the day unconscious, I once read to her from the poems of Philip Larkin, a dour and unsentimental poet whom I like a lot. One day after visiting her, I stopped at the new nature trail that’s under construction on Roush Road, parked my car in the gravel lot and walked the path as it wound through spring fields, over a river and gully, and all the way back to the banks of Lima Lake. I eventually found myself in the middle of a small pine grove in which the branches of the trees filtered the sunlight to produce a beautiful effect like a painting by Renoir. As I stood there, looking at this beautiful natural effect and thinking of Mom lying in the hospital and not really improving, a few lines from Larkin’s poem "The Trees" passed through my mind. It’s a poem that finds an image of mourning in the coming of spring. It’s a short poem, so I’ll read it in full.
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Mom passed away in the season of green grief, as corn sprouted in the fields and flowers opened to morning sunlight glittering the grass with drops of dew. She died as the natural world was coming to life around her, and the message of her death to us is a concise Latin tag: memento mori, remember that you too shall die. And live every day to the fullest, because every morning you open your eyes is a blessing.
One of my favorite lines from King Lear is "Tis not the worst so long as we can say This is the worst" As long as we are conscious of our condition, we have not yet reached the worst state. In her final days, Mom declined to a point at which she could no longer say, "This is the worst." That her death came when it did, and in the way it did, is thus also a kind of blessing. No one who loved her would have wanted her to live one day more in the state to which she had declined, and Mom would not have wanted it either. And I am convinced that this is one more reason for Mom’s last look out the kitchen window. She took one final glance at the familiar before taking her leave of this life forever. And now she is gone, and all we can say is Farewell...Farewell...Farewell.