Bungling through…the memorial process

My mom's melted-crayon painting. She wasn't trying to be avant-garde about the medium, she was just out of paint.

This past Saturday, with Hurricane Irene throwing the East Coast into an unexpected panic, I held my mom’s memorial service. I’m not sure if “service” is the right word — she was an unconventional person, and it was an unconventional event. I rented a small gazebo the gardens of a public park. I hired an acoustic guitarist to play folksy songs from her era. I emailed her closest friends. I wore flip-flops and brought my dog, Casper. We had no minister, no bouquets of flowers, no formal program, no rain plans. And yet it all came together.

I hadn’t planned on speaking at her memorial. I’m not the most charasmatic public speaker anyway, and when you mix faulty presentation skills with the pain of loss, it’s pretty much guaranteed NOT to be a pretty picture. I foresaw my voice cracking, my throat closing, my face clenching up with grief — the whole idea of it made me lightheaded, dizzy, and practically immobile with fear. I figured I could give myself a pass on this. I mean, everyone knows I’m grieving. Everyone knows I miss her. Why make a show of it? But on Thursday, just two days before the memorial, I was sorting through her house and found something she’d scribbled on the bottom of a cable bill: “I am not going to shy away from the things that make me uncomfortable sometimes.”

At first, I thought, how great! What a nice little find — I don’t know why she wrote that down, or what she was thinking about when she did, but I loved the idea of her facing an uncomfortable situation, approaching it handily, taking it on with conviction. Not letting her fear or discomfort get in the way of something she felt driven to. What great words to live by! Maybe I could make this my mantra!

And then the Tony Robbins effect wore off, and it really hit me, and I thought, oh crap. If I really wanted to honor her, I’d have to step up, face my own discomfort, say a few words in front of her friends.

And so, on Saturday, I did. I only spoke for about a minute — and it was about the scribbled words I found. And my voice did crack, and my face did seize up, and I probably only got through it because my dad called out to me to take “three deep breaths!” (which, as it turns out, actually DOES work), but I didn’t shy away from the thing that made me uncomfortable, and I think that would have made her happy.

And I’m glad I did. Because you know what? Among other people, an EIGHT-YEAR-OLD BOY, an amazing kid, actually stepped up and said a few incredibly wonderful words about her, and I would have felt really, really stupid if I couldn’t have handled a few of my own.

I don’t really get the How To Recover From This Kind of Loss just yet. My mom was my friend, my advocate, my confidant. She made me laugh. A lot. (Sometimes purposeful, sometimes not — sorry, mom!) She was always up for an interesting conversation, and had her own unique way of looking at the world. She was the person who loved me most of all, and one I loved back pretty damn hard. She gave. I don’t know if I ever gave back quite as much. But hearing her friends speak about her helped, and hearing Elijah say what a nice lady she was helped. And maybe bucking up and saying a few words too helped. At least now, I can’t regret that I didn’t.

My friend Michele read the essay “Nurture a Plant” from Richard Carlson’s DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF (AND IT’S ALL SMALL STUFF) — a book we found in her house. And my dad gave me a melted-crayon “painting” she did of two horses (I told you she was different, right?), and a photo of her from the Peace Corps in Venezuela, laughing and running downhill with the little girls of the town. And we ended on this poem.

AFTER GLOW by Helen Lowrie Marshall

I’d like the memory of me

to be a happy one.

I’d like to leave an after glow

of smiles when life is done.

I’d like to leave an echo whispering softly down the way,

Of happy times and laughing

times and bright and summer days.

I’d like the tears of those who

grieve, to dry before the sun,

Of happy memories that I leave

When life is done. ~

And I think that helps too.

My mom with the children of the village of Cumuna, Venezuela, where she served in the Peace Corps.