Here is what I said at my mother’s funeral on June 11, 2016
As I stand here next to the flowers, the urn, and the picture of my mother, I am reminded that I stood in this exact same spot in 2007, nine year ago. That was at the funeral of my father. In some ways, it seems like an eternity ago; in other ways, it feels like it happened just yesterday. With my father’s death, I experienced an unusual reaction. I was bombarded with forgotten memories of my dad. It was as if the neurons in my brain were randomly firing, primped by my grief. They left me with a clear message of my father’s true value.
There was a score of these long-since forgotten memories, but let me share three of them. I remembered an incident where I threw up beside some mountain road, probably around the age of 4-5. I could not recall any details, but I recalled the feel of my dad’s hand, as he leaned me forward so I could throw up onto the dirt. I also remembered a car accident around the age of 9. When the green light came on, we started across the intersection only to have my dad slam on the brakes, as a car sped through its own red light. I do not recall any of those details, as the car missed smattering us into oblivion. But I remember the feel of my dad’s hand, bracing against my chest, stopping my forward movement – and that was prior to seat belts.
I also recalled an event when I was body surfing with my dad in Hawaii. I think it was Poipu in Kauai, but I am not certain. I was probably 11-12 years old. As we were waiting for a wave, treading water outside of the breakers, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a fin coming right at me. It was probably 10 yards away, but it felt like 10 feet. I yelled at my dad. Immediately, he grabbed me by the arm, yanked me toward the wave; and together, we caught the wave perfectly, riding it all the way to the shore. Once we hit the sand, we glanced around and there was that fin, circling in our spot beyond the breakers.
With each of those random memories, there was a connecting thread. With each incident, the details were long forgotten. But my brain remembered the feel (and the strength) of my dad’s hand, always reaching out to help me. That was my dad – always there to help. Those long-since forgotten memories had sent me a clear message, better explaining his true value. With the death of my mother, I waited for some similar memories of forgotten incidents. I waited and waited, but nothing came. I did not have a single episode of a forgotten memory. To be honest, that left me a bit unsettled. What had been her hidden value?
Then I received a number of emails and letters, expressing condolences. One letter came from an old friend who had lived two houses from us in my childhood. He observed how the Courter household had been where he had learned to swim and learned to eat! He remembered, like me, the helping hand of my dad, guiding him through swimming lessons in our pool; and he remembered the delicious sandwiches from my mother. He even acknowledged how he had tried to be around our house at dinner so he could eat her fabulous meals and tasty desserts.
His memories led me to reset my own thinking. The average adult today cooks only 27 minutes a day. In my childhood my mother probably spent 2 hours a day in the kitchen, another hour each day washing the laundry (without a dryer), and another hour cleaning the house. So, while my dad was able to find time to play with the kids on the block, my mother was always working on her many household tasks – and not so directly involved with the kids. For me, that always created a distance between my mother and myself, and it always made me curious about what was percolating inside that strong exterior.
My mother and I had opposing viewpoints of life. I was a great believer in the cracks in the wall, for it was the “cracks in the wall” that let in the light. It was the cracks in the wall – the missteps, the idiosyncrasies, even the mistakes – that made people interesting, unique, and special. My mother viewpoint was best expressed in her high school diary. In one passage she wrote: “I may never be beautiful, but I can always be beautifully dressed.” And that’s where her vision focused – on people’s appearance and attire, not on their inner characteristics. Certainly, not on their mistakes.
With these two opposing views, I would ask one question about something related to some inner quality and my mother would repeatedly answer with some tangential remark. At dinner she would not address any of my questions. Instead, she would discuss her friends. Or more specifically, she would discuss what they had been wearing. You see, my mother loved clothes, jewelry, and books. Now, I loved books. But jewelry and clothes? Like many men, I hated to shop. Clothes? Just give me a T-shirt and some jeans. Forget the rest. Not so for my mother.
From this perspective, it was difficult to assess my mother. She was smart and intelligent. Her brother had skipped two grades and she had skipped one grade. I remember her father once observing that she too could have skipped two grades, but he was worried about the age differential and the social shortcomings. He was a wise man. But, even skipping a grade, my mother’s high school diary revealed all As. Of course each diary note highlighted her outfit for the day. But the results of her periodic exams snuck into her diary. In those pages, there was something else. My dad may have been the best athlete I ever knew (captain of 3 teams in high school and his football team in college), but my mother has the largest vocabulary of anyone I ever know. Trust me. It was a challenge to read that diary!
Of course, over the years, my questioning eventually wore my mother down, but just a little. I remember two stories, which she once shared. She hosted a party one night that was a roaring success. Everyone stayed well beyond the expected time limit. So, my mother unexpectedly (and abruptly) plopped down on the living room carpet. Everyone crowded around to see what was wrong. She simply stated that she was not getting up until everyone left because it was beyond her bed time. People thought she was joking. She was not. Eventually they left; she got up; and she went to bed. Now, to me, that was spirt. That was the light from a crack in the wall.
When I asked her about college, she once told me that her favorite experience was sleeping on the golf course. My dad, a senior at the time, would grab his sleeping bag; he would escape from the dorm; and he and my mother would spend the night on the golf course. They would position their sleeping bag at the top slope of one of the greens; they would roll across the green; and they would laugh and laugh. My mother said she was surprised that no one ever heard them and that they were never arrested. Again, for me, that was pure gold. What’s better than romance, love, and some adventure? But would my mother ever tell me more? Ever tell me another similar story? Never. Not a one. But she could sure tell me what she wore on those dates to my dad in college.
When my mother was dying on her bed, suffering from a replaced hip, a fractured spine, and a brain bleed with subsequent inability to swallow, and while I was sitting there late in the evening at her bedside on the night she died, I found myself mourning the woman who was dying but also mourning the parts of her that I never had the chance to know. She never allowed for much scrutiny of those cracks in her wall. She repeatedly deflected anything of substance to discussion about her favorite observations – her clothes and jewelry. You can imagine how our conversations died without much resolution and without much bonding.
However, after her death, as I was packing up my mother’s belongings, I discovered something that unraveled her deepest secret and helped to explain her approach to life. For years and years, she claimed her marriage to my dad was on July 4th. I once asked for photos of the marriage, but she claimed they had been lost in our basement flood when I was three. Well, in the last of her boxes – at the very bottom of the box – I found an envelope, turned upside down. It was the last piece of paper; and it was her marriage license. The date was October 24th, not July 4th.
Clearly, my mother became pregnant in my dad’s senior year of college (she had already graduated a year earlier). Obviously, they were forced to elope and marry as fast as possible. In Sharon, Massachusetts. And my sister was named Sharon (or called Sherry). To my mother, that episode must have felt like a setback, a huge misfortune. But that is not how I viewed it. I thought again of the passion and the love within that setback. After all, that marriage lasted over 60 years and 19 houses. So, for me, it was the final crack of light. It showed me qualities that she had tried to keep hidden, buried beneath her fancy clothes and the façade of her exterior.
When I person dies, I like the image of him or her stepping onto a boat and traveling toward the horizon. As they head toward the horizon, we mourn because we cannot see them anymore. Finally, the boat disappears and we feel sad, never to see them again. But on the other side there is another shore. They are watching the arrival of the new boat. When they see who is coming, they break into applause, happy to see the return of a long-lost friend. For my mother, I hope she shares all of herself, including those cracks in the wall. With those cracks, she will make heaven a brighter place. I just wish I could have seen more of that hidden light.
Ah, the cracks in the wall … so important to share …