When I cried at my mother’s funeral two years ago, I had no idea where the tears came from. It was the first time I had shed a tear since my father died in 1975, I’m pretty sure. Incidentally, they snuck up on me then, too. I was just 17, a month before returning to the east coast to finish my last hellish year of prep school.
They snuck up on me like a thief, and I was somewhat shell shocked and embarrassed as I stood there at the Montview Presbyterian church podium sharing memories of my mother and lifelong best friend. I had been doing so well, I thought, and I had been calm. My composure was immaculate, perhaps in subconscious honor of both my parents who were nothing if not masters of composure and bearing. But then, in the almost exact middle of my prepared remarks, I broke from the script to haltingly announce to those gathered that I didn’t think I was going to…
And then, like a paper doll squeezed a bit too tight inside a child’s fist, I crumpled. The words evaporated, and I cried so hard I shook. Two very good family friends who had also delivered remarks at what was a very intimate service and were seated nearby came up slowly to put their arms around me. They didn’t try to stop the pain, nor did they try to steer me to sit down. They simply became the strength I needed until mine returned.
The room was silent, but I could also sense its warmth. And yet I still felt somewhat off balance, more so than I was comfortable with. Mostly because I had no defense against a flood of emotions that practically sucker-punched me without warning in public, and I felt completely naked and exposed. Exposed as weak? Some sort of fraud? Afraid that in that awkward Polaroid moment they saw something they weren’t supposed to see? I still don’t know, and in some ways I’m still reflexively trying to forget.
Although the church was full of nothing but friends and family, those who were there solely to lend support and a soft landing (in anticipation of a crash..?) I had not given them permission to see me like this and it almost made me angry. Maybe that was why I tried to warn them in advance that I was not going to be able to finish my remarks. Maybe what I was really warning them against was that I wasn’t going to be able to maintain my composure and that I was so sorry for how uncomfortable this might make them feel. I hate making people uncomfortable up close. I only throw bombs from a distance — but with precision.
It was the first time I realized maybe I’m a bit of a control freak, and not in a good way.
Mom died on February 17, 2016, not long before noon. It was a clear day. I had returned to Denver two weeks earlier from Detroit when I got the call that her time was short. I had been flying back and forth to Denver for several years at that point to take care of her as best I could from a distance. With no brothers or sisters and Dad having passed away so long ago, it had been, as my wife liked to say, me and Mom against the world for years.
Mom and I used to love going to the movies. Sometimes we would see two or three in the same day. Other times we would go to the IMAX theater to see whatever was showing there. As time passed and she was no longer able to do that, I would always go to Blockbuster and rent movies for us to watch at home. We also used to get up early every morning years back whenever I was home visiting to go on her favorite walk around Cranmer Park. If I slept too long, she would rap her small knuckles on my bedroom door telling me to ‘get outta there!’ Over time that cherished walk became interrupted with more breaks and rest stops until I eventually had to drive her there and walk with her to the bench where we could sit for awhile.
And then there was that time we drove all the way from Los Angeles, where I was wrapping up my year-long internship at the Los Angeles Times, up the west coast to Vancouver to see the Vancouver Expo in 1986. After that we drove home to Denver, stopping in Seattle along the way to see a friend of mine for dinner. After we finally made it back to Denver, I dropped Mom off, then kept driving all the way to Ann Arbor, Michigan where I began my first job as a newspaper reporter at the Ann Arbor News.
We had so much fun…
As I stood in the room on her final day, together with her good friend Carol, we both watched as her whispered breathing slowly came to a stop. I remember saying simply, “I think Mom stopped breathing,” and then I walked over to place my ear above her still lips. I think I kissed her on the forehead. And then I went to get the nurse.
I didn’t cry.