One cold day last year, I stood in the parking lot of my parents’ lawyer’s office. I was the executor of their will, and we’d just spent a bracing afternoon talking about nursing homes and do-not-resuscitate orders and how we’d divide up my parents’ accumulated detritus after their deaths. We were joking around–I remember saying something like “Don’t either of you dare get dementia; anything but that”–it was stupid. I barely remember what we said.
But I do remember my mom got this serious expression on her face. I think I was asking her if she wanted to be buried or cremated. She said something like “I just want you to eulogize me.” We’d been laughing and joking about this, but in this moment, my mom was not joking. She seemed suddenly very sad.
I said the only thing you can say to that. “I will, mom.” It felt like a promise. That wasn’t very long ago, and I thought we had so much time.
My mom died of cancer on May 30, 2017. She was feeling under the weather for months before I even knew; her stomach was upset and she couldn’t eat. For a large part of that, I didn’t even know she was sick–when I mentioned her in my post about dyeing my hair purple in February, she was feeling the cancer and I didn’t know.
Finally a gastroenterologist admitted her into the hospital, where she was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. It had metastasized to her liver, lungs, stomach lining, abdominal wall–it was everywhere. She lasted a month and ten days.
I’ll have more to write about this later. For now, I want to share the eulogy I promised my mom. (I also wrote her obituary, which I called her eulogy in a Facebook post; I’ve since realized that a eulogy and an obituary are not the same thing).
So here you go, Mom. Just like you asked.
There’s a lot of lore in my family about my mom. There’s the story of how she used to run ten miles every day, even when she was pregnant, right up until the day she had me. There’s the one about how she rappelled down El Capitan when she was young—the truth of that one is disputed, though my brother and I both remember that story. There’s the one about how she rode her horse into her dorm in college, and cooked a turducken to impress her mother-in-law. Yes: a turducken. But the one that’s always felt the closest to me—that’s lived in me, always, is this one. When I was born, my mother knew me.
She said I came out as babies do, red-faced and loud and probably ugly (I am not a baby person) and I opened my eyes. And her first thought was, “Oh. It’s you.”
Sometimes she’d tell that story like a joke, with a sarcastic tone. Other times she’d tell it like she was trying to say I was my own person, even then, with my own personality. But I always believed that what she really meant was that she recognized me. That we’d known each other always, down endless lifetimes, and this was just our latest meeting. I’m not religious and neither was she. But this was always the meaning I took from it.
My mom was my best and closest friend. She was the first person I told about all my successes; all my heartbreaks. She used to joke that I’d probably need to see a therapist to talk about all the damage she caused, but not till I was 40. But I was lucky. My mom loved me, and I always felt that love. She didn’t try to hurt or control me with it. Somehow, through some herculean feat of excellence, she managed not to damage me. (My siblings are another story. I’ll let them speak for themselves.)
Herculean feats of excellence were my mother’s baseline normal. But she wasn’t obnoxious about it. It was just how she did things. When I was young, my mom had a garden—it was just behind you, by the trees. The vegetables that came out of that garden tasted like real vegetables. Like summer and sunshine. I took this completely for granted as a kid, but as an adult, I’ve come to realize this is why I find supermarket vegetables vaguely depressing: because I remember what they’re supposed to taste like.
My mom made pickles, and they became legendary—especially the dill beans. My aunt Laurie told me that my mom read about how to de-bone an entire turkey once, in a magazine—and then proceeded to do it flawlessly, with no rips, so that the bird deflated like an old balloon. Like she’d done it a thousand times. This, if you’ve never done it before, is hard. Everything she did, my mom did well.
Eventually, my mom drifted out of domestic goddesshood and into other interests: horses and the law. Horses were actually an old interest. My mom had a beloved horse when she was young named Jack Flash. She took him to college and boarded him in a farmer’s field, fed him corn husks and rode him in the dorm and loved him as hard as she possibly could; as hard as a troubled teen can love her lifeline. When I was eleven I got my own horse, also named Jack Flash. Pure coincidence. Our lives were full of weird parallels like that.
My mom and I would gallop over the back roads and trails of Hartland and Brownsville and Woodstock, me often hanging on for dear life. I was a Pony Club kid; a trail-riding, three-day-eventing, muck-out-the-stalls-in-the-backyard-stable kid. My Jack frequently ran away with me, sent me sailing into arena walls and fences and water hazards. I didn’t care because True Love, and my mom never, ever suggested we sell him and get an easier horse. When I fell off, she didn’t coddle me. She told me to get back on.
My mom went from an opinionated quarterhorse mare to an opinionated thoroughbred mare until finally she swore off mares and found Mel, a Percheron-thoroughbred gelding. She then began a fifteen-year relationship I can only describe as a love story. My mom and Mel adored each other. She put him in dressage training, and his trainers took him all the way up to Prix St. Georges. Mel performing at that level was a sight to behold—all arch-necked, glossy bay, muscles popping out everywhere, brimming over with joy and power. He won nearly every show he entered in. My mom was so proud.
She saw the extraordinary in Mel before anyone else did, and she saw the strength in me until I could see it in myself. She taught me excellence as a baseline normal; taught me by example and not through pressure. Taught me to always get back on the horse. The only thing she couldn’t teach me was how to live without her.
I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in organized religion, or anyone else’s idea of an afterlife. But I believe my mom knew me the moment our eyes first met. I believe we knew each other before, and we will know each other again. I believe she isn’t gone. I believe she isn’t gone like I believe in the ground beneath my feet.
My mother saw me into this world, and it was my great honor and privilege to see her out.