I’m posting this publicly for my relatives who requested it. We have, understandably, had a very different type of Advent this year, one filled with radical hospitality and love to the end, but nonetheless difficult. I am grateful more than I can say for being able to be there, singing Psalm 91 (90) as my mother peacefully reposed. I gave this eulogy at my mother’s Catholic funeral Mass. Later, I sang the Ave Maria at the offertory. Now I am grateful for the quiet of Christmas with the Silent Word, God the infant, so I can know God in quiet, too.
Poems, like lives, don’t have to rhyme to be beautiful and true.
When we realized that Mom’s mortal life was drawing to a close, I tried to write an epic poem about her life. I only managed three stanzas before I realized that I wasn’t up to the task. It was called, The Ballad of Wendy Elaine, and it was going to be epic! But it turned out to be like a sea shanty without the dope beats and harmonies. Here’s a sample:
When they were small Keely reached for a balloon
That was caught on a live wire, as she found out soon.
Our mom saved Aunt Keely from dying by wire
By hugging her sister whose hands were on fire.
When Mom was a tween, she was happily swimming
Without realizing a cloud started spinning
Her dad pulled her onto the shore of the beach
Thus saving Mom from getting pulled into the breach.
Then she got older, and this is the turning
Of our tale from adventure to heartache and yearning.
Mom’s three big loves left her rather bewildered–
The musician, the dreamer, the steady builder.
Well, you see why I gave it up. How can you rhyme a whole life? I wanted to write you a poem about Mom’s life, but besides the difficulty of summarizing so much, I couldn’t figure out how to rhyme some of the saucier bits—like how she rocked a bikini in the 80s—with the somber ones, like how she had a broken heart that she never quite came to peace with. Or how she would fight a wolf or a dog to save her children, but she couldn’t save herself away from the Wolf at the door.
Then, I remembered that poems, like lives, don’t have to rhyme to be beautiful and true. Some of Mom’s lines were brilliant, warm and good, even if they were in unworthy stanzas. This is part of the reality of dancing the delicate balance in life between giving people space to grow and pushing them away.
So in that spirit, here are some of Mom’s best lines. She loved the beach. She loved animals, especially horses and songbirds and dogs. She loved to garden. She loved music and cooking and dancing. She loved to laugh with her friends and neighbors, and especially with her sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins and grands and great-grands.
Before she died, Mom told us that her mama came to talk with her in the hospital. She loved her mama and felt increasingly close to her in her last days.
But most of all, my mom loved children, especially her own children and grandchildren. She told everyone who came to see her about how proud she was of each of us. And even if she didn’t quite get the details right on our accomplishments—an unrhyming line here or there—her love for us and pride in us was true and good. Lest it seem self-serving for a child to boast of her own mother’s love, I’ll tell you this: Mom never met a baby in the world that she didn’t smile at, and you know, Mom’s smiles (that lit up her bright green eyes) were contagious. Those babies almost always smiled right back.
I haven’t painted you a clear picture yet, so I’ll try again. Imagine, if you can, a garden filled with flowers and healing trees. It’s by a river with banks of sand that mold perfectly around your toes so you feel like maybe you’re a tree, too. Mom is standing there in that sand with green leaves in her hair that smell like the prairie after the rain, and a sea breeze rustles her hair. Did I mention? The river leads on to an ocean with water so pure that you can drink it even though it’s salty. Mom’s hands are full of hibiscus and roses, and she sees through the trees a parade of those who’ve been waiting for her. First come her dogs, because they run faster than everyone else. There’s Brownie, and Bear, and Chubs, and Kutsut and Stupid, and Goliath, Blimix, Jill, Hank, and Old Blue, and Yawnie and Andre, plus a few strays she never named but who followed her anyway during their short lives. Then there are little children running rast on the heels of the dogs. Her three miscarried babies and her miscarried grandbaby Seraphim look up at her with sweet faces that now she can kiss. They grab her hands, and Mom drops the flowers on the shore. The whole frolicking group of dogs and children surround her and tug and guide her forward with tiny hands and soft nose boops, to splash through the water to the other side.
Mom remembers her dancing days then, when as a teen and in her twenties she loved to go to Gilley’s and Magnolia Gardens to hear the live music and to dance with one of the loves of her life—she had three—and someone has been playing a fiddle to a dancing tune all along, which she just noticed. She and the children pick up their feet and splash dance across the river, which is so smooth that their movements ripple out around them like music notes. Her foot reaches the other shore, and a faithful horse nuzzles her neck. She pats its nose, then looks up at the sound of her name. “Wendy,” her mother calls, and there they are in bright clothes and shining faces, all the loved ones whose faces were engraved on her heart.
She feels like life was the photograph of this new reality. It was all so beautiful and good, but it was not the most real part after all. There’s a song being sung, and her people sing it to her in between their greetings. She is singing it, too, between the laughter and the hugs. It echoes back to her and seems to come from everywhere. The walls of time recede a bit, and she can hear the song when she was a child on Galveston Island, playing under Aunt Max’s house with her cousins and brothers and sisters. She hears the music louder during big moments—the time she saved Aunt Keely from being electrocuted, the time Mom was pulled to safety from the water during a waterspout, the stories she told of porpoises to calm children, the ghost stories around campfires, the hours in the library surrounded by the vanilla crisp of old paper as she searched out her family roots. Now she sees all the faces that were once only names on paper.
The song gets louder with the birth of children and the times she brushed our hair off our foreheads when we were sick. She hears it through the review of her hours standing on her feet doing hair. Before her, moments of her life unfold to reveal hidden pictures and mercies that she couldn’t see before. Every word of comfort of kindness she spoke, every time her intuition was one for love instead of fear, echoes with the song. And then there are the horrible moments, which she can face at last in that place: the days and nights of abuses, the bad decisions and the times when she couldn’t see her way out to a better option. She’s surprised that the song doesn’t stop there. It simply changes from a dance to a cradle tune, asking her to lean on the unseen voices that are leading the music.
Now it shifts again, to long days when soaking in the heat of the sun were her best joys, and books—so many books!—flutter their pages in salute as she draws nearer. Their pages carry her forward like a conveyer belt, closer to the fiddle and the singing. And she sees good days again near the end of this parade through the grove by the river. There she is beaming with pride and joy in her children and grandchildren, laughing with her sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews, drinking chocolate milkshakes and watching Charmed with Kristin and T.J. Admiring the drawings and handicrafts of her grandchildren and enjoying the music they made on guitars and drums and singing, and telling everyone how smart they are.
Suddenly a bright red bird comes into the procession, and Mom follows it with her gaze until she is looking one last time right at us. The cardinal sits on her left shoulder, and two doves alight on her right hand. “When you see these birds,” she says to us, “Know that I am smiling at you. If ever you’re thinking of me, I am also thinking of you.”
Then the music gets so loud, it’s hard to hear her. And a brightness grows so much that we observers can’t make out the details well of the procession and the garden Mom has entered. We hear a quiet voice that might in fact be louder than everything –it’s hard to tell– and the source of all that brightness, a person clothed in light, opens His arms and says, “Give her to me, now.” To Wendy Elaine, it sounds like this: “Come to me, now.” And we say, “Oh!” because there’s not really a word for that kind of peace.
But there is one word we can remember from the song, because it’s still singing all around us. Mom’s passing by has helped us hear it. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy, this sacred life. Holy, this sacred love that can heal all things. Holy, this song that is with us.
And to this merciful God who loves all humankind and whose character is always to have mercy, we commend our dear mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin, and friend to Christ our God. Holy. Holy. Holy. She is at peace in that song now, and we are singing it, too, because God sings it in and with us.
Remember Wendy Elaine when you feel the sun or smell the salt air, when you tend a rosebush or smoke a brisket or fry a chicken fried steak or cook with her recipe for chicken and dumplings. Remember her when you smile at a child or pet a dog or feed a horse, when you read a good book or have a just-right cup of coffee. Laugh for her now. Smile for her now. Live for her. Zoe se sas.