Rhonda Johnson: Hey, that was a terrific eulogy you gave old man Soderbergh at his memorial service.
GK: Thank you.
Guy Noir: Too bad the old coot couldn't have been there to hear it.
Yolanda Johnson: Yeah... and to have missed it by just a few days.
—A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
I’m starting to turn into the “go-to” guy to speak at funerals. It’s not a task I’m especially enjoying, but I try to do a good job of it.
It started about twenty years ago when my grandfather died. I don’t really know why, but I felt as though I had to say something, and I scribbled some notes on a scrap of paper earlier in the day. That scrap, which I put in the casket with my grandfather, was little more than a bullet list of things I wanted to make sure I said.
I opened that one with a joke; in fact it was my grandfather’s favorite joke. I think I’ve written it here before, but it bears repeating. Remember that I STARTED with this, with no preface:
"There once was a girl from Boston, Mass,
Who went in the water up to her ankles.
It don’t rhyme now, but wait till the tide comes in…”
I remember my mother audibly gasping as she realized what I was saying. I think she thought I was going to launch into a comedy routine. But the point of the joke was that my grandfather could see the humor in nearly everything. He had an interesting way of finding absurdity in situations, and I think I’ve picked that up from him.
When my stepfather died a few years back, I was asked specifically if I’d say something. That one was tougher to do; I had to come up with a more prepared script to work from. It also didn’t have any jokes as such in it, although it did have a few inside references. At the end I remember hearing my aunt say something like, “That was lovely” and, as I returned to my seat, “Nice job.” Unfortunately when she died last fall, I wasn’t able to be on-hand.
My friend Aime died the day after Thanksgiving; scroll back a few posts and you’ll see that story. I knew that I had to say something as the person in the room who probably knew her the longest—excluding relatives, of course. Most of what I said came from the post I did here, although in the church I poured a Jack and Diet Coke, her favorite drink, and toasted her. It was kind of cool to see about thirty hands holding invisible drinks to go with my visible one.
Then my uncle, my mother’s brother, died a couple of months ago. (Yes, this has been a rough year for my family; why do you ask?) And again, I was asked to say something.
So naturally, when all this went down with my mother two weeks ago, I started thinking about what I was going to say. Of my two brothers, I didn’t really think that one of them was going to speak, and the other one would be a toss-up. But as the oldest, I was essentially the lead-off batter anyway. I had to encapsulate a lot of elements. And while I used this site as a means of playing around with a couple of them (some of what follows will definitely look familiar), I didn’t do any serious writing until very late the night before the service.
I was sitting up in bed and Wife was trying to get to sleep. My laptop has a pretty big screen, so it throws a lot of light. So between that and the fact that I couldn’t get comfortable typing where I was, I moved to the living room and started writing. At some point I got stuck and needed some structural help, so I launched my browser and did some quick internet searches. I also opened up Facebook to see what was happening and to post a status update. A FB friend of mine spotted me online and asked me what I was up to. I told him, and he and I chitchatted while I worked on my piece. When I finally got a reasonable draft into place, I asked him to look at it. After a few minutes he came back and said some really nice things. I started sending him changes and subsequent paragraphs, and he had a few suggestions, most of which I incorporated. I got a LOT of compliments on what I said, so I guess I did a good job on this one, However, credit needs to go where it’s due, so I have to say thanks to Chris M. for his late-night help.
Anyway, this is what I said:
Thank you all so much for coming and making time to be with us today.
In a song, John Lennon said "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans." It wasn't long after that that he was killed by a deranged fan.
Likewise, my mother was a person whose plans were cut short unexpectedly. And she did have plans:
- She was pondering buying another home to use part-time so she would have an easier time visiting her other sons.
- She was looking forward to attending the Pig Roast next month.
- She recently bought a car and financed it, rather than paying for it outright.
- The night before she died, she was working on a shopping list.
These aren't the actions of someone who wasn't counting on making it through the weekend.
But let's face it: nobody counts on not making it to the next step. We all think that the tree goes on forever, and we're just going to keep on climbing. And it often takes an event like this for us to realize, Hey--there are no guarantees in this life.
For those of you who couldn't figure it out just by hearing her speak, my mother was born in New York City. And even though she moved out to Long Island as a child, and lived down here in Florida for over twenty-five years, she still managed to hang on to an accent that would make Fran Drescher say "Hey, dial it back a little, would ya?"
She married her high school sweetheart and had her first child while he was deployed in Asia. Another child followed right away, and a third a few years after that. When that marriage ended in divorce, she persevered, working at jobs that paid poorly in order to be more available to us. When we got a little older, she took a better-paying position with a less-conventional schedule. And in between all that, she managed to find love again, this time with a little more permanence attached.
When we were kids, we were short on the money but long on the hugs and the laughs. Something I learned only this week was that she got together with some other moms and formed a group dedicated to clipping and redeeming coupons. She was a class mother when we were in elementary school in the days when that was a thing, she--with the help of the neighbors--constructed elaborate Halloween costumes for us when we were small, she shared her love of pop music with us.
[Note: it was at this point that I went off-script, relaying an anecdote about a game that she and I had when I was ten or eleven years old, where we’d challenge each other to identify the title and artist of the songs on the radio. One time, during a car trip, she got stuck on the title “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and she was essentially stalling, waiting for Elton John to get to the part where he sings the title. As he got there, the car briefly entered a “radio desert” and the radio went all static just long enough to obscure the song title. She was not a happy camper that time.]
In recent years, Mom dedicated a lot of her time to volunteering with the folks at [Hernando Pasco] Hospice. This organization has done a world of good for people, including members of this family, and she gave back to them with the gift of her time. She took a lot of pride in the work that she did, and even though the people she worked with were chronically or terminally ill, she maintained a cheerful demeanor with them that they managed to return.
Mom was very supportive, even if she didn't necessarily agree with the decisions we were making. She was always proud of her family and was especially excited to see them take the big steps in life. And she was especially proud to see [my daughter] graduate from college a few weeks ago. Come hell or high water--and high water nearly happened for real--she was going to attend that event. And she did. During that time she also told me how proud she was of the fact that [other relative] had scored a high-power internship in New York City.
She was so happy to see the big strides that [my nephew’s] been making lately, and I think she would have been delighted to see the video of [Wee One] singing the Star Spangled Banner for her 8th grade graduation earlier this week. The bottom line is that when it came to her family, she usually had something positive to say about everyone in it.
Last weekend, this all came to an end, but Mom continued to give. She was an organ donor and because of her, a man in Jacksonville now has a new chance at life. Because of her, two people could receive the gift of renewed sight. Because of her, scientists may learn a little more about diabetes.
Many people will surely miss her, especially us, her family and wonderful friends. I know that whether you called her Mary Rose, Mom, Grandma, Aunt Mary, Grandma Mary, whatever, her memory will live on in the hearts of all the people that she touched during her life.