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Accepting Death and a Eulogy Reading

The eulogy was close to one thousand words, not enough to sum up the life of my mother, she was much more then a simplistic speech. The reality of her death as well as a graveside reading during the funeral proved to be one of the most difficult times in my life. I will elaborate on this in a moment.

Rewind one day from the funeral: My two older brothers, my older sister and myself collaborated on the eulogy in the rabbi’s conference room right after the funeral preparation meeting, condensing my mothers life into three modest paragraphs. My sister took a few notes, then sketched out and handed me a rough draft, “think this is ok?”

With a weak smile I answered, “ill give it a few tweaks”.

An hour prior to that: During the family meeting, the rabbi asked who was going to read something about the life of our mother at the graveside service, I knew that this would be an excruciating emotionally difficult thing for any of us to accomplish and like many other unimaginable situations in my lifetime, the burden was passed to me. Usually, blame works it’s way down the sibling ladder and responsibility works it’s way up. Not this time. While we pondered the rabbi’s inquiry of who would be reading the eulogy, our eyes averted from oldest brother Sam to middle brother Joe to my sister Rachel and then all eyes rested on me, neither of my sib’s wanted any part of it, hesitantly I volunteered to read the eulogy.

Going back a year, September 2010: I get a shocking call at work from my sister, she tells me to meet her at a diagnostic center that she had taken mom to. “It may be cancer!” she said. Carol, my mother, had been complaining for a few weeks of problems swallowing and a constant soar throat. All my siblings were there, (at the diagnostic center), we met with the doctor first, mom was still in the observation room. The doctor showed us the results of the endoscopy. There were what appeared to be cancerous polyps in her throat and spreading to her lymph-nodes and liver. Mom was immediately enrolled into the Siteman Cancer Center and for the next few rounds of tests and exams, all my siblings and myself attended. It started in her esophagus. Her oncologist determined it was from cigarette smoking even though she had quit twenty years ago.

Chemotherapy was prescribed and the first few rounds seemed to be at least containing the cancer. It was an awful treatment. Mom would get blisters all over her body or her skin pealed, her head throbbed, her body ached and it wore her down physically.

Initially, the first few scan results were positive. White blood cell counts were higher then before and the cancer was contained. We all relaxed and figured that my world traveling mother who volunteered and worked on Israeli Defense Force bases could handle cancer. “Pshtt, she got this” Is what we thought and life was back to normal for my siblings and me at least for a little bit. We didn’t suspect, or maybe we denied, that the cancer was slowly taking over.

For almost a year we took turns taking mom to her chemo treatments. It was really the only help she wanted. Through the year, she worked, bookkeeping in the family business. She attended university credited classes, acrylic painting and anthropology. She planned adventurous excursions, she was supposed to teach English for a semester in China but had to postpone. She chaperoned her grandchildren on “Bubbie” trips, the last one being a trip to New York with My sixteen year old niece Shaina who is interested in Broadway and acting. For my mother this was normalcy.

The end came quick. Mom arrived back from the two week New York vacation, (my dad went on this trip and they also went to Washington DC). The following day she was examined. The results were negative, the cancer was spreading fast and the doctors took her off of the chemotherapy, apparently the many different drug combinations they had tried were now damaging and or ineffective. We scrambled to get her admitted into different hospitals one in New York another in Jerusalem. But her body deteriorated quickly and she was immobilized and unable to travel, her liver failed and her abdomen distended, filled with fluid and had to be drained several times within a couple weeks.

The last three weeks were really painful and tough (on whole family) she stayed at my dads condominium (they divorced twenty years ago but remained business partners and somewhat rekindled over this last year). My dad made sure mom was comfortable, he showed a lot of kindness, humanity and compassion. Her only complaint was she wanted her bed and not the hospital rental. My siblings and I were there every day feeling guilty about time lost over the years and tended to her last few needs. I brought my kids to visit as much as possible, Sophie and Elizabeth were oblivious to what was happening to their Bubbie but Olivia and Hailey eventually distanced themselves from her because it was scary and difficult for them to understand what was happening and why.

A hospice service came to check vitals and adjust medications every other day but it was us, my dad, my siblings and myself who took care of her up until the end and she wanted no life support or hospital rooms. No IV. No monitors. No catheter. No injections. Nothing except pain medicine.

There were few preparations that mom did not take care of, one was her funeral arrangements and the other was where she was going to be buried. Sib’s and I morbidly took care of both and this was also a setup for the last joke my mom made. We made possible so my mom and dad had a burial plot next to each other. When mom overheard my sister and dad talking about the burial spots, my mom remarked to my dad with a grin, “looks like we will be arguing for an eternity”.

A few days later she took her last breath. It was a sweltering Friday afternoon. My older brothers and their significant others, my sister and brother in law, a couple older nieces and nephew, my dad, Kim and I, all solemnly huddled around her. A silent good bye. An unspoken acknowledgement that we would be alright and that mom would suffer no more. Silently, we bargained for one more burdened breath that would never come, we said a peaceful goodbye.

*

Back to the reading of the eulogy: The funeral was the following Monday morning. Kim and I decided to send Elizabeth and Sophie to child care because chasing them around the cemetery would be distracting. However Olivia and Hailey attended the service. A traditional conservative Jewish funeral and service is done graveside followed by seven days of shiva. First the rabbi cut a black ribbon pinned to the shirts and blouses of the immediate family members then he recited the kaddish, a mourners prayer. He said a few more prayers and summarized my mom’s life from the notes he took at the family meeting the day before. He told a story, one which I was unaware of, a story of how my mother had arranged for prayer books to be sent to a small start-up synagogue in Israel and how while on a sabbatical in Israel the rabbi and his group became lost and happened upon a temple. The disheveled group entered the temple looking for help. After a quick explanation, the rabbi was delighted to find that this was the very temple that my mother arranged to send the prayer books too. The host rabbi was so excited to find out who the lost strangers were, he exuberantly showed them the inside cover of their prayer books which read “donated by B’nai Amoona” and he ended up treating the weary lost strangers as if they were royalty as well as catering the group to a big meal.

The rabbi also talked about all of the volunteer work my mom did, the hospitals she helped in, the military bases she spent months on and he talked about the organization that my mother helped in founding, Shaving Israel, which coordinates donations used to supply the Israeli Defence Force with necessary toiletries.

After a few more heartfelt words, The rabbi then handed the mini microphone over to my eldest nephew Nathan a college kid studying acting and English who prepared a brilliant eulogy on behalf of all the grandchildren. He delivered a poised elegant speech with touches of humor and gratefulness. It was perfect.

After Nathan’s speech, my niece Sadie said a few words and then Olivia and Hailey stepped up to the make-shift podium and read a few sentences that they wrote together commemorating their Bubbie. I was very proud of them. It was heartbreakingly wonderful.

Then it was my turn to eulogize. Like Nathan, my eulogy had a spot of humor, it was poignant and full of thoughtful remembrance. Unlike Nathan, I have failed to deliver even one public speech in my lifetime. At my wedding all I could conger up was a bumbling “thank you”. Here at my mothers funeral, about to give a speech representing my siblings and myself, I trembled in front of a couple hundred people staining my notes with tears. The first few sentences came out in sobs. I stumbled through a few more sentences and dared not make eye contact with any of my brothers or sister as it would have spiraled me into a swelling of emotional cries. I looked at my shoes, tears raining down upon them, it looked like i had stepped into a puddle. I could taste salty tears on my lips, tongue and back of my throat. I stammered though a few more sentences, my head was spinning, I was on the verge of passing out, I’m sure I was ivory white because Kim jumped up from her seat, came to my side and rescued me. With her extra support I was able to continue. I couldn’t believe that I was standing there reading a eulogy for my mother. It was surreal, but I read on and I’m glad that i did. The burden became an honor and made the unbelievable, undeniable. I finished much stronger then when I started.

*

After I read, my dad told a short story, the one about the last joke my mom made. Then the cantor sang a few of my mothers favorite songs as the casket was lowered into the ground. The heavy lid of the concrete sarcophagus slammed shut with a loud resounding bang, snapping disbelief from anybody who was in denial. Then everyone in attendance tossed shovel fulls of dirt on top. I did four heaping loads. One for each of my children.

We spent the next three days at my sisters house sitting Shiva, welcoming friends and family to share memories, photos and meals with us. Traditionally seven days of Shiva is required however the rabbi had made an exception for us because we had been together everyday for almost a month caring for my mom.

Acceptance is an on going process, a process that may never be fully completed. It has been two months and not a day goes by that I don’t grieve and reflect on the death of my mother. It is haunting. Writing about her has helped but I’m still recovering and reconstructing myself. Remembering what an inspirational life she lived.

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17 Responses to “Accepting Death and a Eulogy Reading”

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