The kid on the swim team I knew when I was growing up drove to the party in Cocoa Beach, Fla. from Miami on Saturday. On Sunday, he would have to fly to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff or something like that. My friend is in charge of the Navy in the Atlantic. Before that – a couple promotions ago – he was in charge of the Navy Seals – all of them. He made the time to come to my mother’s goodbye party. She died at 84 a few weeks ago. In his brief speech in front of the roughly 70-80 people I have known around 40 to 50+ years, Joe shared that in the past when he came home to visit, his first stop was to see his father. His second was to see my mom. When he said that, I thought I was going to lose it.
My friend Jim, who I saw last at my birthday party when I was 11 (I’m 58 now), came with his mom who I had not seen in an even longer time. When she left, she insisted that I come back “home” and stay with her anytime – “really.” She meant it. Jim, her son, gave me a big hug and said that he was sorry he had to leave early. His wife, he said, was in ICU with a 106 degree temperature. I almost fainted. He made time to come to my mother’s goodbye.
Three friends – the Jensens – drove down from Gainesville, Fla. I have known them all my life and they are more like family to me than friends. Holly drove down with her mother, who is failing with Alzheimer’s. Having her mother Joy there was beyond my belief. But she really should not have traveled. Her sister Heidi drove down too. She is my oldest and dearest friend. She is half of my childhood. Had she not been there, I would have had no closure – none. But they all made the time to be there for mother – for me and my sisters.
Our old neighbors were flying in from Mississippi, but had to cancel at the last minute. Rita really should not travel because she has a leukemia-like disease. They too were going to be there for mom, because they couldn’t imagine not.
Janice, one of my sister’s oldest friends flew, in from Louisiana. I know that the thought of not coming to say goodbye to mother never entered her mind. She made the time and came.
Julie, Heidi’s childhood friend and mine, flew in for mom from Texas. Before I drove down for Julie’s mom’s funeral last year, I gently nudged Heidi to also attend “for Julie.” She said that she couldn’t. She said she had way too much on her plate – and she did – but as the service was about to start, she was there hugging Julie, and I think we were all crying. I had driven down for Heidi’s dad when he died. Nothing I know could have prevented me from being there for him or for Heidi and her family. Nothing.
And my wife Christina who has put up with me now for over twenty six years was there beside me while mom was dying in the ICU and also did much of the heavy lifting for moms celebration. She worked so hard managing the arrangements and also being the good hostess to so many of my friends she had never met and did not know. And when mother was in ICU it was Christina who pulled us all together; who led us in prayer and song; and it was Christina who I think was most comforting to mother in her last few hours. Her role in our village has been as seamless and loving as it has been vital.
The majority of the people who had been important to us throughout our lives came to mom’s good bye even though many had not seen her or us or each other for 30 or 40 years or more. It was so amazing to me.
Why did they come for mother? What was going on in Cocoa Beach while Hurricane Sandy passed by a couple hundred miles off the coast that night and a rainbow welcomed the morn? What was it that drew together this group of old, old friends – my sisters and I and the memory of a silver-haired saint of a woman? Or something else?
When I spoke to the group, I told them that every time I sat down to try to write about mother’s life that inevitably I started writing about her friends instead. I told them this: “I can’t separate mother’s life – or mine – from yours. I can’t look at you. I can’t think about her. I can’t live my own life and go much more than a day or two without seeing, or feeling or remembering something one of you did, or said, or shared or gave to mother – or my sisters and I.”
I told them that we were all connected – still – and that mother just happened to be one strand of that connected web. Mother, my sisters and I left “home” over 25 years ago, but mother’s death erased that time, those 25 years, instantly in the blink of an eye. It was an image straight out of one of the final pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Hundred Years of Solitude” and I now so understand how and why he wrote that passage. I saw it with my own eyes – those 70 to 80 old friends, mentors, neighbors, teachers, grandparents all converging almost like graphite being pulled to a magnet, blending past and present and wrapping their arms around each other for one of their own as if time had stopped and fallen into a deep dreamed-filled sleep and the village was still and at peace.
When I closed my talk, I said that “I really hadn’t grieved for mother yet because so much of her is still here in this room – in all of you. And part of her, I know, will continue in your children and mine. That gives me great comfort.
“Mother’s life to me was and is an active life; one that continues to nurture much of what is good in all of us.
“We’re all connected. We’re all part of that precious village on the river. We do not take a step or a single breath but for and by each other.
“It takes a village to raise a family and what a village you all have been. For mother, my sisters and I, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
Mother did go gentle into that good night, finally, because her friends threw palm branches into her path as she passed by and because she reached out to each and every one of them with a kind word always and simply, love. So, bye mom. You did so well. I hope when my time comes, I will be able to hold my head as high as you held yours and will have been even half as loved as you were by so many. You led a life of grace.
We’re all so glad we were part of your life and you a part of ours.
And so what was going on that day - or all those years? I would have to say simply, that it was “love” from a different time - a love connected by immutable bonds that never weaken or grew old.