Christmas Tribute

This morning, my very large family filed into Immaculate Heart of Mary Church to say a final farewell to our mother.   The last several days have been filled with tears, laughter and embraces, and although my heart is still too tender to do much writing, I wanted to honor her by posting the eulogy I delivered at her funeral.  Here’s to you, Connie Madison.  I will love you forever.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.                                                                          First Corinthians 13: 1-3

The reason I chose verses from this chapter of scripture is because it is commonly called the “Love Chapter, ” and it is impossible to speak of Mom without mentioning love at the same time.

I often thought that God created a special mold when He formed Mom.  One with big feet to keep her stable when she carried her babies.  One with broad shoulders to bear the burdens of people who would sit at our kitchen table and pour out their troubles over a cup of coffee.  One with large hands to knead several loaves of bread- some for her family and some for a neighbor.  One with a mind that searched and questioned and taught her children and grand children and great-grandchildren to do the same.  One with long arms to embrace many- to draw them close enough so it is hard to know where they begin and she ends. One with a heart that beat a constant cadence of love and acceptance and inclusion.

We grew up feeling as if there was nothing Mom couldn’t do.  She could sew just about anything- from a snowsuit cut from Dad’s Navy uniform, to flannel shirts for her three sons, to wedding gowns for her daughters, and quilts to keep her grand children warm at night.  Her garden grew like her family- plentiful, large and robust.  She knew how to read music and do math in her head- skills that to this day still escape me.  She was strong enough to wield a hammer and gentle enough to put a cool hand on a feverish forehead.  She wasn’t afraid of lightning storms, didn’t faint at the sight of blood, and she had the compassion to adopt a mange-covered puppy and make her a life long companion.

There were a few things that Mom never could master. She never learned to like asparagus.  She never learned to call her children’s names out of birth order.  (all together now- Martha, Garrie, Robin, Scott, Teri, Kevin, Ricky, Missy.)  She never learned to save her money instead of giving it away.  She never learned to say no if somebody needed her.  She never learned to put herself first.  She never learned to feel sorry for herself.

Mom took an old house with crumbling plaster walls and made it a safe haven for anyone who entered its front door.  It was a loud house- a symphony of children running up and down the stairs, music from the hi-fi, and a washing machine that was constantly running.    There was always room for one more person at the dinner table, always a cup of hot coffee for a visitor, always time to help with homework, always a moment to kiss a boo boo or mend a broken heart.  And there was laughter.  Lots of laughter.

Mom didn’t keep her love inside the confines of our house.  She was a favorite teacher who could find something loveable in every child she taught.  They felt her acceptance and I remember many occasions where I would walk into her classroom after the last bell had rung to see a ragamuffin kid that no other teacher wanted snuggled by her side while she helped with a difficult lesson.  They would lean into her, and she would embrace them, no matter how dirty, how smelly, how unruly.

I saw one of her best examples of her acceptance shortly after I graduated college. She and I were walking on Main Street in Palmer, and a dirty, disheveled man came toward us. His eyes were rimmed with red and he staggered a bit.  As our paths began to cross, Mom recognized him and called his name.  He realized who she was, and she gathered him close and hugged him like a long lost brother.  They spoke for a few moments and he smiled, wiped a tear and went on his way.  I was aghast.  I had no idea who this man was and why my mother would hug him.  She explained.  He used to bag her groceries at the old A&P, which had closed many years before that. She said that he never complained about the many bags and he always helped her load them in the car.  She wanted him to know how much she appreciated his help and valued his service. We went on about our business and she didn’t give it a second thought, but I learned a lesson about love that I will never forget.  Love is not selective. It is to be given liberally and freely and without expecting return.

During Mom’s last days, we talked a lot about love. She reminded me over and over that all people need to do is love one another, and the rest will fall into place.  She asked me to pass on this message.  It is her legacy.  The reason for her life.

A lot of people have remarked to me how sad it is that Mom passed during the Christmas season.  But I think it is one of her most appropriate acts.  Christmas is the time when we celebrate God sending His only son to earth so He could die for us.  It is the ultimate act of love, and she based her entire life on it.  When we celebrate Christmas, we acknowledge love in its purest form and we encourage ourselves and each other to mirror this love in our daily walks.  We honor God and we honor Mom each time we speak a kind word, or soothe a troubled soul, or help a wounded stranger.  If we loved Connie Madison, and I know everyone here did, we will carry her message of love, and teach it to others. 

For if we have not love, we are nothing.

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Look at it This Way

One of the lessons my mother taught me was to look at things from a positive perspective.  Whenever we were down in the mouth, she would begin with, “Look at it this way…” 

Me: “My car broke down and I had to walk a half mile to a phone.”

Mom: “Look at it this way.  You wouldn’t have taken the time to see what a beautiful day it is.”

Or, Me: “I lost my job.”

Mom: “Look at it this way.  Now you have time to finish that sewing project you are working on.”

You get the point.  It is with that attitude that I have begun to see the Hospice House where my mother is staying.  You can look at it as a place where people go to die.  Or you can recognize it as a place where people celebrate their last days on this earth.  I choose to see it as the latter. 

Tonight while visiting my mother at the Hospice House, I ask her if she is afraid.  Her shaking hand takes mine, and she nods her head.

“Sometimes,” she says.  “Last night everything was very dark, and I got very scared.  But Eric, the nurse who was on, came in.  He sat by my bed and held my hand. He goes to my church, you know, and I think he was praying for me.”

I have come to think of Eric and the other nurses and staff at the Hospice House as angels.  I have never seen them grumpy, have never heard them complain, or act unprofessionally.  They comb her hair and help her to the bathroom, and when they change her sheets, they coordinate the colors, so her room looks fresh and pretty.  They are kind and attentive and cheerful, and during this past week, they have come to know and appreciate my mother.  They tell me that they enjoy taking care of her and I love them for this.

While I sit next to my mother’s bed, my sister Teri sends me a text. “What is Mom’s favorite Christmas hymn?”  I know she is thinking of our upcoming meeting with a funeral director.

I ask Mom, and she thinks for awhile.  She can’t remember the name, and can only remember a few of the words, but she knows the melody.  She tries to hum it, but her voice is very weak, cracking and shaking, and I cannot follow it. 

“Hand me a pencil and paper,” she directs, and I obey.  She shakily draws a staff and begins sketching notes on it.  I desperately want to read it, but I have never mastered the art of reading music.  Then, I have an idea.  I pull out her laptop, the one she has told me will soon be mine, and I ask her to tell me the few words she knows.  A few moments on Google, and I triumphantly produce the lyrics.  Gesu Bambino.

“Mom!  I know this music!  I sang it in a pickup choir when Abby was a baby!” I tell her. 

I begin to sing it for her and she smiles and joins in.  She wavers, her voice barely above a whisper.  My voice cracks as tears roll down my cheeks and splash on the computer, and I can hardly hold the melody line.  We finish the song like a couple of old crows.  But to my ears, it is beautiful. 

I wish it were not this way.  I wish my mother could still sing in the golden voice that once held a spot in the alto section in her college choir.  I wish we were in our old house on Green Street, baking cookies and making plans to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child.  This is not my first choice.  But look at it this way:  for a few shining moments on a frozen December evening, I get to hold my mother’s soft hand and sing her favorite Christmas hymn. 

Oh, come let us adore Him.

The Star

When I was a little girl, I wondered where the stars went on rainy nights.  I thought there was some kind of weather switch that turned on their lights when the skies were clear, and shut them off when drops of rain pattered against the window of my upstairs bedroom.  I remember being quite surprised when I realized that the stars remained where they were, but were just temporarily blocked by the churning clouds that brought rain and snow.

Last week, I was reminded of this as I watched my brother Kevin.  I was at the hospital with my mother when he strode in.  Kevin is hard to miss.  He is huge- 6’5”, with large shoulders, huge hands and a huger smile.  When he arrived, I had just begun to give my mother a sponge bath, and rather than staying outside until we were finished, he rolled up his sleeves to help.

I watched as my younger brother gently and carefully helped bathe and dry my mother, and as he brought her to the bathroom and back.  She leaned on him, confident that his strength would compensate for her weakness and he responded with a grace and ease that left no room for embarrassment or humiliation.  He enveloped her shaking hand in his firm one, and supported her weight as we got her settled again in her bed.

I had never seen this side of my brother.  I know his training as a firefighter/EMT has taught him how to help the sick and injured.  But I had never seen how gentle, how kind, how graceful he is.  He knew when to speak, when to smile, and when to move.  His silent strength filled the room, easing my mother’s discomfort and my anxiety.

Initially, I had been frustrated that the hospital staff had not been as responsive to my mother’s needs as I would have liked.  I know that they were doing the best they could with the staff they had, but I was angry that she had to wait so long for responses to her calls for help.  I was frustrated that nobody had taken the time to help clean her body and comb her hair.  I wanted to point out that she was not just the woman in Room 4030, but she was somebody’s mother, somebody’s teacher, somebody’s friend.

But now, I see that I was given an opportunity to see my brother at his best.  Had my mother’s needs been met by a stranger on the fourth floor, I would not have observed how my brother shines. For a brief moment, the dark was split by his light and I was privileged to witness it. I should have known all along, the star had always been there, just waiting for the clouds to part so he could fill the dark with his silver light. 

Thank you, Kevin.  You are a shining star, and I love you.

My Mother’s Hands

I have always hated my hands. Unlike the slim soft hands of most women, they are work hands- made for wringing diapers and kneading loaves of bread, like my mother’s.  Other women wear colored nail polish and sparkling jewelry to call attention to the delicacy of their hands.  They easily slip into slim leather gloves and tiny gold rings with diamonds that catch the light.  But I am embarrassed by my hands and do not call attention to them, but rather keep them hidden, even stuffed into pockets whenever possible.

Today, I helped my mother prepare for her transition to a nearby hospice house. After several days in the hospital, she was unwashed and uncombed.  Her soft curly hair was matted from lying in bed and her hospital gown was twisted and wrinkled.  Knowing how this made her feel worse, I volunteered to give her a sponge bath and she agreed.  As I gently rubbed her back with a warm wet cloth, she sighed in contentment and told me how she remembered washing her mother shortly before she died.  I felt honored to be part of this legacy of love- to be the one to carefully wipe her face and rinse her feet.  Her hands were bruised and swollen.  Afraid that her rings would become so tight they would hurt her, I soaped her hand, and in one gentle motion, slipped them from her finger to mine.

We moved her to the hospice house where angelic nurses fluttered in to welcome her to her new room. The walls were washed in sunlight and the furnishings cozy and inviting.  The sterility of the hospital was replaced soft footsteps and cheerful chatter, as the nurses worked to make her comfortable.  She smiled in relief and appreciation.

Later that evening, as we stood by her bedside, I watched her hands shakily finger her rosary beads while praying the Chaplet of Devine Mercy.  Her hospital gown had been replaced by a soft white flannel nightgown, her hair combed.  Her hands counted their way through the prayers.  The same hands that rubbed my back to put me to sleep. The same hands that braided my hair, and hemmed my dresses, and hammered nails into the wall to hang my artwork.  The same hands that wrote on the chalk board for hundreds of middle school children.  The same hands that held my father’s when he passed from this world to the next.

When I got home this evening, I took a long hot shower, letting the water wash rivers of tears down the drain.  As I dried my face, I caught a glimpse of my hands in the mirror.   The two silver rings, one filigree and the other turquoise, still were on my finger.  They fit my hands.   My hands.  Made for wringing diapers and kneading bread, and washing my mother in her final days.  They are big and strong.  And beautiful.  They are my mother’s hands.

The Toppling of the Towers

I play computer Solitaire.  A lot.  It started when I discovered it as a free game on our first family home computer, and it grew into an obsession.  I play at rocket speed, timing myself to see how quickly I can sort the cards until they are organized into neat piles.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure this out.  I hate chaos and disorder.  I detest clutter.  And I have formed a pattern of coping with problems alone.  It began when I was a young woman in an unhealthy relationship.  Grey clouds would gather, the air would thicken, and rumblings would be heard from a distance.  Slowly, deliberately, the sky darkened and large raindrops randomly splashed against the pavement, and then, little by little, they quickened.  Soon there was nothing but chaos- crashes of thunder, flashes of lightning, rain like sheets falling from billowing masses of black and gray.  When they passed, I never talked about the storms.  When the sun again emerged, I would smile, clean the debris, and act as if nothing had happened. 

I did this for years, until I could no more.  Finally, I began a new chapter of my life and on a different computer, learned a new version of the Solitaire game.   This version was harder, requiring much strategy and careful maneuvering.  I lost more than I won.   Still, I sorted and organized and piled the cards into neat harmonious groups.  It was systematic.  Orderly.  Tidy.  But a few weeks ago, after I successfully finished a game, I realized that once the piles are completely sorted they topple, crashing to the ground where they shatter into small bits and shards.

I have thought about this a lot. From the moment we are born, we crave the company others.  Babies know this. We can feed them and change them and wrap them in the finest of blankets, but sometimes they cry because they just need to be held.  They nestle into our arms and snuggle their heads into the crook of our necks.  When they get scared, they run to their parents, holding up chubby little hands to be lifted to the safety of a daddy’s shoulder or a mother’s lap. 

Animals know this. They herd together for warmth and safety.  Elephants form protective circles around an injured or weak family member.  Puppies and kittens lie so closely when nursing from their mother that it is hard to tell one from another.  Ants move in armies, relying on the strength of the group to bear a load that greatly outweighs each soldier.  Horses bay and whinny when one is removed from the other’s eyesight.  Sheep move as one when lead from the pasture to the fold.

This lesson has never been so obvious as it has during the past month.  My mother, the hub of the mighty wheel of my family, has become ill.  The knowledge that she will not be with us for long emerged from a vague distant fog and has become glaring and stark.  She has always been there, soft and warm, with strong arms that pull us close to her breast.  She has taught me how to live, how to laugh, how to love. Imagining life without her leaves me with flowing eyes, and a lump in my throat that cannot be swallowed.  I want to run from this, to hide in my game of Solitaire.  To sort and order and make neat piles. 

But as I watched the cards topple from their towers, I remembered that life was never meant to be a game of Solitaire.  A different strategy is needed.  Instead, I reached out to my siblings, my children, my nieces and nephews, my cousins, my friends.   We did not sort ourselves. We did not pile into congruent towers of like suits. Instead, we formed a circle.  And here we stay.  We stand together, shoulder to shoulder, supporting each other’s weight, wiping each other’s tears, bearing each other’s burdens.  In the circle, there are no towers to tumble, no crashing of cards to shatter on the floor.  Towers fall when they are stacked too high. Circles widen to embrace new members. 

I will always try to sort my life into neat, orderly piles.  And I will always live my life with a healthy sense of independence.  But in the days ahead, Solitaire will be played on my computer.  Life is a team game, to be shared with the people I love.  If you look, you’ll find an opening in the circle.  Come on in.

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