My mother’s in good company, and by this I mean, she died in good company. This month marks the anniversary of her passing, as well as the passing of such notables as Frank Sinatra, Phil Hartman, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name but a few. And, of these, Jackie O passed away the same year as my mother, but a couple of weeks earlier. Jackie’s life was celebrated with scores of magazine special editions that came out in the days following her death, and I went out and purchased a few. I grieved for Caroline Kennedy who, like me, was still in her thirties, as I felt a connection with her that dated back to our childhood years, when she was in the White House and I was playing hopscotch in Queens.
JFK & Jackie, circa 1960. Photographed by Frank Fallaci.
But no sooner did I learn of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ passing, that my own mother had a seizure and fell, hitting her head hard on the bathroom floor. Brain dead, was the verdict upon arriving at the hospital in the early hours of Memorial Day. I was awoken by a call from my sister telling me the news. Not sure what to do, my sister’s words sprung me into action: “Come. You need to get on a plane and come.”
I flew out the next day and on the way there, I wrote a poem for my mother, not realizing that this poem would end up becoming the eulogy and that I would be the one to read it. The words poured out of me, along with my tears and pain, and when it was finished, five pages later, I was devoid of any feeling except one: The moment in my life that I had dreaded most had arrived—I had lost my mother.
Unlike for Jackie, there was no televised funeral, no dignitaries in attendance. But there were a lot of friends and family, and even come cousins and one of her sisters, who flew in from Caracas for the occasion. Together, we shared our sorrow, love and relief. Relief that the Alzheimer’s could get to her no more, and could not frazzle her brain any further.
The week is mostly a blur now, but I have fleeting memories. Of seeing folks I hadn’t seen since I was a kid in Queens. Of posing for pictures with my siblings and playing in the front yard with my nieces. Of collapsing twice, under the weight of my grief—once upon saying goodbye to my brain dead mother in her hospital room, and once while on a walk with friends.
I remember sitting in the office of the funeral director, going through the motions of choosing everything from the casket to the service, and how, at the last minute, one of my brothers insisted on buying a wooden cross to put in the casket, tucked into her folded hands. I remember the funeral procession and how the police escorts were able to control the traffic lights so that they stayed green for us all the way to the church. I recall, too, not being able to console my father, and arguing with my sister over what flavor ice cream to buy for the wake. Finally, I remember placing a copy of the poem I’d written into my mother’s casket, and wondering whether Caroline Kennedy was faring any better.
Since then, I brace myself at the start of May. For me, it is a month of reflection, starting with the feelings elicited by Mother’s Day. During the month, I quietly remember Jackie, Frank Sinatra, and Phil Hartman (who was tragically murdered by his wife), who each contributed greatly to this world and were favorites of ours. And when Memorial Day weekend rolls around once again, my brain compels me to relive that time, 17 years ago. Which is when it hits me: May must be a hard month for Caroline, too.
So I leave you today with an excerpt from the poem I wrote for my mother.
There is so much more I want to say:
I want to thank her for showing me the moon, the stars,
For making a romantic out of me,
For taking me into her garden of creativity,
Filled with roses, tulips, pussy willows,
Lush with life and grace,
For taking me to story hour at the library,
Encouraging me to read, to discover,
The Wonders of my youth…the unexpected possibilities,
Amazing me time and again,
Over and over,
With her passionate love and devotion,
Strength and resilience.
For forgiving me my rebellion, my trespasses—
Sometimes frightening, sometimes maddening—
For allowing me to pursue my own life on my own terms.
For loving me–Right or Wrong.
Before the Alzheimer’s began to take her from us,
Before she lost her memory, her identity,
I can remember her.
My Selfless, Fearless, Loving Mother
I want to thank her now but I know,
I can never thank her enough,
Yet I want to thank her,
For to me she is still the most beautiful mother in the world.