Mother, by numbers

At nearly 12,000 words, the following is easily the longest blog entry I’ve ever written. I wrote the three parts at three different times. I don’t expect anyone to read all of it, and even if someone does, I don’t expect them to react. I won’t say my grief is gone — probably never will be — but I’m not looking for sympathy. Please don’t feel compelled to offer it. This is just something I had to do. It’s a story that needed to be told. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it. Thanks.


Mom, thanks 4
60 years of parenting and
6 years of pregnancy,
resulting in 8 mis-4-tunes,
who would have been
2 much 4 other mothers 2 toler-8.
But even though your procre-8-ions
were of-10 a bunch of reprob-8s,
you saw us through with a be-9 attitude.

L8er in life, your heart is still a 1-der.
And even though your blood pressure is 2 high,
your resistance is 2 low,
your legs are 2 weak 2 stand 4 long,
and your hands shake 2 hard 2 hold on 2 much,
you have a strong grasp on 1 important thing –
the love from all 8 of us,
which can never be measured by any number.
And that’s what really counts.

I sent that to you in an e-card yesterday, Mom — complete with an image of the Jolly Boys — although I have strong doubts you’ll ever read it. You aren’t able to use the computer these days. Maybe Dad can help.

When I called to wish you a happy Mother’s Day, I asked one of the sisters — I don’t remember which of the four it was (remember how Nanny used to say she couldn’t keep track of them, because all of their names started with “S?”) — to prompt Dad to make his weekly email check last night, hoping he would read you the tribute and show you the picture. But I can imagine him getting frustrated at the numeric shorthand and giving up. I couldn’t blame him if he did; it’s confusing to read. It might even have merited a “wtf” (never mind what that means, Ma) out of him. But let’s face it — he’s lucky I didn’t write it in full-fledged 1337. (That’s pronounced “leet,” Ma.)

It’s also not exactly a showcase of my best writing; probably some of my more intellectual friends would scoff at it, but you know what? Fuck ’em if they do. (Whoops. Sorry, Ma. Kim can wash my blog out with soap later.)

That piece wasn’t intended to impress anyone. It’s cliched, childish, and contains offenses against the English language so egregious that they should be relegated to text messaging (that’s what you see all the grandkids doing, Ma). But it was still heartfelt and important to me, if not to anyone else.

I started thinking about this the last time we came up for a visit. On the day we left, you weren’t feeling well, and you asked Dad and Shelley to let you stay in bed. You didn’t even want to eat. When I came down the hallway to say good-bye, I stopped in the doorway to your room, feeling like I was interrupting something. There sat Dad on the edge of his bed, right next to your hospital bed, spooning yogurt into your mouth. It was a sublimely tender moment, and it made me think of two things.

The first was the 50th anniversary party we threw you back in 2001. That was before your Parkinson’s was diagnosed, and it was a happier time. I was honored to write the toast, and I used a bunch of numbers then, too. Remember that? It wasn’t as weird as the piece above, because I wasn’t using the numbers as syllables. Instead, it was an equation, looking at everything you two had done together. Seeing you two together in your room, Dad feeding you, reminded me of seeing you together at the anniversary party, and I started thinking about writing another, shorter numbers-based piece. That’s where the above came from.

But it made me think of something else, too, and I’m sorry this is a little darker. It made me think of a song I know by a band called Death Cab for Cutie. The song is called What Sarah Said, and it’s a song about watching a loved one die. It’s a beautiful song, Ma, and it makes me cry just thinking about it. Seeing you and Dad, I heard the first line in my head:

And it came to me then,
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to Father Time.

I probably said some prayers to Father Time as we drove home that afternoon, but the rest of the song was on my mind, too. The title refers to one of the last lines in the song, where the narrator remembers what someone named Sarah once told him: “That love is watching someone die.”

While our situations are vastly different — I believe he’s watching a lover die, and I get the feeling it’s from something unexpected, rather than a slowly progressing disease — the sentiment is still relevant. I used to think it referred to watching someone die in general, but I’ve come to the realization that he’s comparing two sets of people — those who wait for the news outside of the hospital room, and those who are in the room with the patient, watching as opposed to waiting. I think that’s why Dad is against the idea of sending you to a long-term care facility; he wants to be there with you throughout this whole ugly process. He’s not going to metaphorically sit in a waiting room.

The song also appeals to me because of the name Sarah. You might not remember, but you once told me that was the name you’d been planning to give the fifth sister, who was stillborn. I know you felt a connection to her, and I loved how you referred to her by name during the rare occasions when you talked about losing her. In a way, maybe Sarah has said to all us that love is watching someone die.

Then there’s this line:

And I knew you were a truth
I would rather lose
Than to have never lain beside at all.

Again, this is spoken to a lover, but it’s true of mothers, too. It hurts to see you fading, but it beats not having known you. And the line made me think of countless evenings the kids spent on your bed, watching that tiny little black and white TV while you tried your best to read. (I don’t know how you did it; I still can’t read if there’s any background noise.) Just lying there next to you in the king-sized bed that felt like a huge expanse to us, watching whatever sitcom was on that night with you beside us, while Dad tinkered with his equipment in the basement. Sometimes it was me and Shelley. In later years, as Shelley grew out of that practice, it was me and Bryan. Later, only Bryan. But Shelley and I came back to it the night they showed The Exorcist on network TV, didn’t we? You would think the edited-for-TV version of that movie would be considerably less scary, but not enough to keep us watching it downstairs alone. Sorry again about that; I know you wanted nothing to do with that movie, not even to hear it as you tried to read. But you were our mom, and you abided, as moms do.

Exorcist aside, those were some of my favorite childhood memories. And as the song says:

It stung like a violent wind
That our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds.

I’m trying hard to reload that camera, Ma, and I’m sorry I’ve been sitting in the waiting room for so long. I know what’s coming, and I’m going to bring myself into your room to be with you for it.


I started Part 1 as a blog entry four years ago, the day after Mother’s Day. I could never bring myself to finish it. Guess I was still sitting on my ass in the waiting room, after all. That changed last fall.

The emails came from my sister Shelley, the nurse who’d left her home and family to move into our parents’ house, spending half of her time helping Dad with Mom and half of her time working at the local hospital. I guess she slept the the third half. At least, when she wasn’t busy keeping us updated with emails on Mom’s declining health.

First, the hospice news at the end of September. The local hospice organization was willing to help provide in-home care. This was the clue that I’d better get up out of that chair in the waiting room, and stretch my legs.

Next, the first weekend in October, the dropping vitals. Mom’s oxygen count was low, and hospice was sending out a tank — but she kept pulling the tube out of her nose. She was also refusing her meds, and having some sort of severe shaking episodes, which looked more like seizures than Parkinson’s tremors. This email used phrases like “you need to be prepared” and “she is steadily declining.” Shelley assured us nothing was imminent, but neither was it far off. It was time to start walking down the hallway from the waiting room.

Nine days later, a more dire-sounding email. She was extremely weak, with an irregular heartbeat and a low-grade fever. The hospice nurse had seen all of those symptoms in previous patients at end of life. It was time to quicken my walk, and to enter the room.

I made arrangements for work, Cub Scouts, and Parks & Rec basketball, and took off. I forgot to pack several things, but I brought a suit. I listened to “What Sarah Said” in the car repeatedly on the four-hour drive, trying not to cry to the point of becoming a driving hazard.

When I arrived, I walked into her room, and was shocked at how emaciated she looked. I tried not to show the shock as I said “Hi, Mom!” as cheerfully as possible and bent down to kiss her cheek where she lay in her bed. She looked at me as if she didn’t know me, and didn’t say anything. That’s how most of that week went — her in her bed, sometimes looking around, sometimes sleeping, always saying barely anything. Still, at least she was conscious some of the time, and able to speak if she tried. It was a small, weak sound, but it was good to hear when it happened. Usually, it was Dad or one of the kids doing the talking.

That first week, it was the four “jolly boys” and two of the four sisters. We mostly took turns sitting by her side while the others stayed out in the living room. Those in the room, either wept privately or tried to make wise cracks within earshot of Mom, trying to get her to say anything. On one occasion, I and my brothers Walter and Bryan were joking with her about which of us must have been her favorite. My sister Sandy walked in just as I asked Mom, “So, who really was your favorite, Ma?” In a rare moment of lucidity, she recognized Sandy as she walked up to the bed, and called out her name. For the next two weeks, we joked that Mom had settled the argument, and Sandy was her favorite.

Another time, Bryan and I were in the room, on opposite sides of the bed. Mom’s eyes were closed, and we assumed she was asleep, so we were trying to be quiet. We were both looking down at the floor when I thought I smelled something, and as I looked up, I caught Bryan’s eye and grimaced at him, whispering, “Did you fart?” Without opening her eyes, Mom said, “Yeah” in a little, insignificant croak. Bryan and I spent the rest of the time in her room trying not to laugh.

Other times were more solemn. We’d sit and hold her hand, quiet and pensive, knowing full well what was about to happen. Walter posted on Facebook of the holy nature of grieving, how it creates a sort of sacred ground, and that’s what her room felt like during that time — a sacred place. The atmosphere in that room was palpable, even for those of us sacrilegious enough to make light of things within its boundaries. But we did so with a purpose, and the purpose felt worthy of the holiness in that room. Anything less worthy was kept out of Mom’s room, down the hall in the living room, where jokes and conversation flowed freely. There was the holy place, and there was the villagers’ encampment outside its border.

That time was surreal, and exists in my memory in a place outside of any sort of timeline. We took turns sleeping on the couch or floor, or in various hotel rooms in town. For some reason, all of Culpeper’s crappy hotels were booked almost full during that time, and we spent it rotating nightly reservations from one to the next.

I saw my first seizure that week. I was in her room, holding her hand as she slept, when her arm twitched and her hand clamped down on mine. Then her entire body began to twitch, and suddenly she was wracked with violent convulsions that seemed too powerful to be associated with the small, frail figure that had just been lying there in front of me. I called out for Shelley, and she and Dad came running. Dad took Mom’s other hand, and Shelley ran to the kitchen for Mom’s seizure medication and an ice pack. Dad held the ice pack on Mom’s forehead while Shelley navigated the medicine dropper through Mom’s pursed lips. Dad spoke comforting words to Mom, and I just wanted to scream. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. The worst of the convulsions stopped after about two minutes, but the twitches continued for about half an hour. I felt wretched and helpless.

I had to return home over the weekend to help Matthew and Kim with a Cub Scout commitment. Before I left, I had a private conversation with Mom. My other sister Sharon had come to see her a week or two previously, and that morning, my sister Sue had called. Mom hadn’t been able to talk, but we had held the phone to her ear. Before I left, I took stock for Mom. She was awake, and looking at me, so I said with a tremor that she’d now seen or spoken to all of her kids, and most of her grandkids, so if she felt it was time to let go, it would be okay. I couldn’t stand the thought of her holding on for our sake, especially if she was suffering, and I told her not to. She glared at me, as if I’d just said the most impertinent thing I’d ever said to her. I told her I love her, and promised to come back after my commitment to Matthew.

That was two and a half days later, and something interesting happened during the last bit of the trip. I was driving down Virginia Highway 3, thinking about Mom and letting go, and was about 10 miles out from the house when a huge eagle flew into view, coasting alongside of the car and tracking my drive for a little bit before veering off and soaring away. I thought it was a beautiful thing, and decided to take a clue from the animal kingdom — until I turned onto another road about three miles out. I rounded a curve and there at the side of the road, as if it had been waiting for me, was a chihuahua, taking a crap. Its business end was pointed right at me, and its head was turned to face me over its shoulder, almost as if it were mocking me. The little bastard. About a mile later, I saw a vulture sitting on a fence, staring at me. I silently hoped it would go choke on the chihuahua.

When I arrived, Mom looked even worse. She had changed dramatically, even over the course of a few days, and was now so emaciated as to be almost unrecognizable. Her eyes were sunken and hollow, her cheeks gaunt, and her skin waxy. She was also unconscious, and stayed that way the whole time. There was no hope of getting her to converse this week, as she never woke up. That could have been the morphine, which the hospice recommended be given frequently. Whatever the cause, she lay there on her side, opening her mouth every few seconds to draw in a quick, rattled breath. At one point, I actually recorded her on my phone. I don’t know what inspired me to do it, but it gave me comfort to capture her rhythmic breathing on video.

That night, Walter told me he had talked to the other siblings, and they agreed to ask me to write Mom’s eulogy. I was stunned. I’d never felt so honored, yet so scared. But of course I accepted.

It was also at this time that I started feeling angry at everything and everyone. I found out later, this was happening to other siblings, too. I was trying to make plans for a Cub Scout trip the following weekend from Raleigh to Washington, I was dealing with unnecessary questions about it from batshit-crazy parents, I couldn’t get a decent phone signal at the house, and Kim and I were under a deadline to pull together a bunch of documents and information for a refinancing that we were trying to complete. I still feel bad for the mortgage guy, who kept calling me for one piece of information from Citibank, and Citibank had screwed up multiple attempts to get me or him the documentation he needed. I was talking to him at one point, walking down the road in search of better reception, when he mentioned Citibank again. I exploded at him.

“I don’t know what to do about them! I can’t get the correct documentation! I’ve talked to them several times, and they swear they emailed it, but it’s not in my box. I can’t get a signal because I’m at my parents’ house in the country, where I’m literally watching my mother die!”

For at least 30 seconds, there was only silence from the other end. Then, tentatively and meekly, he stammered, “I…I honestly don’t know how to reply to that.” It was actually a bit comical, all things considered.

I apologized and told him not to worry about me, that I would somehow get the non-compliant bastards in line.

Another time I was doing the signal walk, I was trying to send a file from my phone. If anyone was watching, they would have seen a tall man with crazy eyes, muttering obscenities to himself as he held his phone at strange angles overhead. I finally found a sweet spot, and stopped walking in order to maintain the signal. I realized I was standing in front of someone’s driveway only when they pulled up next to me in the street, and asked if everything was okay. I looked away from the phone and into the open window of a sheriff’s deputy’s SUV. At least this time I held my temper as I explained what I was doing. It turns out, he knew my parents from having checked on them a couple times, and he was sympathetic when I told him about Mom. I apologized for having blocked his driveway and scurried back up the road to my parents’ house, thankful that I wasn’t under arrest for suspicious activity.

A little while later, I heard from Kim, whose aunt had just had a massive stroke, and was unconscious with little likelihood of ever waking up. Now it looked like each of us might be going to a family funeral soon.

The hotel shuffle continued that week, and when I had my time at a hotel, I was lonely and worried, and couldn’t sleep. One of the nights, Bryan came back with me, and slept in the other bed. We got up for the breakfast buffet the next morning and helped ourselves to a couple stacks of French toast. Once we started eating it, we realized the hotel had made a mistake, and used garlic bread to make it. Either that, or the cook had sprinkled it with garlic salt instead of cinnamon. Small things like that kept us sane as we laughed them off. We shared these stories in the “encampment” outside the sacred ground, sitting on the living room couch and floor, sharing stories of Mom and pontificating on things like how Dad had started calling her “Dolly” (her name is Rita) — a nickname from their early days that none of the kids had ever heard. Again, these conversations kept us grounded. It reminds me of a line from “The End of the End,” by Paul McCartney:

On the day that I die, I’d like jokes to be told
And stories of old to be rolled out like carpets

That children have played on and laid on
While listening to stories of old.

Also, Shelley’s birthday was coming up, and the rest of us wanted to surprise her with a small token of appreciation. Sandy was going to make a German chocolate cake, and we were going to shop for a gift bag of silly toys, like you’d find in a kid’s favor bag. Again, it helped keep us sane.

We tried to help Shelley as much as possible, too. She was essentially working two nursing jobs — one at the hospital, the other at the house — and we tried our best to take some of the load off for her. One evening, I agreed to watch Mom while Shelley napped. She left me with a schedule of the various medications Mom needed, and I had seen her give them multiple times, so I thought I knew what I was doing. When the time came for her morphine, I got it out of the fridge, squeezed the right amount into the dropper, and took it into Mom’s room. I stuck the dropper in her mouth, as I’d seen Shelley do, and tried to push it to the side of her mouth, between her cheek and gum. As I did so, Mom winced and jerked her head back. I didn’t know what I had done wrong, but it had obviously hurt her. Maybe there was a sore in her mouth, and I brushed against it. Whatever the reason, I felt like a heel. I was trying to administer pain medication, and wound up hurting her, instead.

Meanwhile, I was also agonizing over the eulogy. I must have started it and changed my mind about five times. I even talked to Dad about it and the obituary, hating to bother him about details, but needing to know how he would feel about mentioning Mom’s miscarriage and Sarah, her stillborn. And the closer we came toward the weekend, the more I worried over whether I could join Matthew’s Cub Scout den on their big trip. They were supposed to take a train from Raleigh to Washington, and I was supposed to be one of the few chaperones onboard. But I didn’t know if I’d be able to get back home by Thursday night and take him to the train station early Friday morning. I had promised myself I would be there when Mom left us.

Tuesday afternoon, the night before Shelley’s birthday, something interesting happened. Mom had been unconscious and breathing in the same lulling pattern, but occasionally would vocalize when inhaling through her mouth. It was a little “huh” noise, almost as if she were trying to say something. That afternoon, Walter and I walked into her room, and as we neared the bed, I said, “Hi, Ma.” At that moment, she made one of her “huh” noises, but it was a little louder, a little more forceful. Walter’s eyes went wide, and he looked at me in excitement. “Did you hear that? It sounded like she said ‘Hi’ back to you!” I wasn’t convinced, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to believe it. I hope on some level, she was still able to hear us, and was able to enjoy our company.

I looked down at her in the waning afternoon light, and my head spun momentarily. It felt like I was going to black out, but I didn’t. My field of vision closed in quite a bit, though, and all I could see in that moment, was Mom’s face. And I saw it as the face of some trapped animal, struggling to break free — almost like a turtle that had been flipped over, and couldn’t right itself. In that moment, I became absolutely convinced that Mom wanted to leave us, but couldn’t. Something was keeping her there, and whatever it was, I hated it for its cruel influence over her. She looked tiny and pitiful, and I wanted nothing more than for her to be free.

I found it hard to sleep that night, even though I was in a comfortable hotel bed rather than on the couch or living room floor. I had to hit the snooze alarm a couple times Wednesday morning, and dragged my feet getting in and out of the shower and into the day’s clothes. I stopped at the hotel restaurant, giving their breakfast buffet another chance before heading out to the house. Besides, today they had pancakes instead of French toast. I had almost finished my stack of them when my phone rang.

I picked it up and saw that it was Shelley. I answered, and no one was there. She must have gotten disconnected. Or maybe she was sobbing too hard, and had ended the call before I answered. I called her back, and through tears, I could hear her say, “Dan?”

“Is she going?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Ye-hess!” she said through tears again.

“I’ll be right there!”

I ended the call, jumped up, threw a tip on the table, and ran out of the restaurant, through the lobby, and to my car. I made the 10-minute drive in about five, barely able to see the road through my tears. I just wanted to see her alive one last time, but that was impossible from the start. I found out later, she was already gone when Shelley called; Shelley must have misunderstood my question. But I raced into the house not knowing this, bursting through the front door and tearing down the hallway to Mom’s room, where Dad, Walter, Sandy, Shelley, and Bryan were standing around her bed, sobbing. I ran to her, and Dad made room for me. Dad, who was sobbing on her chest, saying, “Good-bye, Dolly!” He made room for me, the one who’d still been in the waiting room after all, eating those damned pancakes. I wanted to vomit them up at this realization, and I couldn’t stop telling Mom and everyone else how sorry I was. Of course they forgave me, but I still haven’t forgiven myself, and I wanted to collapse when Dad said, “She’s with Sarah now.”

The morning passed in a blur. George arrived a short time later, and went in to see her. I went outside to beat myself up a little bit, wanting to scream at the world. I texted Kim, “She’s gone” and sat in my car to cry some more. The hospice nurse pulled up while I was out there, and did her best to comfort me as we walked in together. She had all of us wait in the living room while she examined Mom and made the pronunciation, then came out to talk to us. She was amazingly reassuring, and helped all of us feel at least a little better. When we were ready, she called the funeral director, who arrived 20 minutes later with a couple of assistants and a body bag. He offered his condolences and gave each of us a chance to go in and see Mom one last time before they took her away. All I could tell her was that I was sorry.

When everyone had said their good-byes, the funeral director asked if they could take Mom. He told us the exact route his team would take out of the house and to the car, in case anyone wanted to avoid seeing them. I stayed in the living room and watched as they carefully, respectfully carried her away in a black vinyl bag — the person I’d loved since before I was born, now relegated to that. I silently wished I hadn’t watched, and trudged back down the hallway to Mom’s room — now Dad’s room. I stared at the empty hospital bed, the crumpled blanket and well-loved teddy bear now neatly folded and stacked on top of the lilac sheets. I took a picture of that desolate, empty bed and posted it on Facebook, not knowing what else to do. For once, I had a decent signal, and the comments came pouring in. I had told myself early on that I wouldn’t share such personal details so publicly, but had found myself chronicling the whole two weeks — and I’m glad I did. My friends brought me comfort.

Some time later, we brothers accompanied Dad to the funeral home, to help him with decisions and to make sure he didn’t get ripped off. Walking in, I couldn’t help but notice a sticker in a window, for some school team I’d never heard of. This window was probably in the director’s office, but it was visible from the parking lot by the door where the bereaved would enter. It felt mildly inappropriate. There was also some awkwardness in the meeting room when Bryan tried to stake a claim to the seat at the head of the table, in an effort to send a message, but the funeral director moved his folder and notepad when he wasn’t looking.

I had brought my laptop, working on probably the seventh draft of the eulogy, but with a finished copy of the obituary. I didn’t have a thumb drive, so I told the director I could email it to him. I couldn’t logon to the guest wireless account, so I asked him for help. He told me I could use the company account, then looked as if he wanted to bite his own tongue off when I came back with the natural follow-up question: “What’s the password?”

He turned a little pale, and started making excuses about how the new admin had created the password, and it was a little offbeat. I thought, My God, is it something about dead people? He continued to stammer a little, and finally said, “It’s ilovepuppies.”

I looked around the table at my brothers, trying not to smirk. I found out later, George was thinking the same thing I was based on the director’s reaction. We were both relieved to hear his admin loves puppies.

A little later, we went to the church to meet with the priest. Mom had been an active member of a Catholic church in Purcellville when they still lived in Lovettsville, but when they moved to Culpeper, her health was already declining and she hadn’t become active with a new one. The priest of one Catholic church in town, had brought her Communion at the house and had offered a Prayer for the Dying — sort of the Last Rites in advance, something I didn’t know they were offering in the Catholic church. But he had done it, and he was going to preside at Mom’s funeral.

We met with him in his office, four tall men trying to sit around a tiny round table with him as he asked a lot of questions about Mom and scribbled notes. He told me I could have ten minutes for the eulogy, and I told him that would be impossible. He pushed it to 15, and George smirked, knowing my wordy nature. We moved on. He kept asking questions about Mom and Dad, and the answers finally got to Dad — he broke down a little when he was talking about how they met and how he knew he wanted to be with her, and I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been tempted to punch a priest whose picture was not being displayed on the evening news. But we got through it with no punches thrown, and took Dad home to rest.

There, Sandy was baking the cake, and Shelley was mad. She didn’t want us to celebrate her birthday in light of what had happened. I think she was worried about how Dad would take it, but as a big fan of German chocolate cake, he was okay with the idea. We had a little party together, then some of us decided we needed to go out for a while.

There’s a Mexican restaurant within walking distance of most of the hotels, so we knew it fairly well by then. George, Bryan and I wanted comidas y cervezas, so we took off. Shelley’s daughter, Cassie was there, and wanted to go with us. That’s a dangerous mix, as Cassie is usually somewhat disgusted by the antics of her uncles. But the ties that bind and all that, so she rode along with us. Cassie’s not old enough to drink, so naturally we put a giant margarita in front of her and took a picture to send to Shelley, then its true owner reclaimed it and we toasted Mom.

Our waitress, all of 18, was a little strange. She kept insulting Cassie for not having ordered a drink, and told the rest of us how much she likes to party. She also dropped a lot of innuendos; I think she wanted to see if she could get a rise out of the three old guys. We didn’t take the bait, and when we told her our mom had died that morning, she laughed. I don’t know if it was nervous laughter or if she thought we were joking, but the little monster laughed. Between that and insulting our niece, her tips were probably pretty sparse that night.

That was Wednesday night, and I was supposed to drive home Thursday, so I could catch the train Friday morning with Matthew. I kept telling myself I could make it, so I wound up doing the other leaders a disservice by postponing the inevitable decision until the inconvenience to them was at a maximum. Kim was trying to talk me into it via text, having not come up because her aunt had passed, and she had her own family issues to deal with.

On Thursday afternoon, George and I were moving Mom’s hospital bed out of Dad’s room and into the basement. We felt it might help him to have it out of his sight. We got it to the bottom of the basement stairs, and set it on end while we looked for a good place to store it. Once we found one, we went back to pick up the bed again, but George wasn’t ready, and the reclining portion of the frame came loose from the flat position, rotating 180 degrees on the hinge like a paper-cutter, and came to rest on the back of his hand. It sliced one of his fingers to the tendon. More fun for the Bain family.

I rushed George to urgent care, calling Kim en route to tell her I would be later coming home than I thought. At urgent care, we had a nice brotherly conversation about him not being able to pull out his wallet for his insurance card, and needing me to do it for him — by reaching into his front pocket. I reminded him of the old joke with the punchline that goes, “The doctor said you’re going to die,” then took a deep breath and grabbed his wallet. We got through that trauma, and he wound up with a couple of stitches and a splint to immobilize the finger for a week or so. This included the time he was planning to hunt in November, and of course it was his trigger finger. The fun never stopped.

By the time that was done, knowing there was additional planning and having the guilt of leaving, I finally bailed on the Washington trip late Thursday. Matthew had worked hard to earn it, so we wanted him to still be able to go, and at his level of Cub Scouts at that time (second-year Webelos), boys are allowed to attend without a parent. In fact, we had planned this trip so that the other boys would go without their parents, relying only on the den leaders. But another parent was kind enough to step in at the last minute, taking my place as leader, and Kim dropped Matthew off at the train station early Friday morning. I hate that I missed the experience with him, but am glad he got to go, and am especially grateful to the other den leader and the mom who stepped up to help.

On Friday we went to visit the cemetery, to ensure everything was in place. Mom was to be entombed in a mausoleum, in a double-length vault, where she would wait for Dad to join her one day. Her feet were to go in first and his head was to go in first, so they’ll lie head-to-head for eternity. We had to make sure everything was in place for that. The director took us to the mausoleum, and I was shocked. It had crooked nameplates on the vaults, a dirty carpet, cobwebs on the walls, and tacky, mismatched chairs and sofa in the center of the room. I could only hope Dad wouldn’t notice. Friggin’ rural Virginia.

The funeral was set for Monday, Oct. 26 — what would have been Mom’s 85th birthday. There was to be a private viewing Sunday afternoon and a public viewing Monday, followed by the funeral late morning and entombment early afternoon. We still had a few details to work out, followed mostly by arts and crafts all weekend — creating collages, buying candles, and collecting various mementos to be displayed at the viewings.

My oldest sister, Sharon, arrived with her family over the weekend. That left only Sue, who was in a rehab center in North Carolina, recovering from her own stroke. Her daughter Danielle planned to check her out and drive her up Monday morning, reuniting all eight siblings at the second viewing. It was going to be close.

The brothers went to the funeral home again on Sunday, in advance of the viewing, to have one last chance to verify the director had seen to all of the details we’d requested. He walked us to the chapel and opened the doors, and I will never forget the feeling that washed over me when I saw Mom in the casket at the front of the room. I had been grieving all along, but that moment brought it all home, and four grown men looked at each other awkwardly as they felt the same thing, and began to weep as one. We walked up the aisle to make sure all of her mementos were in place, and each of us took a private moment at the casket. This was more sacred ground.

During the private viewing, we were able to keep it together as much as could be expected, but when Dad knelt at the casket and spoke to Mom in hushed tones, broken by sobs, we just couldn’t. Nor should we have. We went home to a solemn night, and I think most of us went to bed early.

Dad had kept Mom’s rosary, and wanted to put it in her hands in the casket during the second viewing. This became a source of some contention Sunday night. He was worried he would forget to bring it with him Monday morning. Knowing Shelley would be at the house with him, I pulled her aside and reminded her to be sure he brought it. Apparently, I wasn’t the first one to do so, because she exploded at me. I get it. When enough people remind you of something, it starts to sound like they don’t trust you. That wasn’t the case here, but it was understandably upsetting to the person who’d possibly looked after details for Mom and Dad the most since they had moved to Culpeper.

Monday morning, we met at the funeral home again, and as I walked in, Shelley pulled me aside. Her face was broken up, and she looked miserable. “Dan, I don’t know what to do. I left the rosary at the house!”

My mind raced. I think we had the chapel for an hour, which would just give me time to get to the house, find the thing, and get back. “Okay, let’s figure this out. I think I can go get it; don’t worry. I can…”

Shelley grinned. “I’m kidding. Dad has the rosary.”

That was a nice bit of revenge.

Danielle arrived with Sue not long after that, and the eight of us were there to see Dad hobble up to the casket, kneel down with the rosary in his hand, and say a few words to Mom about it before he quickly reached into the casket, under the blanket that was covering his hands, and pulled his own hand back out in a flash. At the very end of the viewing, the director picked up the blanket to give it back to us, and gave us one last chance to see Mom before he closed the lid. Somehow, that rosary was lovingly entwined between the fingers of both of her clasped hands; I still don’t know how Dad managed that.

The kneeler at the casket was particularly rickety, and Dad struggled to get up (as several of us had). Shelley went to help him up, and as she was walking him back to the pew, she stopped and threw her arms around him and sobbed.

Watching the two of them crying together at the front of the chapel, Bryan and I walked over and put our arms around both of them. I bowed my head and wept, holding the as tightly as I could for what felt like an eternity. By the time I looked up, something wonderful had happened, and it seemed as if I was watching it from a distance. I hadn’t felt anyone else, but the other four siblings had silently closed in, three of them standing with their arms around us, and Sue reaching up from her wheelchair, placing her hand on someone’s back. There were the eight of us, surrounding our widower father in a protective circle, in the most powerful image from the entire two weeks  — one I still see today as if I were watching from one of the pews, and one I’ll still see on the day I die.


For anybody who doesn’t know me, I’m Dan – aka Number 7, Big Boy, or Long Legs – plus some other choice epithets occasionally bestowed upon me by the woman I’m here to talk about. Her, I was blessed to know as “Mom.”

First, I want to acknowledge and thank my siblings and their children  —  not only for entrusting with this, the greatest honor and most important assignment of my life, but for their help with it. No single person could possibly come up with all the right words to pay proper tribute to that remarkable woman over there, so I asked the rest of her progeny to send me the words they thought best describe her, as well as their favorite stories of her.

Of course, I also suspect they’ve started a pool on how long I’ll talk, because I wound up with a lot of suggestions. I’m sorry I don’t have time to repeat all of them, but we might just have a group-led “Part 2” later, if anyone wants to join us for dinner.

As for the words that describe her, many of them were repeated time and again:

  • Loving
  • Caring
  • Kind
  • Compassionate
  • Generous
  • Selfless
  • Patient
  • Loyal
  • Playful
  • Funny
  • Vivacious
  • Abundant – This one sort of encapsulates all of them

Before I address any of these words, I want to ask one more question — and it might seem like a weird one. (This is the point where some of my siblings might be worrying a little about what I’m getting ready to say, but trust me.)

The question is:If Hollywood had turned Mom’s life story into a movie or a television series, what celebrity should have played her? Go ahead; if you have any ideas, shout them out. It’ll be caTHARtic, even if it’s not CaTHOLic.

The celebrity I picture had a short-lived TV series, but she was better known for her time in front of a typewriter than her time in front of a camera. In fact, I used to find her books in various bathrooms at the old house, and they were an early influence on me. They might have even belonged to Mom; I don’t know.

But I loved every word in those books – books like At Wit’s End; The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank; and If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?

I always thought Erma Bombeck could have played the role of Mom. That could never happen now, because Mom outlived her. In fact, she damn near outlived all of us. [Look at priest.] Oh. Sorry, Father.

Erma’s writing always reminded me of Mom, in that I could easily imagine Mom saying the things Erma wrote. Granted, Mom wasn’t a writer — but she was certainly expressive, wasn’t she? She could say more with one finger…than most people can say in several pages.

Here are some examples of Erma’s words; listen and see if you can hear Mom’s voice in them. As with all things in life, some are funny and some are profound:

“Insanity is hereditary. You can catch it from your kids.”

“All of us have moments in our lives that test our courage. Taking children into a house with a white carpet is one of them.”

“Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth.”

“A grandmother pretends she doesn’t know who you are on Halloween.”

“The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.”

“My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?”

That’s Mom to a tee. She wasn’t always overly concerned with housecleaning, because she had her priorities straight. She had her mind on things like family…love…mai-tais. But her top priority was her family, and she would have done anything for any of us.

That’s another reason I thought it only appropriate to turn to the family for inspiration. One of the words I heard was, “abundant” – and that, she was. First, abundant in love…

And if we’re going to talk about her love, we need to start at the beginning, with what many of us believe is the greatest love story ever told. And Dad, that all comes down to you.

By the way, this is a perfect time to point out the three heroes of the past several years, because I just spoke to one of them. Of course that’s Dad, and the other two are my sister Shelley and my brother George.

You three have sacrificed so much for Mom since she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and we love you for it. The love she gave is apparent in the love she inspired, and you three have radiated it in the way you’ve cared for her during this time. Thank you.

Getting back to that love story, Mom and Dad had a deep, abiding love – one that still inspires me and many others. There was never a doubt they loved each other, always holding hands and/or “smooching” as they called it. Dad, remember how you’d walk into the room, and she’d say something like, “Hiya, Sex!” [Look at priest.] Sorry, Father. “Come here and give me a smooch!”

Mom kissed him every morning before he left for work, until the day he retired, and we would often catch them holding hands like a couple of love-struck kids. In fact, they held hands and smooched until the very end.

Their love story was amazing, especially when you consider how different they were. Even Dad has observed, ever the physicist: “Plus and minus attract each other sometimes.”

And she was the plus to his minus…the chaos to his order…the Irish to his German…the celery to his face.

Some of you know what that’s referring to. I’ve often thought we’re one of those families that have collected so many stories — and retell them to each other so often — that it would be easier if we simply gave each story a number, so whenever one of us wants to tell one of those stories, all they have to do is shout the right number out.

If that’s true, the celery is Story Number One. Without it, none of the other stories would have happened.

In 1947, Dad’s family had relocated to Ballston Spa, New York, and he and Mom met during their senior year of high school. Thunderclaps did not occur. They knew each other, but there were no sparks initially.

Late in that year, his family was moving to a different house, but they underwent a week or two of transition. Nana Bain found a house where Dad could board during that time, and guess whose it was?

Obviously, it was Nanny’s. By which I mean, it was Mom’s.

Now Mom had been through a couple of rough years herself at that point, having lost a father and a brother, so no one would have faulted her for being moody or distant. But that wasn’t Mom’s way, because Mom kicked aaa… [Look at Priest] Sorry, Father. Mom rocked!

And when Dad was sitting in his somber way at the kitchen table one night, she decided he needed some livening up, so she grabbed the nearest harmless thing and smacked him in the face with it.

It was a stalk of celery.

Dad maintains that wasn’t the spark, but I suspect that celery hit his face with all the force of a thunderclap, and his fate was sealed.

Nevertheless, love didn’t blossom until after graduation, when he went off to Syracuse and she went to nursing school at St. Mary’s Hospital. They corresponded some, and eventually started dating.

Even then, there were obstacles. They broke up at one point, and dated other people for about a year. Then when he realized he’d like to see her again, he called her one night and said, “How about if we go out, for old times’ sake?”

To which she quipped, “I’m not that old.”

But she went out with him, just the same. Multiple times. It was on one such occasion that Dad proudly remembers the only time he beat her to the punchline.

He was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, and as she came down, she stopped midway and sort of flirtatiously turned her back to him and asked him to check out her stockings, asking, “Are my seams straight?”

Dad answered, “Yes, your seams are straight, but your legs are crooked!” Good thing she didn’t have a stalk of celery in her hand that night, Dad.

There was also the time she came to Syracuse for a weekend visit. After she arrived, Dad and a fraternity brother were walking her to a bar, where they had a plan; as soon as they got in the door, each of them took one arm and lifted her off her feet. They carried her across the floor and plopped her down on the corner of the bar. When the confused bartender looked over at them, Dad instructed him, “Fill ‘er up!”

Of course Mom didn’t mind. Not only was she a good sport, she also enjoyed beer! She was quite proud to have his ATO brothers give her the honorary title of “Miss Hollow Leg” during Dad’s senior year.

It was also during this time that she was out one night drinking with Dad and other friends, and the waiter came to their table to bus away the empties. She had about a half-inch of beer left in the bottom of her bottle, and as the waiter reached for it, she said, “Get your hands off my beer, you G.D. vulture!” (Sorry, Father.)

It’s true Mom loved beer. And wine. And liquor. But this is not a judgement of that. She just liked to celebrate. In fact, she and Nanny celebrated together just about every afternoon, with their Manhattans in those silver goblets.

I tried to find an Erma quote about drinking, but couldn’t. The only thing I could find was, “Never accept a drink from a urologist.” Mom would have liked that one, but she had one better.

It was during their first year of marriage, I think on the date of a football game when they were planning to party with his fraternity brothers. He’d gone out for a bottle of booze for the occasion, and she’d asked him to buy a bottle of milk while he was out – not for the party, of course, but she needed it to cook something.

Dad returned with his hands full, and was struggling to get his keys out at the front door. At the same time, Mom was approaching the door from the inside.

But she was too late, and the booze slipped out of Dad’s hand and shattered on impact. (You grandkids understand, there was a time when booze and milk both came in glass bottles.)

Dad had yet to react when he heard Mom’s voice from inside the door, saying in a dire tone, “I hope that was the milk….”

But their love of each other exceeded even their love of partying. Dad himself explained it recently; he said she made him feel comfortable.

They were married at the beginning of Dad’s senior year, and it’s pretty rare nowadays for a fraternity brother to get married before school is out. A little more than 13 months later, Mom gave birth to the first of eight children.

Dad recently told me she’d always wanted ten. I don’t know how many of you knew that, but you might be aware that she actually was pregnant ten times, and sadly lost two. One was stillborn, and would have been named “Sarah.” Dad told me the other day, she’s probably with Sarah now.

Mom was the quintessential matriarch. She always put family first. Always.

She was supportive of Dad in his work and hobbies, and participated in any and all activities involving her children and grandchildren (scouts, ball games, school activities, dance lessons, etc.).

I had a moment with Mom shortly after Nanny’s funeral. I’m sure everyone here has moments they remember, the one-on-one connections that could be so nice in a sea of siblings. The week Nanny died, I was in final preparation for the school play, “Harvey.” I was playing Elwood P. Dowd, one of the most courteous and respectful characters in literary history – obviously, it put my acting skills to the test.

The three performances were scheduled for that weekend, when suddenly we had a funeral scheduled, too. Mom urged me to continue with the performances, and she came to every one of them, even in the midst of mourning and planning a funeral for her mother.

In one scene in Harvey, there’s a young nurse who is trying to get out of the room, but afraid to set off Elwood’s automatic response of standing every time she stands. So she would stand partially, only to sit again when he noticed her and stood up, too. Then he’d sit back down until the whole dance started again. It was a bit of physical comedy in a couple of choreographed incidents that had us looking like pistons together.

After the funeral was over, Mom confided in me that she’d had to suppress the urge to giggle when remembering that scene. It was because she’d been brought up to bow her head every time a priest mentioned the Lord’s name, and at one point during the service, His name was mentioned several times in rapid secession.

Mom said the resultant bobbing of her head had reminded her of the scene with the nurse and Elwood standing and sitting, standing and sitting, and she’d been tempted to laugh at her own mother’s funeral.

She made everything fun. So keep that in mind, anyone who’s embarrassed to laugh at a memory of Mom – to quote one of her own sayings from one of many of the incredible vacations she used to plan for us… “It’s allowed.”

Mom’s sense of abundance was also evident whenever there was a holiday or birthday – of which there were many — in our home.

From the decorations to the parties to the games to the prizes to the gifts, and every minute detail in between, she put her all into them in her effort to bring us joy.

It’s only fitting, then, that we should be gathered here on her 85th birthday, throwing her one hell of a party! [Look at priest.] Sorry, Father….

Who has fond memories of Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in our home? Erma Bombeck also wrote, “There’s nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.” I would amend that and say “not be a Bain child,” because no one had better celebrations than we did.

Also, how about the food? Good Lord, could Mom cook! From getting up at 3am to start the Thanksgiving meal, to whipping something up in a matter of minutes on any ordinary day, she had a true talent in the kitchen. And she always made us whatever we wanted for our birthday dinner; I always requested her lasagna and three-hole cake. Any other favorites out there?

Mom took care of us, there’s no denying it. She took care of her own mother through her declining health, and nursed each of us on many occasions. She was always there in the middle of the night, whenever I had a stomach bug, holding that stupid green trashcan for me to vomit into.

You know that thing is still in their house? I’m sure it still has a little DNA from each of her kids, her husband, herself, and possibly a few grandkids, making some sort of bizarre Bain stew.

I could have used her comforting touch this week, as I’m sure many of you could. I’m ashamed to admit, I had some selfish moments during our vigils prior to Wednesday morning.

During one moment after she became unresponsive, I was sitting alone with her, holding her hand, as all of us did during our time in that room. I remember being particularly petulant in my grief, and thinking to myself how unfair it was – that shewas the one who’d always comforted us in our most pain-filled moments, but now she couldn’t comfort me when I needed her the most.

And at that moment, she squeezed my hand.

[If I break down] I’m not going to apologize for crying, and I want every one of us to stop doing that, too. There’s no shame in mourning.

Mom was always the compassionate one. Another Erma quote is, “A child needs your love more when he deserves it least,” and I think Mom understood that better than anyone. She delighted in helping other children, too, from volunteering as a nurse at Girl Scout camp, to being a den mother and later a cubmaster in Cub Scouts (that’s when Dad was a den leader, so he thinks that’s the only time she outranked him – ha!), to tutoring learning-disabled kids in our schools.

But I will say this — she wasn’t 100-percent saintly in doing this, as she would come home and vent with us a little. Other people’s kids had a tendency to get on her nerves, which actually says more of her, because she was willing to do it, anyway.

I remember one story she told, when she was trying and trying and trying to get some mathematical concept across to one child at my school — something about counting money. At one point, she swore she could detect the mental lightbulb turning on, and she was delighted to finally have a break-through, so she asked, “Do you think you understand now?” and he looked up, smiled at her, and said, “Is Danny gonna go see Grease?!?”

Mom was also very active in her Church and community. [Look at priest.] Father, I’m sure you know the saying about time, treasure, or talent; well, she gave abundantly of all three. She worked with the Women’s Club, made chili to sell at fund-raisers, drove needy patients to doctors’ appointments, helped out at the hospital, and more.

Another quality was her honesty, and by that, I mean her brutal honesty. The relevant Erma quote here is: ‘When your mother asks, “Do you want a piece of advice?” it is a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.’

Her honesty could be embarrassing sometimes, as the time she was out grocery-shopping with Sharon, Sue, and Sharon’s new daughter, Nicole. This was at a time before barcodes, when most grocery stores still used price tags, and clerks usually had to manually key in each price on the cash register.

But at this particular store, they had this new scanning technology, and little Nicole was fascinated as the scanner beeped with each item the clerk dragged over it. Mom got a kick out of watching her reaction, and she looked at the baby and said, “What is that thing, Nicole?”

The clerk immediately answered, “It’s a scanner. It can tell the price of each item.” He probably thought she’d asked, “What is that thing called?” or maybe he just wanted to be part of the conversation, and explain it. Either way, Mom was having none of it. She looked up at him and snarked, “Is your name Nicole?!?”

So yes, she was very honest, if not always forthcoming.

If she thought you needed to know something, by God, she was going to tell you. And if she thought you didn’t need to know something, that’s all there was to it. You weren’t gonna hear it.

But in both cases, truthful or taciturn, she was most likely defending one of her own. (Her frequent bouts of truth to Nana Bain could even be seen as her defense of Dad.)

Other times, it was an effort to protect us from a painful truth. Mom lived through some tough times, and she was determined to keep that pain hidden from us. In fact, I’m sure if she could have, she would have hidden her Parkinson’s from us.

Does anyone know what the name “Rita” means? Surprisingly, it’s a Spanish name, not an Irish one, but regardless, it means, “pearl.”

Know what a pearl is? First, it’s a thing of beauty. Secondly, it’s a rarity, and of high value. But the most important aspect is how a pearl is created – it’s essentially a defense against an irritant, made by coating it with something far nicer. That’s how Mom defended us, too.

Which brings me to the next quality — Mom was loyal. I’ve already talked about how she was loyal to her family, but she was also very faithful. She never wavered in her Catholic devotion, and she only stopped going to church when she was physically unable to.

Even on those terrific vacations, no matter where we were, she would find a Catholic church and drag us there on Saturday night or Sunday morning. We tried to get out of it, but that was a losing battle — faith doesn’t take a vacation, no matter how many times we reminded her that we wanted to. The joke was on us, though, because one year at the beach, the only thing that saved us from an impending hurricane was hearing parishioners talk about it at church.

I bet all of the family knows what the other loyalty was. Yes, she had her “Hail, Mary” but she also had her “Hail to the Redskins.” Mom was devoted to them, even though she was a transplant to the area. I don’t know if she ever followed football before they moved to Northern Virginia, but she certainly did after that.

It just wasn’t a fall Sunday unless we heard Mom screaming, cheering, swearing, clucking, or making other various noises from the family room. It was even louder if Steve, her son-in-law and a Dallas Cowboys fan, was there.

She used to make this weird, high-pitched babbling noise whenever the Skins’ QB made a long pass and she was waiting for the ball to come down; remember that? Then on commercial breaks, she’d run back to the kitchen to continue cooking Sunday dinner?

Erma Bombeck also said, “Thanksgiving dinners take 18 hours to prepare. They are consumed in 12 minutes. Half-times take 12 minutes. This is not coincidence.” Mom understood this.

Yesterday, we caught the beginning of the game before heading over for our family viewing, and at the game’s low point, the ‘Skins were down by 24.

But Bryan had to leave the viewing at some point to check for an important message, and the funeral director happened to catch him at just that moment. Also, the game had just ended – and he told Bryan the ‘Skins had come back to win (in what was apparently the greatest comeback in franchise history), which we announced during the viewing.

Well-played, Redskins, and thanks for going out there and winning one for “the Sipper.”

Mom wouldn’t have minded that little jab. She had plenty of her own. She was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, as well as playful and spunky. This is what most people remember most fondly about her.

Remember how she would make some quip, then turn and grin at one of us, the way Mr. Roper used to mug for the camera on Three’s Company? Or if we were really lucky, she’d get going on one of her half-giggling, half-cackling fits, where her face just broke up and beamed, and spread the laughter to everyone who could see it.

Erma once wrote, “When humor goes, there goes civilization.

Mom absolutely understood that, and she loved to laugh and make other people laugh. She even laughed at herself. Remember when she used to go to a dance aerobics class at the Lovettsville Community Center? Every morning, she’d put on her gym shorts – if it was cold out, she’d pull a pair of sweatpants over them (possibly the only sweatpants she ever owned) – and head into town, then come back and talk about whatever songs and moves she’d been through that day. One morning, she walked into the house just cackling; when I asked her what was so funny, she said she’d gotten to class and waited for the music to start before she took off the sweats, so she’d been standing in front of the group as she dropped them around her ankles — only to realize she’d forgotten to wear her gym shorts underneath. But she thought this was funny, and she wasn’t embarrassed to tell us, because she knew it would make us laugh, too.

So many of our childhood friends told us time and again how much they enjoyed coming to our house, because Mom was so funny. She’d just do silly little things, like the time Walter’s friends were over, gathered in the living room. They looked up at one point and there was Mom — or rather, Mom’s head — peeking around the doorway, wearing some ridiculous Halloween mask she’d come across, and decided to put on for a laugh. She got it.

Erma also wrote, “He who laughs…lasts.” And Mom did both in abundance.

After the viewing yesterday, Walter asked if I was still coming up with new material for this eulogy. He pointed out that every moment, another old story comes up in conversation, and Bryan summarized this perfectly when he said, “That’s a sign of a life well-lived.”

What a perfect description for Mom. Vivacious to the last, she didn’t just live life — she owned it. She was fearless and joyful, and she constantly grabbed life by the ba…[look at priest] sorry, Father. Uh, by the horns.

Mom. Loved. Life. And if you don’t believe that, you need to think about how many times she created it.

Even when she wasn’t creating human life, she was building little microcosms or representations of life in her various hobbies. She loved animals, especially birds, and would relish those snow days when she could toss seed out on the patio, then sit and watch her birds gather in one of her microcosms.

I think she looked forward to snow days more than the kids did, and was willing to get out there in it with us. Remember her sledding with us, falling over, then laughing just as hard about that as we did? And her hobby of putting together jigsaw puzzles during snowstorms? That’s another microcosm of life.

Summers were no different, where she created life in her garden. And how about her other hobbies? Collecting and displaying Dept. 56 houses and cute little teddy bear families – two more microcosms.

Mom. Loved. Life.

And she celebrated it every day, whether dancing on the tables at one of her kids’ weddings, or dancing in the aisle of the grocery store, just to embarrass us. She had this ridiculous little side-shuffle dance that she did, just to be silly, usually accompanied by a musical number.

How many people remember Mom singing? She loved to sing. Loudly, out of tune, and usually with the incorrect words. Christmas is Coming, Mares Eat Oats, Pickle in the Middle, Hello Young Lovers, I’m Getting Married in the Morning – the list goes on. And if she couldn’t think of one, she’d make up a song on the spot.

Walter, remember when we moved to Lovettsville, and they had the Springfield house on the market? It finally sold to a family named Zack, and the morning they were supposed to go close on it, she started singing, “Mr. Zack is coming back with the jack!”

At the end, she grabbed the nearest thing, and smacked you with it, didn’t she? It was a frying pan. That celery stalk sounds a lot more preferable, doesn’t it?

That was all part of the joy she felt, and felt she had to share. Mom. Loved. Life.

She lived it on her terms, and she sucked the very marrow from it until she couldn’t get anymore from it. I believe the only grief she feels for her own life, is for the time she was unable to fully engage with us. Even so, she hung tough and did not leave us until she was ready.

And once she was ready, I can only hope someone warned the other denizens of Heaven, because I guarantee Mom’s up there right now with Nanny and Sarah, having one heck of a party!

One of my favorite Erma Bombeck quotes is one of her more poignant ones: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’”

That’s exactly what Mom did, and the best way any of us could possibly honor her, is to do the same. Use those talents she gave you. Suck the marrow from life, use it up, and have her live on through us.

Mom used everything God gave her; in fact, she often gave it away, and expected nothing in return. She did what she knew she had to do, and then and only then, she left us. But she left herself in us.

Anyone who wants to see Mom now, has to see us instead. Because as of last Wednesday morning, we are all that’s left of her.

[Look at Dad.] Sorry, Father….


Of course I was lucky; some people don’t get the luxury of knowing a loved one’s death is coming. Others might see it coming, but it happens far too early in that loved one’s life. I lucked out on both counts; Mom lived a full life, and I got to spend a good bit of time with her at its end. Plus, I had her in my life, period. There’s no better blessing than that.

And in the end,
The love you take
Is equal to the love

You make.

– The Beatles

So who’s gonna watch you die?

– Death Cab for Cutie

About Dan Bain

Dan is an award-winning humorist, features writer, emcee and entertainer from Raleigh, NC. His collection of humor essays, A Nay for Effort, has earned him fans from one end of his couch to the other. Why not join them and buy one? (You won't have to sit on his couch.) Dan will donate 10 percent of the book's proceeds to education. You can check it out at; thanks!
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8 Responses to Mother, by numbers

  1. Sandy Bain says:

    Beautiful Dan!!! Thanks for the memories and of course tears..

  2. Terri Tompkins says:

    Dan Bain, I wish this had been a book, with every recollection of your mother and family that you have. What a beautiful, unselfish sharing of one of the most precious and intimate of things in one’s life! I have drying tears around my eyes, and I honestly do not know if the most were from sadness or the audible laughter that made the dog eye me in a suspicious manner. I would like to be able to share this with every person who is going through what you did with your mother. It puts the entire experience into perspective.

    • Dan Bain says:

      Thank you, Terri. That means a lot to me, and I appreciate that you took the time to write it. Feel free to share it with anyone you want, especially if it can help people.

  3. Dan, this is beautiful. From the numbers to the celery stalks to the tears no one could count. Sympathy is a given, of course. Please let me add empathy, and gratitude, and respect, and some other connection I can’t quite put my finger on. I’m sure you know what it is, though. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal reflection and remembrance.

  4. Dan Bain says:

    Thank you, Cell. Your feedback means a lot.

  5. You could hear many moms in Erma’s words.
    “She did what she knew she had to do, and then and only then, she left us. But she left herself in us.” Great line – and so true

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