Goodnight, Eileen (Eileen McDaniel, 1941-2006)
Today marks the 13th year of my mother being gone. So much of my life has changed since, and I wish I could have shared it with her. She was 64 when she died -- less than 20 years older than I am now -- but I don't think any amount of time would have been long enough.
What follows is my eulogy for her, written in the early morning hours right before her funeral, and under considerable duress. I did my best under the circumstances...
Thank you for coming here today to honor my mother.
I remember a time long ago, when I told my mom how frightened I was by the thought of losing her. I must have been about six years old -- I was a pretty intense child -- and I was crying uncontrollably. Upon hearing this, my mother took me in her arms and, rather than allaying my fears with some false but pretty-sounding words, she tried to comfort me with an answer that was truthful.
"All things die someday," she said, "but good things go to heaven. And when I'm there, you'll know by the tears I cry at missing you -- they'll be falling down to earth as rain."
In case you haven't heard today's weather report, heavy showers are expected this afternoon. (NOTE: When my mother's casket was taken to the cemetary, it did indeed downpour.)
That conversation between us -- my mom and me -- was roughly twenty-six summers and a thousand years ago. And now, the day I have dreaded all my life has come to pass. My mom is gone.
In the time leading up to this service, my father and I sat down and looked through an assortment of photos of my mother, each a small window into a various stage in her life. And after meeting some of you here, and listening to old stories from those of you who knew her long ago, I couldn't help but be a little envious. I wish I could have seen my mother through your eyes -- as Eileen, when she was young...giddy…a school girl…a teenager. Or even in her early adulthood, before God decided to bless her with three kids in the span of 22 months.
It's a bit of a wakeup call for me, realizing that Mom had delivered her third child -- me -- at the same age I am now, and at roughly the halfway point in her life.
But then again, I know I am all the luckier, for Eileen McDaniel I called "Mom". It was a title for which she was the prizewinner, and I can't imagine anyone else capable of matching her 12 rounds in that arena. Don't get me wrong -- I know for a fact that there are many, many wonderful mothers in the world, present company included, and I know in their childrens' eyes, each is the champion. But in my eyes, there's no match, and no contest.
I don't suppose any scholar would ever write a book about my mother. Such things are reserved for those who've scaled mountains, waged wars, or walked through uncharted lands. But Eileen McDaniel always encouraged her children to reach for the stars...and that is all the more fitting, for now she is touching them.
There are a few stories I'd like to share, and I'll do my best to keep them brief. Now I'm the last guy here who would ever want to encourage the vice of cigarettes, and I'm sure the church has a strict "no smoking" policy. But if my mom were here, at this point she'd probably be rolling her eyes and silently whispering, "Light 'em if you got 'em, 'cause it's gonna be a long day."
Father Kindon mentioned how my mother held such compassion for animals. This was certainly true. Late one night some years ago, in our house in New Jersey, one of our cats had cornered a baby mouse. My father grabbed it and, not wanting to kill it -- a fate my mother would have wholeheartedly objected -- he walked up to our kitchen door and was ready to put it outside. "No!" my mom cried, "It's too cold out there! The poor thing will freeze to death!" She ended up taking the mouse, putting it back inside a small hole in the floor, and then encouraging it to "Shoo! Shoo and go find your family!"
How I wish you could see my mom through my eyes. When it came to the chores of gardening, of cooking, of hosting the holidays for her family, she had every bit the finesse of Martha Stewart, and none of the bad attitude -- or criminal record. Mom also had that very special magic, seldom so found, in turning every house we lived in into a home.
Mom endured much in her life, and she dealt with things in a way that no one else would, or could. She was devoted to her parents, and when their health started to decline, she spent months at a time caring for them. As fate would have it, and despite her endless sacrifice, she was robbed from the opportunity of being there when each of her parents passed.
And yet, Mom endured an even greater pain -- the greatest pain, the unthinkable pain: the loss of a child, her daughter, Mary. She did not bury her grief by tossing away memories, or shutting out the world. Rather, she carried her grief with her, through laughter and through tears. No doubt she would expect the very same from each of us. Mom was always quick to extend a helping hand. She did so without thought of reward, without judgment or pretension. She didn't judge people for their differences or their faults.
That is not to say my mother was not proud. She was always self-conscious about the way she looked, even when she was at her most radiant. In the throws of her sickness, when her health declined, month after agonizing month, she often had to compromise a bit of her pride before those who needed to care for her. But never did she compromise her bravery.
Less than one month ago we had to bury another family member. My aunt Suzanne was my mother's youngest sister. But she was also something so much more: she was my mom's best friend. After Sue's service, I went home and did my best to describe it to Mom, who by then was far too sick to attend. I found myself weeping uncontrollably. Mom, who, fragile and dying, had more reason to weep than anyone, then held my hand and began consoling...me.
That is the kind of mother Eileen McDaniel was, and I am so very proud of her. I feel grateful simply having known her at all. All our lives, between us there was never a feeling of love that was ever doubted, nor an aching word that was ever left unsaid. Sometimes, perhaps, I may have said too much, but never did Mom say too little.
Shortly before she died, I asked her if she had any regrets -- if she would she have done anything different with her life. She told me that she wasn't afraid of dying, and that her only regret was leaving me behind.
I loved her more than words can say, and I know she loved me back. That is the only thing that sustains me through this unspeakable time. She believed in me, even when I didn't believe in myself. She was my everything -- my light, my life, my mother, and my best friend. Parting is all I know of heaven, and all I need of hell. I'd give anything to have her back.
Whatever your faith -- whatever your notions may be of heaven, of the afterlife, of God and fate -- I tell you now, with certainty: you can believe in angels. For my mother was one, and shall forever be...in heaven as she was on earth.
I ask all of you to please...remember her. Remember her beautiful, her smiling, and her laughing. For those of you who did not know her, look into the very best and bravest part of your own souls -- and even then, that would only be the tip of the iceberg.