This Be The Verse

 “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”   Oscar Wilde


I buried my mother on January tenth.  After a long struggle with dementia, she passed away in her sleep.  In the end, my father was too ill to attend a funeral service, so my sister and I had a small graveside ceremony in Aspen, Colorado where they have lived, loved, laughed and played for the last twenty five years.  She was buried according to the Orthodox Jewish tradition in which she grew up– wrapped in a burial shroud in a plain pine box.  This is the way that it is done—there are no fancy garments, no treasured jewelry, no viewing of the body and no silk lined coffin reinforced with steel.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, according to the Old Testament.   There is no headstone placed at the time of the funeral; that comes a year later, after God has had plenty of time to judge the deceased, to decide which way they should go.  Sadly, I had passed judgment long ago.  And yet, the sight of my mother’s tiny coffin (always a tiny woman, no more than ninety pounds when she died) being lowered into the grave next to my dead brother was almost more than I could bear.

I don’t do funerals well and I never will.  Despite the fact that I am very good at writing eulogies, I cannot and do not deliver them.  I told my younger sister this ahead of time:  “I don’t do funerals. You will have to speak.”  She asked me why.  I explained to the best of my ability that it has to do with the work I do in my everyday life as a radiation oncologist.  Most of the time, I am able to submerge those feelings of grief and sadness at what my patients and their families are going through and my rage at the unfairness of it all.  I shove it right under, bury it deep, don’t think about it and don’t dwell on it.  But going to a funeral, and generally speaking, I do not attend patients’ funerals for this reason, all of the emotions like oxygen starved divers push their way right to the surface, gasp for air, take a deep breath and come pouring out in an uncontrollable torrent.  The ghosts of every patient that I ever cared for and cared about surround me—they grasp for my hands and my legs, they perch on my shoulders and they whisper in my ear, “Let it go.  Let it all out.”  And I do.

I never got along with my mother.  I can say it now.  As an adult, I began to understand who she was, and why she was the way she was, and that in her own way, she loved me and I of course loved her.  I can even laugh about it, in my better moments—in the last lucid phone message she left me, she threatened to disown me and write me and my three children out of her will.  Actually, it was only two of my three children—there was one who was spared her wrath.  I saved that message on my cell phone for two years, and sometimes I would replay it just to hear her voice again, after she had become mute. Then one day I accidentally erased the message.  It’s just as well.  There are better memories of better days.

As my mother was lowered into her grave, I whispered, “I forgive you.” Rest in peace, Mom.

RITA SILVER SPIRA, September 11, 1931–January 7, 2013

27 thoughts on “This Be The Verse

  1. I can do the funerals. It’s the “being with at the very end” that I cannot bear. I don’t care what all those self-righteous people say about how wonderful that is.

    With my sister, father and mother it was all the same. I am an organizer. I can evaluate a situation and determine what needs to be done and then I follow through and see that it happens.

    As I like to say: I am a doctor, not a nurse.

    Maybe it’s because I’m a veterinarian and I have been with so many animals when they died. And often I am the one bringing about their death.

    But whatever the case, I could NOT bring myself to be with my family members when they died. Though I could, and did, take the responsibility to see that they were not alone at the time of their death.

    I managed to get my elderly parents flown to Georgia (an immense task necessitating flying someone from New Jersey to Michigan who would then accompany them to Georgia) so that my sister was surrounded by our parents and her many friends when she died.

    I managed to get my mother, in the full glory of her dementia, to the hospital with a caretaker so that she could be with my father on his last night and when he died in the morning.

    And I managed to have other people who cared deeply about my mother spend many, many hours with her as she was dying of pneumonia in her room in the dementia unit. And she, too, was not alone when she died.

    But I could not be there myself.

    • Margaret, you are amongst much company when it comes to the end. Doctors themselves notoriously withdraw from patients at the end of life. With my mother, I know my father would have been there if he could have. M

  2. The angst of life. I will bury my sister – my only sister – this week. We were estranged as she got caught up with a very bad man a few years back and refused my warnings and shrieks of “get out”. Years of abuse – horrible abuse – drove her to take her own life. So in the end I was right and she was wrong, such a hollow victory. I chose to stand up to the Evil and plan our own family memorial. Somehow my sister lost her voice so now I must speak for her. Enough. May you rest in peace sweet sister. I shall miss you so….Miranda, my sympathies to you on the loss of your mother. You were a good daughter, never forget that.

    • Jackie, once again, I am so terribly sorry. I will be there in spirit at Bev’s funeral. Words simply cannot express the feeling of losing a sibling. M

  3. I had been estranged from my father for many years. We were just beginning to communicate when he had his stroke and then died from a brain tumor 2 months later. At his memorial I was overcome (and astonished) by a wave of grief that was totally unexpected. I have often wondered if that grief was just from his loss or if mostly from not being able to finish my reconciliation/forgiveness process. I am so glad you were able to find your forgiveness.

  4. My utmost empathy in many ways. I was estranged from my mother for many years before her death. So in many ways she was already gone to me. It can seem almost un-American to not get along with one’s mother. I am glad you found peace.

    • Thanks Ginni. Our relationships with our respective mothers remind me of Whittier’s poem…”Of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these, “It might have been.” M

  5. May peace envelope you soon. We all have those people in our lives that we love dearly but sometimes don’t like. A book I read many years ago named this common phenomenon as Irregular people. The first R in irregular is backwards. It is by Joyce Landorf. It is painful when your irregular person is a parent as in your case and mine. We love them fully but do not understand their thinking. I loved my mother in very small doses and not regularly. But I loved her. You loved your mother and she loved you. You respected her position in your life and she respected yours. Bless you in your grief journey.

  6. I am so sorry for your loss Miranda. Being there for your Mom, especially in light of your relationship with her, was really a testament to who you are. I wish there wasn’t so much judgement about being there at the end, going to the funeral or speaking. The person who has passed on has no judgement but we are so harsh with ourselves. You will grieve. She was your Mom. Your resolve will hold you in stead as you process this huge transition. She was lucky to have you as a daughter.

  7. I am so glad you were able to express yourself and it is understandable that it might take time to be able to write. There is no right way, wrong way or easy way to deal with death as it is contrary to the most basic human instinct and desire. The details you chose to share, such as her little coffin and the voice messages you saved for so long are poignant and profound. Thank you for this.

  8. Aaaahhh Miranda– children of difficult parents, as we both are, parents whom we love but across a gap. Which gets bridged, or not. Age brings a bit of understanding, as I find my late rough- handed dad more comprehensible than my charming , living, mildly demented, still (at 88!) manipulative mom.

    I notice you neither use Larkin’s famous first line nor have you taken his advice at the end : “…and don’t have any kids yourself.”

    • But I notice that you got it! For anyone still reading the comments, here it is: Thank you to my good friend Professor Dan Kinney at UVA for providing me with this–I cant believe I missed this during my stint as an English major.

      This Be the Verse

      By Philip Larkin 1922–1985

      They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
      They may not mean to, but they do.
      They fill you with the faults they had
      And add some extra, just for you.

      But they were fucked up in their turn
      By fools in old-style hats and coats,
      Who half the time were soppy-stern
      And half at one another’s throats.

      Man hands on misery to man.
      It deepens like a coastal shelf.
      Get out as early as you can,
      And don’t have any kids yourself.

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