My Blog, and I Can Cry if I Want To
November 25, 2022 | Jim Angehr
Letters to You returns! I was on a mini-sabbatical for all of November until now. My time off, however, didn’t go as planned: my mom, who had been struggling through late stage Alzheimer’s Disease, came down with COVID at the beginning of the month and died on Friday, 11/11. I conducted the funeral and gave the eulogy. Here’s what I said.
We’ll start here: “They were economy size, and they were on sale!”, said Mommy angrily as she stormed off from the table—although there may have been some profanity sprinkled in there as well. (She could be quite salty with her language.)
Some context. It was dinner, and Mark and I must have been in upper elementary or middle school. We were making fun of the toilet paper Mommy had just bought for the household.
Now, making fun of toilet paper is a species within the genus category of “potty humor.” Pee and poop jokes. Mark and I loved pee and poop jokes. Mommy hated pee and poop jokes, but with her later set of children she found herself in the regrettable situation of being surrounded by guys. Daddy was always the swing voter when it came to pee and poop jokes. Whenever the potty humor started sloshing around, he would try and show solidarity with Mommy, but every once in a while we could entice him to our side of the aisle—including that night with the toilet paper.
In point of fact, the toilet paper was terrible. In classic TP categories, you have two-ply toilet paper, which is best, and then one-ply toilet paper, which is bad. This toilet paper that Mommy had bought must have been no-ply. Mark and I jeered, “Why do we even bother wiping with this toilet paper? It’s waffle thin!”
From my perspective at the time, Mommy was getting huffy for no reason. “Mommy, what’s your problem? Why can’t you take a joke?”
In the years after that scene, though, I believe that I came to appreciate what Mommy may have been feeling. Underneath her, “They were economy size, and they were on sale!”, there was justified indignation, justified hurt. This is how I picture her internal monologue: “Do you think I like this toilet paper? I don’t like it any more than you do. But are you the one that cuts coupons and brings them to the store every week? Are you the one that balances the checkbook? I’m doing all of this, including the toilet paper, for you. We may be skimping on toilet paper right now, but it’s so that you can have your baseball bat, baseball cards, comic books, G. I. Joe figures—and whatever Mark likes. Also, there are so many things that I’d love to have, but I don’t, because I want you to have those things.”
Mommy was serving her family.
That’s what she did. Words that come to mind to describe Mommy: servant, devoted, selfless. She wanted the best for her family and and friends. She would always place her own needs and interests behind others.
Another word that comes to mind: Mommy was fierce. She was fiercely devoted to her friends and family, and fierce to defend them.
I came to understand that even for some things that frustrated me at the time, they came from one who was a servant, devoted, and selfless. Throughout my growing up, whenever I’d begin to be friends with a new boy or become interested in a new girl, Mommy always had one question each for the boy and for the girl. For the boy, it was, “Is he popular?,” and for the girl, “Is she fast?” (“Fast” in this case was an old school term.”) Invariably and unfortunately, then, when Mommy would ask whether my new guy friend was popular, I’d lie and say, “Yes, Mommy, he’s very popular. All of my friends are very popular.” Likewise with the girl and the “is she fast?” question, I’d invariably and unfortunately tell the truth and reply, “No Mommy, she’s not fast at all. She doesn’t even like me.”
Nevertheless, those questions came from love. She wanted what was best for her boy, which meant to her that I needed to hang around the right guys and avoid the wrong girls.
Another word that comes to mind for her: tireless. Mommy came from a family of workers, laborers. It was a family trait from Myron and Pauline (my Grandad and Grandma Pauline) and from the wider McElfresh family. Mommy was no exception.
As a young mother in the 1950’s—a very young mother—Mommy completed her nursing degree during an era when pregnancy typically meant a removal from school. After that, she juggled on one hand raising two little girls in cities where she had no extended family, and on the other hand, working as a nurse in the New Orleans public school system—a challenging job in any decade. But she pulled it off. She pulled everything off.
By the time Mark and I came along, Mommy stayed at home full time. She was an excellent homemaker, and this during a period perhaps when domestic skill was uniquely prized—and with it came unique expectations and pressures. Still, Mommy knocked it out of the park. She did everything. All the lunch making, all the dinners, all the food shopping, all the clothes shopping, all the rest of the shopping, all the balancing of the checkbook, all the bills, all the shuttling of Mark and me to different activities (including to tennis tournaments, where Mark always won and I always lost), all the doctor’s visits, all the repair calls, all the school and sports events, all the cleaning, all the dishes, all the washing, all the drying, all the folding, all the ironing, all the starching, all the vacation planning. She never broke a sweat, at least on the outside. Mommy was truly selfless.
She was selfless to the end. From when she first suspected that she had Alzheimer’s, through her diagnosis, and into her decline, she must have been terrified. She had seen what this disease had done to Grandma Pauline. Even so, she never complained. Daddy can attest to that. Eunice and Michelle—Eunice and Michelle, thank you so much to your service to Mommy, Daddy, and our family over these last couple of years as you cared for her—can attest to that. (This, too, was family trait. I remember when during his final years Delmar McElfresh, my Great Uncle Delmar, would come with us to restaurants around here––places like The Cadet or Pitzer’s––and the server would come to our table and greet us with a, “How’s everyone doing today?” Uncle Delmar would retort, “Terrible!”, and then give me a wink and a smile. That was his way of not complaining.)
It must be devastating on so many levels progressively to lose one’s mind and body. Furthermore and in particular for Mommy, how cruel was it that for someone who was such a servant, and devoted, and selfless, and fierce, and tireless, she became unable to labor for her loved ones.
I remember Mommy’s last words to me. They weren’t strictly speaking her last words, but it was what I think was the last complete sentence she ever spoke to me. After that was only simple replies and single words. It must have been the summer of 2019, because Mommy was still able to stand (if uncertainly) under her own power, and it was warm enough that she was on the porch of the barn. This was after another extended family visit, and we all were leaving. In the midst of all of the goodbye hugs and kisses, Mommy pulled me close and whispered haltingly, “I’m sorry that there’s not more that I can do to help you.” I teared up, gave her another embrace, and replied, “Mommy I love you. You’ve helped all of us so much. You’ve helped us enough. It’s ok to take it easy right now.”
Mommy’s words on the porch couldn’t have been a throwaway line. I’m sure they came from the heart, from a place of deep pain and lament.
Her last years were a tragedy. No way around it. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease. Still, there were silver linings along the way.
To that point, on the night that Mommy died two Fridays ago, after Mark and I came back from being with Daddy, we went into the basement of the farmhouse, where our kids were watching a movie. We turned off the movie and shared the sad news with them, and soon after we began to read some Bible, name things we were sad about, but also identify some silver linings in the midst of our grief. I encourage you all to do the same.
Here’s a major silver lining. During Mommy’s long decline and final act, were were treated to a love story. One of the greatest love stories ever told. It wasn’t a Hollywood love story with all of the meet cutes, beautiful young people, glamour, and sex appeal. This one was better. Daddy: all of the effort, love, and labor on Mommy’s behalf, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, year after year.
I remember Grandma Jessie’s funeral. I was in eighth grade and the service was just up the hollow from here at Heilman Church. During the eulogy, the preacher took as a cue the words of Jesus in the parable, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and crafted them into a refrain, “Well done, servant Jessie.” And so I say this morning, “Well done, servant Jim. Well done, servant Donna.”
But even as I say that this was one of the greatest love stories ever told, I feel the Christian story tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Well, there is another one.” I recognize that in this room, there are a number of faith traditions and worldviews present. I honor and respect that. At the same time, as a Christian minister, I access my own sacred scriptures and find at the center of the story, at the center of God’s redemptive plan for humanity and all things, Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was selfless and fierce as a servant and savior. In the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God, where Jesus paid the penalty for our sin, he gives as a servant to all of his children who receive him by faith forgiveness, transformation, and life.
In light of this gospel, Mommy’s love and service to her family and friends was merely an echo. An ectype to the archetype of Jesus.
At churches around the world and throughout the ages, Christians have confessed their faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. The end of the creed includes the “We believe. . .” section, towards the end of which occurs, “We believe in the resurrection of the body.”
That’s a tough one to believe, the resurrection of the body. A faith stretcher. I take comfort, though, in recognizing that not only is the resurrection of the body tough for us as modern people to trust, but it was just as difficult for ancients, too. Recorded in ancient church history are those who wondered, “Can we really believe the words of Jesus, the words of scripture, about the resurrection of the body? We may be ancient, but we know what happens to bodies after they expire and are buried.”
However, one of the things that confirms the Christian gospel to me as real and true is that it properly identifies our true enemy—death. Whether in this room or more broadly, we’re facing many struggles and problems. But the big problem is the same everywhere. Death. Death is the problem behind the problem, the big boss behind all of the other bosses. The apostle Paul calls death the last enemy to be destroyed.
And yet, death is specifically and emphatically what Jesus of Nazareth has conquered in his crucifixion and resurrection.
For those that saw Mommy towards the end, we may have said to ourselves, “This wasn’t her.” Because it wasn’t, as we remembered back to this precious one so full of love and life, sass and spunk. But friends, hear the promise of good news in the gospel. If as we consider Mommy when she was in her diminished state and reflect, “This is not who she was,” also with the eyes of faith, we’re able to say, “This was not who she will be.”
We grieve, but we grieve with hope.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.