I Call Your Name

I hear my voice.  I hear my words.  I cannot stop:

“As my Mother always said…”

“My Dad thought…”

“Wouldn’t she have gotten a kick out of that?!”

I hear myself saying these words and I see my friends’ expressions. Their eyes dart quickly; they look away.

Uh oh…

She is talking about her Mom again. What will happen next? 

Will she implode…?

I see my friends look to the side; at their feet; at each other.  I know they want to change the subject.  But for me, just saying their names gives me great comfort.  It is not enough to say their names silently; to keep them secreted away.  I have to say their names out loud.  Because for just that sliver of a moment, as I say their names out loud,

They are gone;

They are not gone;

They are but a memory;

They are standing right here.

Before my mother died, I did not know that names had magical powers. A few weeks after her death, I got my first clue.

A friend had arranged for a Mass in honor of my Mother, and on a brisk Sunday morning, my husband and I walked the four blocks down Lexington Avenue to the local Catholic Church.

I had no expectations; I felt an obligation to be there. I could have ignored the buzzing alarm clock.

Or not set the alarm at all.

Even though it was weeks after her death, I was still numb; every step was difficult; every day was exhausting.

And then I heard her name.

As the Mass began, a distinct, sonorous voice filled the church: “This celebration of the Mass is in honor of the life of Louise Bonner Swift.”

And later in the prayers, the priest again proclaimed: “and for Louise whom we remember here today.”

And while I am sure the other congregants didn’t notice, the priest said it and I heard it, loud and clear.

I knew the ritual of the Mass. I had experienced this moment thousands of times before. I must have heard countless names from the altar, but they had been lost on me. Not anymore. 

I heard her name and I felt lighter.  I felt stronger.  It was inexplicable. I actually felt joy for the first time in weeks.

And later, I remembered.

I remembered that after my father died, my Mom wouldn’t stop talking about him.  It seemed like everywhere we went, she kept saying his name.

“As Mike always said…” 

“Mike thought… ” 

“Wouldn’t Mike get a kick out of that?!”

And one day, I had heard enough. I got mad at her. “Stop already.  Please.  He is dead.  Stop talking about him.”

As I think back, I cannot fathom how hurt she must have been.

She turned to me, “Don’t you miss him?  You never say anything.  Don’t you miss him?”

“Oh, Mama,” I protested, exasperated; “How do you not know?  Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him!  Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him! Not a day goes by that I don’t want him back!

“Well,” she responded,” you never say a word.”

And then she stopped saying his name, at least around me; at least not as frequently.

As I write those words today, I cannot believe how wrong I was.

And now, I know.  It must have given you so much comfort to say his name.

And now, as my friends look sideways, they must want to say to me what I said to you.

But now, I know.  It gives me so much comfort to say his name; to hear your name, out loud.

And so I promise:

I will call your name.  And I will not stop.


Ice Cream in Heaven; Reflections on the Second Anniversary of My Mother’s Death

 Nada Te Turbe
Let Nothing Disturb You

Nada Te Espante
Let Nothing Frighten You

Todo Se Pasa
All Things Pass Away

Today, the second anniversary of my Mother’s death, I share these words written by the Spanish mystic, religious reformer and Doctor of the Church Teresa of Avila in the 1500s. Written long before George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Teresa’s words of calm assurance and spiritual conviction were like a mantra for our Mother; the underpinning for how she tried to live; the gift she wanted to share.

As I wrote in my last post, I have gained tremendous solace from friends’ words of comfort since my mother’s death. But the reverse is also true. In the days after her death, it was our challenge to find words to celebrate our Mother’s life and spirit and in turn help comfort our family and friends.

We chose Nada Te Turbe as the cornerstone of our tribute. We printed the words on her Memorial Card; etched it on her gravestone; reiterated them in her eulogy.

I have re-read the eulogy many times during the last two years. Each time I feel a sense of tranquility and even joy. My sister and I collaborated on the ideas but the vision and most of the words belonged to my sister. She captured our Mother’s essence; her serious resolve, her gentle leadership; her mischievous gaiety.

Delivered at the conclusion of the funeral Mass, my sister shared our Mother’s story, and then addressed her with many of the affectionate nicknames bestowed over the years:

Well, my dearest, sweetest Pico, you taught us how to be sisters; you taught us independence and self-reliance, resilience and enthusiasm. You taught us in the words of St. Teresa of Avila:

“Let nothing disturb you
Let nothing frighten you
All things pass away
God never changes
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing
God alone suffices.”

My sister continued:

But lest you think I have emphasized piety over playfulness, during Hallie’s last visit with her, while eating a banana split, our Mother announced: ‘If there is no ice cream in heaven, I’m not interested!’
Dear Mama, dear Pico, dear Miss Yuma, dear Queen of Hearts:
bon appétit!

A Swift Current || Mother and Child

“Words Cannot Express…”

In the face of death, we don’t know what to say. We fumble with phrases.

She lived a good, long life.

Time heals all wounds.

You’re strong.  You’ll get through this.

These are actual statements; spoken in good faith; offered for comfort; the last said to a friend when her husband died.  Four years later, it still astounds her.

Are words inadequate, or do we just think it is too difficult to find the right words?

I vote for the latter. For most of us, the topic of death is unwelcome, disturbing, even terrifying.  We do not want to think about it. So we mumble a cliché, put our signature on a card and hope to God we never have to mention it again.

But I believe in words.

I am not saying it is easy to find the right words. In fact, it is as tough as it gets.

But words make a difference.

I still think about an email I received the day after my Mom died:

I can only hope that in my old age, my daughters show the dedication, love, and attention to me that you have showered on your mother…Please know that I have admired and appreciated your relationship…all these years, and many little things you have shared with me remain detailed in my mind…as things that my mother might enjoy in her later years…

Through this message and others, my friends helped me get to the other side of the deep, numbing pain that engulfed me.

It is possible to find words that heal. When my dad died, one of his business colleagues sent a long letter filled with funny stories and incisive observations.  He wrote:

“A friend in the office remarked to me that he had no enemies in the world; a man without malice or rancour, but with a sweet and philosophical temperament that was a warming influence on all of us who have followed him.

From my office in London, I always looked forward to his letters. His opinions were so well thought out and so eloquently expressed that one could look back on them years later and find that they remained true…

He was one of the outstanding original men that I have had the privilege to know in my almost twenty years with the company. I am grateful for his friendship and his guidance, and will always think of him…”

Each time I read that letter, his words bring my dad back to me.

And I was deeply moved when, about a month after my Mom died, a friend sent a letter filled with recollections, both humorous and poignant.  She observed:

She had a wonderful outlook on life, it seems to me…so alive and funny, and dear to be around.  I felt lucky to have known her, and there is such a warm quality to your mother…such graciousness and acceptance.  I felt very accepted by her, and was always overjoyed by her visits…”

My friend apologized that she had taken a long time to finish the letter. I told her that a month is not long; in fact for me, there is no such thing as “too long.”  I would welcome that letter today.

Why are these messages comforting? 

In my view, it is because each friend took time. 

Each thought about and conveyed a sense of the person, describing fond and funny memories as well as sorrow for our shared loss.  

And the friend who had never met my Mom told me our relationship had inspired her.

Buoyed by their words, I felt heartened by the legacies of both my parents. I felt better.

But what do you say to a grieving person? You are standing in the church and there they are and you are; you have dreaded this moment.  What do you possibly say?

A friend who recently lost his dad proposed a simple and elegant solution: “I am sorry for your loss.” I agree, and yet I must add that I am grateful to people who told me–some through tears–how much my Mom had meant to them. I appreciated hearing stories that I had not known.  And I enjoyed this comment by a fellow resident of my Mom’s nursing home:

“If your Mother could die, then it could happen to anyone!”

Words made me laugh.

Words made me wistful.

Words made me feel less alone.

“I know that she had a full life and two wonderful daughters but moms are never supposed to die.”

 “I will always think of him…”

Words can express.

A Swift Current || Words Can Express

“Your Mother will…continue as a dear memory for the rest of my life…”

(Quotes used with permission)