By Lesley Pacey
When my brother Tom offered to write mom’s eulogy, I was relieved. We are both journalists, but he is the most eloquent writer in the family and has been telling stories for 21 years with ESPN. As expected, his eulogy was breathtaking beautiful. It captured our mother’s amazing love and generosity for others.
It also was perfect because I didn’t have to write it. Immediately after mom’s passing, there was no way I could muster the strength write about our mother – much less speak about her with any coherence or composure.
Now, nearly six months after her death, there is still so much sorrow swirling around inside of me that I hope writing about mom might provide some peace.
When my mother left this world and entered Heaven on October 30, 2016 (fittingly on All Saints Day), I knew I would never be the same.
This woman, who I knew and loved with my whole heart, who knew and loved me more steadfastly than anyone in my lifetime, had become in the last few years, my best friend, a constant companion, an emotional sounding board and my biggest supporter.
To say she filled my life with an abundance of light and purpose is an understatement. At every turn in my adult life, I desired – no, I needed –to bounce my ideas, feelings, hopes, dreams, fears, and epiphanies off my mom’s springboard of wisdom. She relished being needed and was never burdened by all I dumped on her or the time it took to counsel my every concern.
Mom always answered her phone when I called, was genuinely interested in what I had to say, whether it was mundane daily ramblings or personal challenges that shook me to the core. We shared practically everything. She intimately knew who I was – the good, the bad and the in between _ and still thought I hung the moon.
She loved me beyond measure. Like so many others who crossed her path, I reaped the benefits of her selfless love and mercy. In short, she made others feel special. But my brother and I enjoyed that tenfold. She spoke about us like we were the smartest, most benevolent beings on earth. “How did I luck out that both my children are wonderful people?” she often said. “I am the richest woman in the world because I have good kids and wonderful grandchildren.”
Mom never missed an opportunity to express her love for me, my brother and her six grandchildren. And we consistently counted on Grand Marcia, or GM as we called her, to cheerfully show up wherever and whenever she might be needed.
Every birthday, she made sure I had a cake with real butter cream icing (in large part because she loved the icing), a card, a gift and a luncheon. She invited my friends and some of her own to make the celebrations grand.
She always succeeded in making Tom and I feel special. The same went for the grandchildren. She attended every concert, sporting event and recital, even ones she had seen over and over like the 3-hour-long Nutcracker ballet that usually featured less than 10 minutes of her own granddaughters. She showed up, often with flowers, to band concerts, sitting for extended periods of time in impossible metal chairs that I know worsened her already aching back. But still, she was there, dressed stylishly, makeup and hair perfect and beaming with pride. She was arguably the proudest grandparent in the room. Every event was followed up with a photo session. We often groaned, but it was all she wanted in return for her presence.
Bottom line: mom almost always showed up for the various moments of our lives from grandiose to mundane. Hell or high water could not keep her away. She wanted to be there.
I can recall countless demonstrations of her commitment to us throughout our lives, but the last eight years of her life, when she lived only a few miles away, that devotion was expressed almost daily. It was during this time that our relationship really blossomed.
For many years, as a single mother and flight attendant living in south Florida, mom was away, and Tom and I learned to do for ourselves, cooking, cleaning and working. We became very self sufficient, although it took me longer than my big brother to grow up. Sometimes, too much freedom and lack of supervision can be a bad thing when you are too young and immature to handle it. Later in life, Mom expressed regret that her job required my brother and me to fend for ourselves… that she had to leave us with friends most Thanksgivings and Christmases. But mom was working to put food on the table, providing for her kids in the best way she knew how and exposing us to a world of travel that we could never afford otherwise.
Even though she was gone a lot, we knew she always had our backs.
After high school, I went to college, pursued a career in journalism in Alabama while mom lived in Maryland, Oklahoma and Louisiana, mostly working for various airlines. Mom was the most emotionally intelligent woman I ever met. She would have made a fine journalist or psychologist. She could always draw out personal details about others, digest that information and get to the heart of the matter quite in short order. People trusted her and they shared their secrets with her.
But mom’s career path was different. She worked to put my father through college and set her sights on raising her kids. After the divorce, she worked in banking and real estate before returning to her first love: the airlines. She was in her element soaring through the clouds while nourishing tired travelers with food, drink and her warm smile.
She loved the adventure that flying provided, and wherever she went, she made friends out of strangers and lifelong friends out of acquaintances. She finished her long flight attendant career working with the New Orleans Hornets. She adored her co-workers, the players and everything about her job. When the team sold their airplane in 2008, mom reluctantly retired and settled into a new phase of her life.
Always worried about her youngest child’s well being, and preferring warm south Alabama to chilly Connecticut where my brother resides, she relocated near me to Daphne, Ala. in 2008.
What a gift that was. Any kinks in our mother-daughter relationship were worked out that first year. There were boundaries that had to be established and respected. Let’s just say when she first moved to town she meant well and was trying to improve my life when she moved my couch and kitchen appliances to new locations. But eventually, she stopped doing that and learned to trust me with much more than furniture placement decisions. She learned she could be there for me, but also that I can handle myself through trials even as monumental as my daughter Sarah’s battle with leukemia. Mom discovered that the apple did not fall far from the tree, and that her daughter was strong, determined and fiercely protective of her family and friends, just like she was.
That did not prevent mom from babying me and being there for me whether I asked for it or not. There are too many examples of this to count, but a couple of examples in her last year of life come to mind, and now posthumously make me ache for her support.
Once while at the gym, she called and I expressed that I had a conflict with a family member. She then instructed me, “Stay put. I am on my way.” She was there in 10 minutes. “I was going to Tai Chi anyway,” she said. Once she arrived, she phoned me and told me to come outside. We sat in her car and I talked for 30 minutes and she did what she always did. She listened, offered sound advice and lent her support. So in minutes, I went from distraught to feeling validated to essentially everything is going to be alright. Among other things, that’s what mom did for me. She always reassured me that I was okay. Beyond that, she told me that I was “the best.” Not sure I agreed with her, but I will take it. How many people, especially those you respect, are going to sing your praises like that?
Whenever I was sad, dealing with life’s disappointments, she was uplifting. She offered good advice, always. And that advice was consistently followed up with a genuine affirmation that she believed in me. “Trust your instincts. You have good instincts.” Then she would build me up. “You are amazing. I don’t know how you do everything you do,” she said. “You are the best mother.”
Always more outgoing and engaging than her shy, cautious daughter, mom often stepped up to strangers introducing herself simply as “Lesley’s mother.” Then she was smile and say, “Lesley is my claim to fame.”
Mom also instinctively knew my anxieties and weaknesses. She knew I needed her, although I was always trying to act like I didn’t. When I had to get a brain MRI for some dizzy spells I was experiencing, she proclaimed, “I will be there.” She often showed up at my doctor’s appointments and scans whenever she found out about them. Sometimes, I would not tell her about them, but I would mention my plans in the morning or from the waiting room. That’s all it took to bring on mom. “I’m coming,” she said. “No mom, not necessary,” I would tell her, half meaning it. “I just have to put my face on,” she would say. A few minutes later, this middle aged kid had her mom there with her in the waiting room.
I admit I was always relieved to see her. Especially for the MRI as I apparently did not know how it would affect me. Once in the MRI room, the technician snapped my head into a Silence of the Lambs mask. Immediately, I had an explosive outburst of explicatives and massive anxiety attack. It was so bad that I left the hospital immediately, and had to sit in mom’s car crying for several minutes. I am severely claustrophobic so I could not shake the panic of feeling trapped.
Mom went into fix it mode. We ate lunch at a restaurant that did not serve alcohol but in typical mom fashion, she talked the owner into sharing some whiskey she had saved in the back of the restaurant. Then, Mom, a cradle Catholic who recently renewed her Catholic education, went next door to an antique store to buy me something she knew would provide lasting peace.
“Do you have a rosary?” she asked. I did not. “Well, I am going to buy you one,” and she emerged with a blue beaded rosary, which she draped around my neck. “This should help,” she asserted. Crisis averted.
She was not done making it all better. When I went with her for a scan she needed at the hospital where the open MRI was located, she talked the MRI technician into letting me view the machine so I could see what I was in for when I had my open MRI. I was there to support her that day, but she found a way to make that morning all about me. Typical mom stuff. It is not surprising that going to doctor’s appointments and scans these days are some of my toughest moments now. I feel her absence every day and in multiple ways. But it is the time I spend alone in waiting rooms and at radiology appointments without my mom that makes me feel so horribly lost.
With mom in my life, I felt beyond loved. I felt cherished. I could sense and see it with every interaction, every phone call, and every time I left her house. It was not enough to just say, “Goodbye, I love you,” and give me a hug. It was the way she looked at me with those big wide set brown eyes. I can still see her gazing at me as she always did from the big window of her front door, watching me pull away until I was out of sight.
I had no idea at the time she would be out of my sight so soon. I was always keenly aware that mom was getting older; that I may only have a few years left with her. But I was not ready for her death when it came, and will never be, really.
Someone once said, “Losing a mother is like being on a ship that has lost its ballast and is now at the mercy of the deepest ocean and all it holds within. I bob around with the foundation to bring me back to the same balanced spot each time, a spot I just can’t get right. Instead, I spend my time sideways, upside down, right side up, sinking to the ocean floor and floating back up, taken on the current to places I have never been.”
Losing a mother like Tom and I had, is life altering, and I know I am still grappling nearly six months later with where I will go from here, and how to do it without her. Not a day goes by that I don’t cry and there have been times since mom’s passing that I have been incapacitated with immense grief. It comes in waves, sometimes soft ripples; other times the weight of it smacks so hard, I believe it will drown me. I can honestly say I never knew true sorrow and loss until now and nothing; absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the reality of my mother’s cardiac arrest, subsequent coma and eventual death eight days later.
Boxing up a lifetime of mom’s belongings felt impossible, but it was my duty as her daughter.
She had a trunk full of Hornets memorabilia in her bedroom and a closet packed with perfectly pressed and color categorized clothing, many of which smelled like mom. Who knew the most intoxicating fragrance in the world could be the smell of her clothing? Every time I went to mom’s to pack things up, I would find myself nose deep in her closet, arms wrapped around brightly hued blouses and slacks inhaling deeply and finding amazing comfort and connection in them.
For weeks after mom died, I walked around in a haze that still clouds my view of the world. It’s a more sobering perspective.
My wise mother would have told me to honor my feelings. But she also would have instructed me not to get stuck in my grief, to gently and graciously shift it to “an attitude of gratitude.” That is what she possessed, even during her darkest days. She was continually thankful for the people and experiences that colored her world. She counted her blessings and exceeded her goal of making life better for the people she loved.
So now, more than ever before, I have a burning desire to make every minute of my life count while I still can, to make mom prouder than she has ever been of me in all aspects of my life. I am striving to be more like her every day, trying to make it less about me and more about others. I am talking a little more to strangers in the elevator or at the table next to me, gathering their stories like mom would have done. I also am more keenly aware than ever that I want, like mom, to impact family, friends and strangers in a positive, loving way; to leave the world a little better than how I found it.
Looking back throughout my 50 years, there were times when we were inseparable. In photo after photo, I flank mom. I liked being near her. She was my safety net that allowed me to leap out in faith, knowing that I always had a soft place to land.
I’ll admit that during my teenage years, and sometimes into adulthood, we clashed as mothers and daughters do. We had the ability to infuriate each other off and on through the years. But in the last few years before she died, I would like to think we perfected our relationship. When one of us hurt the other’s feelings, we would talk about it right away. In pretty short order, transgressions on both sides occurred less frequently and finally disappeared altogether.
Before mom died, we literally finished each other’s sentences, accidentally showed up to events dressed in the same color schemes and shared an admiration for one another that can never be matched. I often told her how much I loved her and recently told her I can’t imagine a life without her in it.
Unfortunately, that day came too soon for me. For the first time in my life, I am without mom’s physical presence in my life – and I will never get used to it. Yes, I know she is in better place, but she is not in this place with me. I’d like to believe she is still part of my life as I move through each day. I know she emerges in the little things I say and do, the way I size up situations and people. And I glimpse her in the sunsets she always loved and in my children who share many of her attributes, and who even look after me in much the way mom did.
Last night, out of the blue, Thomas, my 14-year-old, sensed my sadness. He got up from the computer, walked into the kitchen and leaned over to hug me tight. “What was that for?” I asked. “It is for being there for me. It is for being a good mom.”
Maybe that is her legacy. The love Mom poured into her children throughout our lifetime flows through us to our children and back again. I just wish I could hug her one more time.