This week’s essay — “Reading My Mother’s Eulogy” — really resonated with me. Dana Schwartz has written an achingly beautiful essay.
Unfortunately, as a veteran of writing eulogies for my own family I understand the complicated mix of emotions and pressure one feels when trying to honor a person you love, without falling to pieces in front of a crowd. This essay is so descriptive and well written that I wish I could read the eulogy Dana wrote for her mom. I am certain she succeeded in honoring her mother’s legacy with love, humor, and respect. I suggest you grab some tissues before you read this lovely piece.
Parting Words: Reading My Mother’s Eulogy
By Dana Schwartz
My mother died before dawn on summer solstice, the longest day of the year. I like to think of it as her parting gift, allowing us extra time to plan her funeral, which according to Jewish tradition, should occur the following day.
There were calls to make, photographs to select, food to order, and a eulogy to write.
Plus, I needed to buy a dress.
That’s the thing about death. It does not stop for anything, especially the mundane.
It’s surreal going shopping hours after your mom dies, because it’s almost exactly like going shopping any other time – you struggle to squeeze into unflattering silhouettes, you almost flash customers when you fall into the curtain, but all the while there is this track looping in your mind, my mom is dead, my mom is dead.
After trying on a few dresses the saleswoman picked out for me, including one I’m pretty sure was cocktail attire, I settled on a gauzy black dress with tiny white polka dots, three quarter sleeves, and buttons up the front. The perfect summer funeral dress, if there is such a thing.
We waited while the tailor took it in since I had shrunk a size. During the week leading up to my mother’s death, my husband downed donuts and grazed on cookie trays, but my stomach closed up like a fist.
By dusk I had a dress, shoes, and a pair of oversized sunglasses to hide my red-rimmed eyes. While the rest of my family went out to eat (again, the mundane) I stayed behind to write the eulogy.
It was always a given that it would be me. After all, I am the writer in the family.
Writing a eulogy is big pressure. There’s an unforgiving deadline and a powerful need to get it “right.” Before my family left for dinner, my cousin Ari came to check on me. I thought that was brave of him, or stupid, since I had just sent my father and husband away with glowering looks.
I was struggling, having written and deleted hundreds of words. It wasn’t writer’s block, more like writer’s tsunami. I had too much to say. How could I possibly pin down my vibrant and loving mother in a few pages? How could I explain that while she may have died from multiple sclerosis, her illness did not define her?
Undeterred by my stormy mood, my cousin sat down on the couch and told me stories about my mom, his aunt. He reminded me about her spark.
Her spark. That was it. We had seen it just that week, looking through old photographs, the same twinkle in her eye when she was five and fifty-five. The impish look that came over her when she was about to say something inappropriate.
The spark that lit up her smile and bubbled out in her laughter. A laugh so robust it could, on occasion, take her breath away. I used to call it her wheeze – she’d laugh so hard she’d gasp and that would make her laugh harder. Sitting in her reclining chair, propped up with pillows, covered with a blanket, unable to move. She moved us all.
It was exactly what I needed, the centerpiece of my eulogy. Light to balance the dark. I finished it by nightfall.
The next day was the funeral. I cried in the shower early that morning, wondering how I would read it without breaking down.
If you cry, you cry, my husband said, practical as ever, but I didn’t want to cry. I wanted people to pay attention to my words, not my tears.
The rest of the morning went by in a blur and before I knew it, I was up there smoothing down the front of my dress with shaking fingers. The room was filled with family and friends all waiting for me. I took off my glasses, glad for once to be near-sighted, and began to read.
My voice creaked through the first few sentences, my throat thick, but the words came out unhindered. Though their faces were blurry, I knew every single person in the room was staring at me.
I froze, struck by the weight of this moment. My mother was dead and I was reading her eulogy, words pulled straight from my heart, never to be spoken aloud again.
Taking a deep breath, I continued. I’m not a born performer, but something came over me. Instinctively I knew not to rush. I paused to find familiar faces in the crowd. I wanted each person to feel the weight of every, single, word.
My fear melted away as I read her eulogy with equal parts ferocity and love. I gave a shout out to the hospice nurses in the back row, as if I were on a much bigger stage accepting an award or giving one. I felt like I owned the room in a way I never felt before, or since, until I birthed my children.
Then all of a sudden, maybe two thirds of the way through, I realized it was going to end – and I didn’t want it to.
But I couldn’t stop the momentum. When it was over there was no applause. It wasn’t that kind of performance. I slipped on my glasses, grabbed my papers, and found my seat.
People approached me afterward, complimenting my eulogy, hugging me, and crying. We talked logistics about who would be going to the mausoleum and what time everyone should arrive at my father’s house for lunch.
My eyes were dry. The tears were there, waves of them, and soon they would come for me, but in that moment I let myself coast on the fumes of my recent triumph.
Then it was time to go. The words I had practiced and almost memorized were beginning to fade as I stepped out into the glaring sunlight, into a world without my mother.
Dana Schwartz lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. Her short stories have been published in literary journals and she was a member of the Lehigh Valley 2015 Listen To Your Mother show. Her essays have appeared in The HerStories Project on female friendship and Mothering Through the Darkness (November 2015). She is a regular contributor to The Gift of Writing and blogs about the creative process and motherhood on Writing at the Table. She is currently working on a novel.