Peg O’ My Heart

The Internet, as they say, is forever.  For family, friends and others, I humbly post here my eulogy for my mother, delivered at her funeral service last Thursday, December 29, 2011:

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming.  I know Peg would be both humbled and joyful at your presence today as we celebrate her life and mourn her death. 

She left us a brief note, just a few words on a tiny piece of paper, about her final wishes and arrangements which included the following: “If someone wants to speak, okay.”

Really, Peg?  Seriously?  Isn’t that just like her?  To make what appears to be a simple comment in passing that, in Peg-speak, is really a directive. 

By the way, we think that’s what it said, but for anyone who has read our mother’s God-awful, chicken-scratch handwriting over the years, you can never be sure.

I remember vividly as a child going to Food Town with our mom to do food shopping and she’d make a shopping list and not be able to read it herself when we got there. 

Not to mention when she’d make my father what they now call a Honey Do List and he couldn’t read it.  Oh, man.  Peggy, I can’t read this damn thing!  What is it you want me to do?”

Anyway, and before I go any further, I want to thank my brother Billy and his wife Donna for everything they’ve done over the past few days following what was no doubt an arduous and emotional drive up here from South Carolina.

From Kinnelon to South Plainfield to Jackson to Clark, all to ensure that our mother’s final wishes were met from the lovely dress in which she’ll be laid to rest to the gorgeous flowers and all the arrangements here today. 

It’s beautiful.  It’s perfect.  I know it’s exactly what she would have wanted and she knew that you would be the one to bear this particular burden for Aileen and I and the whole family.  Thank you.  

I’d like to begin, actually, at the end. 

And I begin at the end because the end was really the culmination of her life.  And make no mistake, good or bad but never indifferent, our mother’s life was about one overriding thing: family. 

My favorite fictional doctor once said to a dying patient:   “You can live with dignity, you can’t die with it.”

Well, I think we all now know that that’s not true.  If our mother didn’t die with dignity, than that word has lost all meaning.

And the main reason – in fact the only reason – Peg was able to die with such dignity, beyond, of course, her own grace and strength, is because of my amazing, remarkable sister Aileen. 

We stood in the hallway together outside our mother’s hospital room after hearing the awful, but not unexpected, news that she was terminal, that she’d have a few weeks to a few months left and that she’d require hospice care.

Immediately, in a selfless, courageous act of pure love, she decided that our mother would spend her final days, not in a hospice or hospital, but with her and her family in her home.

And, let us not for a minute overlook or ever forget the role of her loving husband and beautiful daughters in this act.  It’s their home, too.  And they weren’t just willing, they wanted, they insisted on doing this for our mother and, ultimately, for our entire family.

It’s the final gesture of love from her only daughter and Peggy full knew the sacrifice Aileen was making and the burden she was bearing.  She talked to me about it in some of the last conversations we had and believe me, she appreciated it and was so grateful to be in that home.

The last time I saw Peg was a week ago today.  Tricia and I had planned a visit well in advance, but by the time we got there, she was already in what the hospice people called “steep decline.”

Truth be told, she was mostly unresponsive all afternoon.  We gave her an amethyst rosary and a purple blanket – her favorite color — held her hand, caressed her head and hair.  I remember Aileen and Tricia telling her she was beautiful and her hair was beautiful.

It wasn’t, by the way, and Peg would have been horrified if there was a mirror in the room and she could open her eyes.  Because she always fussed about her hair; wherever she was going, whatever she was doing, whomever she was going to see, she had to get her hair done.

Mary Beth and Meghan arrived and she stirred a little bit more.  Then Kathy came with the kids and our Aunt Dottie, her beloved sister.   And, suddenly, it all started to change.

Dottie held her hand and spoke to her and damn if she didn’t start to rally one last time.  She opened her eyes a bit, she began to gesture with her hands and she tried to speak, said a few names and asked for water.

As Aileen spoke to her and told her who was in the room, for a moment, she fully opened her eyes, color returned to her face and in that brief instant she looked like Peg again.

She passed away, quietly and peacefully, less than 48 hours later early on Christmas Eve, but she died as she lived, surrounded by the love of her family.  We should all be so lucky. 

Our mother lived a long, remarkable life.  88 years.  The better part of the 20th Century and beyond.

She was born in The Roaring 20s and grew up during the Great Depression.  She lost her father tragically as a teenager and lived with her mother and two sisters in Union.

What a trio those three sisters and their mother were – and still are.  Absolute forces of nature, individually and collectively.  Our father used to call them The Dolly Sisters.  For us kids and our cousins, it was like we had three mothers.

She met and married our dad as a teenager and he went off to fight the war in Europe, but not before going AWOL from training to be with her at the birth of their first son.

In the late 50s, we moved from Elizabeth to a home not at all far from this very spot and became part of the post-war growth of the great American middle class. 

In many ways, we were a typical American family of that time.  Not exactly Ozzie and Harriet, but of course, neither were Ozzie and Harriet.

Our parents gave us everything we needed to succeed:  a good home, food, clothing, education, sports, culture, politics, entertainment.

Our home was filled with books and music, from Shakespeare to Sinatra, from mystery novels to show tunes.   We watched TV together, we went to the movies together, we played cards and games together.

Because it was always all about family.

Our parents’ marriage wasn’t perfect; I suppose very few are.  At times, they frustrated, annoyed and angered each other and both of them could be very good at that.  Ultimately, they reconciled and this I know in my heart:  they shared a fierce, deep and everlasting love right till the end.

She was pissed at him when he died; angry that he was leaving us and her so early in life.

But she had really blossomed as a single woman and later a widow and had quite a fulfilling social life.  Trust me, it’s a little embarrassing when it seems your mom’s having more fun than you are.

She had many passions and much enjoyment in her later years.  She loved to read, she absolutely devoured books.  She loved her crossword puzzles, she was never without them.  She always looked forward to and truly enjoyed the visits and lunches with her friends from the school job she loved so much.

But, she most especially loved being a grandmother; God, she loved her grandchildren.  She mentioned them time and again in her final days.

Her ability to walk well went first, though she was never particularly graceful.  Her hearing failed her, though we all know she heard just fine when she really wanted to.

In retrospect, the tragic loss of her son was the beginning of the end for her.  She never really recovered from that.  She was broken by it.  She couldn’t deal with it, didn’t know how, didn’t want to.  Told me it was a mother’s worst nightmare.  I don’t doubt it for a second.

I’m not sure she ever had any real joy in her life again.

Peg was many things to many people here in this room through her long and glorious life.  Daughter and sister.  Aunt and cousin.  Wife and mother.  Grandmother and great grandmother.  Stay-at-home mom and career educator.

To me, she was always my biggest champion.  Through success and failure, triumph and tragedy, victory and defeat, she provided me with unwavering support, more than I deserved.  I’ll miss that dearly.  

We send her to her final rest today and she leaves us, yet she really doesn’t.

In a eulogy delivered earlier this year after the loss of the spiritual leader of his “family,” another New Jerseyan said:

“Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies, he leaves when we die.”

And so it is with Peg, the spiritual leader of our band, our family, and we play on and we live on.  And she lives on in all of us. 

That is her legacy.  WE are her legacy.  Because to Peg – the Peg O’ My Heart — it was always all about family.

Once again, thank you all for coming today.

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4 Responses to “Peg O’ My Heart”

  1. Mary Beth Says:

    Thanks for posting the eulogy here. It was nice to read again. I just wanted you to know I still check your blog even though you are smoking again. Haha I hope you are doing well Talk to you soon

  2. John K. Says:

    I know Peg would have been touched (as I was) by your simple eloquence.

  3. Coleen Says:

    How sorry i am I missed your delivery of this Steven. You are as I have always thought, a great writer. Your mom was always so proud of you for that. Can’t tell you how much we talked about you and what you could do.
    Thanks for helping me make a tough decision and hopefully I will see you soon. Love ya kiddo

  4. Bill Moorhead Says:

    Steve,

    I’m just learning of your mom’s passing now. Really sorry for your loss. I know how that feels, especially the part about missing the unwavering support, which really equates to unconditional love. It’s a beautiful eulogy, and I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

    Hope to see you soon. Carol sends her love too.
    Take care.
    – Bill

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