My mom has always been a source of gentle humor in our family. Whenever she got amazed or exasperated by something, Mom would try to say, “Well …” — probably meaning to eventually say “well, I never.”
Instead, all that came out was a “wuh” noise. Then she would say it repeatedly, in a sort of cadence that got louder as she further grasped her own amazement: “wuh … wuh … Wuh … WUH …!” Thus the “nana whooping crane noise” became the running gag in our home for expressing mock amazement.
The jokes have stopped … for now. We’re at my mom’s funeral.
After the graveside service and lunch, my wife takes our kids back to the hotel. I decided to stay with my dad at his house instead of with my family during this trip.
That evening, my dad sat in his chair and talked with me about the day, and about Mom. Even with her obvious deterioration over the past years, he still wasn’t ready for her death. I know that sounds predictable, but for me, it was a little surprising for one reason:
I thought he’d be relieved she was gone.
As I type those words, I realize how harsh they sound. I almost want to backspace over them, because they seem naked and cruel. But there’s a truth in them we don’t often have the courage to acknowledge after someone dies.
My mom had been incredibly hard to live with in her latter years. As people do when they get sick, she became more irritable. The past several months in particular had been spent in much complaining, bickering and blaming of my dad on her part.
To her in those final years, life was cruel and unfair. She was physically miserable, in continual pain, and nothing much comforted her anymore.
So like many people in her boat, she took it all out on her spouse.
Before you think I’m trying to get back at her by writing this, let me assure you I have no motives in that direction. My relationship with her was fine and she never attacked me.
While I was sad she was gone, I was secretly happy for my dad. It bothered me the way she often talked to him. Her bitterness over the past several years had tarnished the few good memories he’d had. I’d rather my dad be allowed to live his last few years in peace. He’d spent too long as a caregiver and punching bag.
But now as I sit next to my dad’s chair and listen to him talk on and on about her, I realize he’s the opposite of relieved. He racks his brain for what he might have done to head off her stroke before it happened. What were the warning signs, if any, he missed? If only he had more time with her …
How completely unreasonable and unexpected love is. How indestructible and resilient.
He brings out their wedding pictures and marvels at her beauty. He describes her in ideal terms, conveniently forgetting the past 10 miserable years. It’s not that he’s avoiding the truth. It’s simply that his love makes him not care anymore about all the pain she caused him.
He’s now suddenly completely focused on his love for her, a love which seems to have tapped him on the shoulder again now at her passing. The same voice I heard arguing with her on the phone two months before now quivers every time he mentions her.
I sat there into the late evening and listened as Dad described a woman she had not truly been in years.
This is the beauty of love and the miracle of marriage. It’s a commitment which endures when feelings fade, and often must withstand the onslaughts of its very object.
Watching my dad, I learned our relationships will ultimately endure based on how much love we are willing to dispense and how much pain we are willing to absorb.
My dad fell asleep in his chair that night, as had become his custom. Though Mom’s pain meant they could no longer sleep in the same bed, he remained stationed outside her door like a sentry.
By the time I’d left my hometown that week, I realized my dad had taught me a great lesson about love. My hope is that in spite of many years of imperfection, all that will be left after my own funeral is that same indestructible love still smoldering somehow there within the ashes.