Love’s Testimony

Kelly Salasin

I spoke these truths at my mother’s funeral in 2000.

I have the deepest respect for my mother
and  
I’ve always wanted  to be able to offer this kind of public testimony for her–because she was a “background/behind the scenes” kind of person who I felt needed to 
be exalted…

My mom supported and encouraged so many others with their 
dreams and their problems,  but never seemed to need to be the center of 
things or to shine herself.  
For me this made her a kind of hero.   
She was definitely  the “wind beneath my wings” … whether it was acting in a highschool play, going off to college, 
traveling through Europe, moving to VT, or deciding to give up a career and 
be an at home mom.

It was my mother’s constancy of unconditional love and acceptance that made so much 
possible for me.  I always wished that she could have had some of the glory and opportunities 
that I did so it is an honor to glorify her here today.

And I always thought that I would have to get up here and tell people about 
how special she was, but after this summer– 
after all the love letters &cards, poems & paintings, presents & meals 
that were sent her way, I know that others realized the gift she was  too.

And more importantly, there is the testimony that her children offered, each 
and every day this summer in the hospital and at  home, as they lovingly 
cared for mom, and left their personal lives and homes behind. 
  
I was and am touched so deeply by their devotion and by their unified 
strength– 
how they came together and loved my mother whole-heartedly.   
I am continually in awe of this,  and I was blessed to be here on some short 
visits and in her last days to witness this love story.

I’d like to share some glimpses of those last days and hours with you when 
all of us rallied around mom; there were so many beautiful moments, so many 
blessings in the sadness of it all….

So here is a spoken slide 
show of those moments together:
~my brother-in-law Dr. Ken Cramer at my mother1s side, listening to her lungs 
with his stethoscope, tears streaming down his face
~my mother’s eyes closed and unresponsive for hours, suddenly opening wide 
and looking all around  after hearing the cry of my newborn son
~wall to wall air mattresses, arriving daily to be placed around my mother’s 
bed so that each of her children could be there to support her in her last 
hours
~in the wee hours, these beds filled with family who haven’t slept under the 
same roof in fifteen years
~having the little ones toddling around, John and Sequoia and Josh, and to 
see the love they had for their mom-mom
~my aunt cass (my mom’s sister) who massaged my mom’s feet each time she came, even after my 
mom had passed
~to hear laughter coming from a full kitchen of siblings and spouses, 
relatives and friends;  and the meals that arrived daily to feed of all of us
~to share in the sorrow of these days with with each other’s partners, Kenny 
Cramer, Ken Burcham, Casey, Tim, Rich, Frank, and Danny’s Diana who always 
had that beautiful smile and a gift for mom
~to find mom’s brothers and sisters together again to support her
~to see the natural rhythm of the bed-side vigil, always one or two to sit 
beside mom without the need to ask…  holding mom’s hand, telling her how 
beautiful she was, giving her water with a sponge, wiping her mouth and 
brow:  her brother bill, her sister chris, her sister in law Barbara

~the times we all gathered around mom, sobbing, holding onto each other and 
to her, telling her how we loved her and were there for her, thinking she 
was taking her last breaths, only to see her open her eyes and wonder what 
was going on…
~watching Kenny’s tears turn to laughter after this, realizing that his 
stethoscope & medical examination didn’t /couldn’t account for everything, 
particularly mom’s determination
~having Big Dan say at one of these gathering times around mom, that if he 
was a painter, he’d paint this beautiful picture
~the sight of my nephew Corey in tears behind us, and how my niece Jamie 
fell into my sister Michelle’s arms after my mother passed
~little bonnie lying beside mom that last night, staying with her in her last 
hours, and mom waiting to begin to finally let go until Bonnie got up to 
make a pot of coffee
~the incredible pain and blessing of each of us being present around my 
mother as she took her lasts struggled breaths, continuing to breath even 
after her heart had stopped
~the sound of each person’s utter grief
~to have my son Lloyd there when my mother passed, and my son Aidan waking 
just before she was dying, continuing the awesome connection between his new 
life and her ending life this summer
~to watch the love that each one of us gave to her even after she passed… 
causing the nurse and the undertaker to eventually leave to come back hours 
later  to do their work
~to witness the relationship and love that had developed between the nurses 
and my family
~to see my nieces Bekah and Jordan sitting beside my mom alone after she had 
died and lovingly touching her face… while Andrew and Lloyd jumped on her 
trampoline
~to have big Dan bring us all together around mom’s body to offer our words 
of love one last time, and to hear him talk about how special we all were
~to watch my mom’s body being taken, and stand there among sobbing sisters, 
and aunts and uncles on the sidewalk, in the yard and on the porch as 
she left our lives
~to see what a comfort big dan was to my mother, his devotion, his daily 
tears, his touches, and to see the reflection of that in the affection and 
respect held for him by my sisters- for this he has my undying gratitude

For each  of us I think that there will be a “Bonnie” shaped hole in our 
hearts and lives from this time on.  Mine felt like a crater this morning, 
but there is also the blessing that this summer has been for all of us.
My mom’s life, even in its ending, was certainly a success, and so I’d like to close with a poem by Emerson entitled the same.   
I found it on  a card I sent to my mom years ago that she had saved.  It is as true today of her as it ever was,

SUCCESS

To laugh often and much; 
to win the respect of intelligent people 
and affection of children; 
to earn the appreciation of honest critics 
and endure the betrayal of false friends; 
to appreciate beauty 
to find the best in others, 
to love the world a little bit better, 
whether by a healthy child, 
a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; 
to know even one life has breathed easier 
because you have lived. 
This is to have succeeded.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

(please consider visiting The Motherless Muse– my new blog of writing following my mother’s passing)

Body Bag

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”

Lao Tzu

Kelly Salasin

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately, noticing where it thrives  in my life (and where it doesn’t.)  There’s a moment around my mother’s death that I’ve yet to embrace, and it has become more and more commanding of my attention.
Look at me,” it whispers.  “Time to let go.”
But I’ve been too afraid.

I’ve never really thought of myself as a courageous person.  I’ve never jumped out of a plane or skied the trees.  I’d never be able to run a marathon and I never wanted to do any of these bold  things.
I did backpack through Europe and even ventured a bit into Northern Ireland during the peak of the fighting there.  That was kind of brave, I guess– or stupid.   I gave birth to my last child at home, and walked to the ambulance rather than be carried out on the stretcher when my first delivery ended up at the hospital.  I even wanted to watch my own c-section.  I guess that makes me more strange than courageous.

I could call myself bold.   I speak up a lot.  I say things others don’t say.  I share things others would never share, and I put myself out there in a way that makes even me uncomfortable sometimes.   Like I’m doing right now.  Like I did the morning my mother died.

Do you know that kind of courage that bubbles up inside you, but isn’t of you?   That’s the kind I most demonstrate, I think.  After my grandfather died, I was able to stand up at his funeral and share all the things I loved about him– without falling apart until I slumped into my seat.   When my beloved great-grandmother Mildred lay dying in a hospital bed, I was able to reach under the covers and massage her beautiful ninety-year old legs, saving my sobs for the floor of ICU’s bathroom.

This kind of courage doesn’t climb mountains, but is born of devotion and determination.   I didn’t cry when my mother took her last breaths, I sang.  I wanted to welcome her into the light; I wanted her to have wings.   And I remained there with her when the undertaker arrived to take her body and everyone fled into the kitchen and out the backdoor, and the last lingerers were chased away by hospice workers who said, “You don’t want to see this.”

Who would?
Who would want to stay and see their beloved folded up like a cardboard box and put into a bag.  Who?

And yet I could not leave her.  She was my mother– still– and I had not been here with her in the months when she struggled to stay alive.  I had only come now, at the very end, after the baby was born. With him at my side, with God’s pure grace shining through his bluest eyes, I could do anything that was asked.  Even this.

I sat in the space that had been her dining room- where she had drank her morning, and afternoon, and evening coffees- black, no sugar;  read the paper, did the crossword;  listened to the scanner, checked her email;  caught the game, the weather, the latest deals on QVC.  I sat  in this place where each one of us had sat across from her– at the table- all of our lives.
Only now the place where the table stood was filled with air mattresses and I wasn’t talking to my mom, I was watching… as her old highschool classmate- turned funeral director- lifted her rigid body from the hospital bed.
Ben had visited my mom in the hospital when she was first diagnosed with stage-four cancer, just a three months ago.  “Not the kind of visitor I want to see right now,” my mother remarked wryly once he had left the room.
He seems like a nice guy, why not, Mom?” I asked, surprised at her uncharacteristic coolness.
He’s the undertaker, Kel,” she replied flatly.

How did he do it, I wonder?  How did Ben pick up “good-natured Bonnie” from his senior yearbook and zip her into a bag?
But he did.  That was his job.

And I did too.  I stayed there attended my mother’s body.   When I couldn’t bear to look anymore,  I watched through my grandmother’s gilded mirror that Mom had frost pink and purple, as worked to lift her from the bed where her workout equipment had stood just a season ago.  I waited and watched even though no one, no one, should see something like this.

I followed them out the front door as they carried my mother to the back of the undertaker’s wagon.  She’d always been the one in the front seat- driving one of the eight of us to school, to practice, to birthday parties or dances.

I stood there frozen on her porch- where she had smoked her cigarettes, and watched the cars go by, sitting on the furniture she picked up at the wicker store, next to the tomatoes she had planted that spring.   She never got to pick a one.

Suddenly I was drained of all the courage that had sustained me.  It slipped from my shoulders and onto the floor.   I stood alone sobbing, my hands covering my face and gripping at my hair.

All my life, I’ve had to be more together than I wanted to be, and this moment was like none other.   I lacked the courage to reach out, to be held.  I lacked the ability to be noticed as needing.
I wish I could say that I’m ready to change, but I’m really not.  I take baby steps and those are hard enough.   That’s all the courage I have.

Today, I took out the folded check my mother had given me in the weeks before she died.   I had come to visit for the weekend just after the baby was born, and when it came time to leave, she asked me to wait, whispering for someone to get her the checkbook.  And though by this time, she could hardly sit up or lift water to her lips, she managed to covertly scribble our names and hers on a check to hand to me as we kissed goodbye, a gift to celebrate her grandson’s birth.  I could never bring myself to cash it, even to buy him something to remember her by.  I kept it folded in a bag of runes that were hers, and everyone once and awhile, took it out and looked at it to marvel at her determination and devotion; and at how her perfect Catholic school girl writing had gone bad.   It always made me sad, but I couldn’t let it go.

It’s been almost five years since that time, and today I’m going to give that beautiful testimony of her love back to the bank (or to the compost pile since it’s too late for cashing).  I’m going to spend that love on something for our garden as we celebrate our first summer in our new house.  It will be something that makes me smile, remembering her.   Something that celebrates my tremendous courage in letting her go, one more time.
Kelly Salasin wrote this piece from her home in the Green Mountains of Vermont where she has just painted her studio walls, “Bonnie Cream.”

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