A tribute to my mother

December 7, 1941 — February 18, 2011

Firstly, thank you so very much for the many prayers, cards and kind words all of you have sent my way over the past three months.  As many of you know, she was quite suddenly diagnosed with brain cancer in November, and died on February 18.  This weekend, I will be in California for the memorial service of my mother.   The following is an excerpt from the eulogy that will be read at her service. 

My mother, Carolyn Lehua Hopper Sandusky, is best described and remembered in stories rather than in facts.  But some of the facts are good stories, too.  For example, she was born in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii on December 7th, 1941—a date that would indeed live in infamy.   She was the last peacetime baby born in the Pacific before the U.S. entered World War II. That’s a fact, and a pretty great story. 

Here’s another one:  Her brother Wayne was born four years later during one of the worst tsunamis to ever hit Hawaii; the same nurse was present for both births, and told my grandmother that the next time she planned on having a baby she was going to make sure to be on the mainland!

Eventually her family moved from Hawaii to Colorado, where Mom and Uncle Wayne graduated from Grand Junction High School, and where Mom went to the University of Colorado, and met my dad.   My siblings and I were born between 1963 and 1967, and our family moved several times before settling in Los Alamitos, California, where we all graduated from high school. 

This is where stories become more interesting than mere facts.  There are stories about singing.   Mom was constantly singing a little song, just under her breath.   I’m not sure if she realized she was doing it, or if they were real songs.  Because, after all, she often misheard lyrics—though she sang them anyway: “Don’t You Want Me, Baby” by the Human League, became “Don’t Chew on Me, Baby!”   

Many of the songs I know, are songs Mom taught me. Thanks to her, I know all of the words to an elaborate University of California drinking song, which begins, “Oh, we had a little party down in Newport…” Sure, it’s stark contrast to the church hymns that I remember singing in harmony with Mom, or my brother Trey’s deserving boast that he and Mom are part of an elite mother-son club, having each performed at Carnegie Hall on consecutive weekends, Trey with his chorus, Mom with her church choir.

‘Talk about finding holy joy in the sacred mundane:  one Sunday morning, we were really late for church—that was pretty common—and a slower-moving car kept changing lanes in front of us.  Exasperated, she started singing (to the tune of “This Land is Your Land”—) “That lane is your lane, This lane is my lane, And you can’t drive here, ‘Cause you’re a lame brain!”

There are lots and lots of stories about everyday events and how Mom’s playfulness and consistency made them special.  Hot soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch on rainy days.  Rather than put down ant poison, a tiny little sign she made—mounted on a toothpick and placed on the kitchen counter—that had an ant-skull and crossbones, a clear sign to any ants to travel that trail at their peril.  Standing on the coffee table so she could hem my pants or skirts.  Homespun but elaborately-themed birthday parties with handmade invitations and costumes, and cakes baked in special shapes.

Menus that turned the minor holidays into reasons to celebrate: Cherry pie on George Washington’s birthday, Corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, Chili on Halloween.Cornish game hens on Christmas. A chafing dish of miniature smoked sausages in Manwich sauce for New Year’s Eve.

She decorated every card or letter she mailed us with stickers she chose and positioned deliberately.  (She once pointed out on a card to one of my kids that she spent “many minutes” on the placement of the stickers.)  Whenever my sister Shelley ran for student government—no matter if she lost or won— Mom left the same note of encouragement on her bed that said, “You’re a neat kid. Good job. I love you no matter what.”

Mom didn’t make just her family feel special—she extended that feeling to hundreds of other people, too, through the volunteer work she did.  Her messy desk—which was a big source of frustration to her—was simply loaded down with papers and notifications and details of all the activities she was involved with.  She didn’t have a lot of money to give, but she was extremely generous with her time.  She believed it makes a difference in a child’s life to have a parent at home while they’re growing up.  And for kids who didn’t have that, she was an invaluable proxy. 

She was concerned about people being hungry, so she did annual fundraiser walks.  She was concerned about the plight of prisoners, so she adopted an inmate in Texas as a pen pal, and organized the “Get on the Bus” project at  her church, which helped kids visit their parents in prison.  She was dedicated and loyal friend to many—a common theme reported by the scores of people who visited her during her illness was how much she had helped them during tough times. 

Mom taught me that you don’t have to have a lot of money to be generous, and that volunteering is an act of the heart.  Today, following her lead, my siblings and I volunteer our time and talents for charities and causes.  We give Mom all the credit for inspiring our shared commitment to service.

As much as Mom made others feel special, she really loved feeling special, herself. She loved being a guest of honor at Shelley’s Thanksgiving dinners.  She adored having her picture taken— especially in any of the myriad countries and landmarks she traveled to over the years—and admired how Trey always offers to take pictures of complete strangers for them, so that no one in their “group shot” will be left out.  Even if she couldn’t always communicate it, we know she was grinning inside at all the visits she got at Quaker Gardens, and all the little presents people brought her.

Finally, there are all the facts and stories of things many people don’t know about Mom:  There’s the fact that she earned her private pilot’s license.  The fact that she was an avid thespian in high school, a path all three of her children—and her grandchildren—followed.  The fact that she had mad skills on the ski slopes. The fact that she’d visited so many baseball parks, some that no longer exist.  She delighted in the milestones and everyday experiences of her three incomparable grandchildren: Megan, Grant, and Julia.  She cheered for the Angels in good years and bad.  She read voraciously,voted assiduously, worshipped wholeheartedly.

Mom was frustrated by many things—her deafness, and people who were impatient with her for it. Her messy desk, her disagreeable cat, her chronic lateness, her sometimes lack of self esteem.  The political climate.  Not finding someone perfect enough to warrant getting remarried.  Living so far away from her grandchildren.
They say that, “A mother’s death is the first sorrow wept without her.” 
This was never more true than with my mom, who intimately shared my tears, fears, and joys, for nearly 50 years.  Fortunately Mom wasn’t sick for very long—from diagnosis to her death was about 100 days.  Nothing is more valuable to my siblings and I than the time we were able to spend with her during those short days.

The facts weren’t often good, but the stories and the memories were rich. While she wasn’t particularly lucid toward the end of her life, sometimes she seemed prophetic, and always she was very, very “Mom.” While sitting with Trey the weekend before she died, and after he had been sharing some of his recent joys, sorrows and fears with her, she shrugged, and said, “Well, that’s just how it goes.”  Then she turned to him and said, “Okay, get ready.  Something’s going to happen soon.” 
“What’s going to happen, Mom?” Trey asked. 
“I don’t know,” she said, “but it’s going to be great.”

I think the phrase, “Rest in peace” doesn’t really feel appropriate for her.  She was way too active and outgoing and inquisitive to be simply resting, peacefully or otherwise.  I prefer to think of her now, in heaven, actively Living in Joy.  She was right: It’s going to be great.
…And that’s a fact.

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