Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eulogy ("Speech or Writing in Praise") for my mom

My lovely mom died 2 weeks ago at the age of 57 after fighting ovarian cancer for three years. Today was her memorial service. I was blown away by all the beautiful things people had to say about her. Below are the remarks I gave at her memorial service, as prepared

I’ve had the grand privilege of never doubting that my mom loved me. When I was born, I was weeks premature, and I had to be airlifted from Altus Oklahoma to a larger hospital hundreds of miles away in Texas for surgery on my collapsed lung. My mom was left behind in Altus to recover from the delivery. She quickly convinced the doctors to let her return to her house to rest, and then promptly got on a bus to travel those hundreds of miles to the hospital in Texas in order to be with me.

My mom loved my quirkiness, the way I saw things from a slightly different (even weird) perspective, and made her laugh. When I was 5 years old, my mom drove somewhere with me—an hour long ride--and she brought a tape recorder and recorded my hour long inquisitive monologue. She kept that tape for many years, and when I was in my mid-twenties I listened to it, and after about 10 minutes I was so annoyed with the non-stop questions in that annoying five year old voice that I had to turn it off. “Mommy, why do cows have spots? Mommy, why is grass called ‘grass’? Mommy, do worms yawn?” But she not only listened and attempted to interject an answer occasionally, she recorded it and kept it as a treasure. I remember once on Ben Howard Road we drove past a sign for a garage sale that read “Giant Sale”, and I said “Hey, kewl, they’re selling giants.” And my mom just totally cracked up, and soon we were all laughing. I remember standing in the kitchen while she was trying to cook, in my mid-teens, and pestering her and pestering her until she grabbed up a huge, half-cooked turkey drum stick and starting chasing me around the house with it, until we both collapsed in helpless laughter.

I remember my mom as an amazingly disciplined devout person. She would literally pray and read her Bible for an hour every single day. Sometimes you could catch a glimpse of her there kneeling by her bed, and sometimes she would be weeping. She would seek out prayer partners, and fastidiously meet with them to pray and talk about spiritual things. She memorized long passages from the Bible, and tried to live by them.

She delighted in my love of learning. She taught me to read and write at home before I started preschool. It was apparent to me that she was secretly delighted when she caught me in my bedroom with a flashlight reading after I had been clearly told to turn out the lights at night. When I recently completed my bachelor’s degree, she was *busting* with pride for me, and she told me so multiple times, as well as reminding me that I mustn’t take all the credit for my success.

My mom was the most gullible person I ever knew. Without fail throughout my life, I could set her up by telling her some story totally straight-faced, and she would believe it, and then we’d all end up laughing uproariously, and she’d be laughing with us. Back in the 1990’s, we used to go camping and fishing every year to a little town on the edge of the national Forest called ConcoNULly. One year my sister and I, on a whim, told my mom this elaborate story about how there had been a meeting of the town council and they had decided to change the pronunciation of the town’s name to ConCONully. We convinced her, and she went around the rest of the day calling it ConCONully to everyone she met. Finally, she realized she had been duped, and we all laughed together uproariously.

Perhaps the only thing that delighted my mom more than chocolate was her two grandchildren. She *so* delighted in Megan and my two daughters, Éowyn and Coco, and the delight was returned by them in full measure. She would drive the 80 mile round trip faithfully every week to hang out with our two girls while Megan and I went on a date. They would all walk down to the park, and Nana would read them some of their favorite books—the Katie and Madeline books, and Angelina Ballerina, and Hairy Maclary. And inevitably if we had any chocolate stashed anywhere in the house, it would have mostly disappeared by the time we got home.

I want to share with you a pair of quotes from Shakespeare and from Bob Budiansky. Put together, they go like this: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. There are transformers, more than meets the eye. Transformers, robots in disguise.”

Many of you knew my mom, and you knew the delightful, devout, kind, loving, amazing person I’ve been describing. But much like a transformer, there’s more to this soulishly beautiful, mind-blowingly hopeful person than you imagined. Her story is bigger and deeper and far more meaningful than you, or I, can possibly imagine—the reality of her is more than is dreamt of in your or my philosophy.

You see, there are also darker aspects to my mom’s story. To leave these out would be like erasing Mordor and Sauron and the One Ring from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings tale. It would rob my mom’s story of all its real power and beauty. So I want to tell you about three evil rules, and how my mom chose to break them. And I want to talk about something called “enstorying" by which I mean providing for others the enormous blessing of setting them within a story--of creating self worth for those we love by showing them that they are part of a narrative bigger than themselves. I want to talk about hope, and the reality of the possibility, at any time, of destroying the vacuum of un-story by choosing to enstory our loved ones.

There were three evil rules in the home in which I grew up. They were these: Don't talk, Don't feel, Don't think. They weren't designed by my mom. Rather they were imbibed by her as the rules of the home in which she grew up. I have little doubt that those rules go back to families of origin before my mom's. Today is a chance for me to break these rules again, and hopefully to encourage you to break them. I believe that's what my mom would *totally* want.

I would love to have known Mom better. It's *hard* to get to know someone under such rules. She was a very ... guarded personality. Dan Allender talks about how it's impossible to protect our children, and that the thing we *can* do for our children is to *enstory* them. In many ways, my mom was unable to enstory me. Some children grow up being enstoried in the culture and history of the families their parents came from. This never happened for me. I've met my mom's dad on three occasions during my lifetime--all very brief. Growing up, I was not set, by my mother's stories, into a longer line of being. I have absolutely no acquaintance with any of my mother's aunts or uncles, although she had many of them. I've never met any of her cousins. I was never initiated into the Catholic Church of her youth. I never heard stories of JFK, or the Vietnam War, the wild and wooly sixties of her adolescence. I was never introduced, as a child, to the music of the Beatles, of whom my mom, like most of her generation, was a fan.

In fact, looking back, the veritable dearth of story is absolutely astounding. I never heard stories of high school, of first love, of first driving a car, of running off at age 18 to serve in the U.S. Air Force overseas. I never heard stories of beauty school as a teenager, or what *was* Boston Massachusetts like in the 1960's, anyway? I hardly heard stories of her meeting my dad, nor of their wedding, nor much of anything else.

It's almost as if there were some gargantuan black abyss where all the stories should have been.

Of course, I never *realized* this, growing up. As is true for children in general, I accepted as denotatively normal pretty much everything that happened during my growing up. Unbeknownst to me, I lived through my mom's attempt to ... overwrite large chunks of her story, by setting down, more or less over top of it, a new story, a different story, one which in many ways ... matched up well enough with her real story so that she was, for 15 years at least, able to make it work well enough to keep her own true story hidden. In other ways, however, this new story absolutely denied vital truths about her own real story--truths that would eventually work their way free, in one way or another.

I only began learning about my mom's *real* story in the summer of 2001, when I was 27 years old. I had decided by that point to begin learning to break the three cardinal rules of the home in which I grew up. What I learned surprised me enormously, and yet ... also provided a framework which helped me to make sense of a lot of things which I had not previously understood, about myself and about my family. I learned that my mother had been the victim of incestuous sexual abuse at the hands of her own father. Since 2001, I've had a lot of time to process that, and I've come to understand, just a little, the sort of soul torture involved when an innocent child is abused, is raped, by an adult who was supposed to have been nurturing and enstorying them. I still have only the faint beginnings of an understanding of what undergoing such horrific trauma over a period of years and years does to a soul. What does it mean to carry around with one the paralyzing and totally false guilt that whispers that it's really my fault? What does it mean to travel with that for 3 decades before finally reaching a place where you can begin to process it and find some healing?

I am *astoundingly* proud of my mom. She is one of the strongest human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Yes, it took a long time for her to reach the point where she began to face the horrifying truth about her own real story. But she did it. She could easily have turned away when that door opened, much as Frodo could have refused to carry the One Ring. When you obey a set of rules for 40 years, it is *astonishingly* easy to keep obeying those rules, even if the rules have caused really high levels of pain. But I have watched over the last 7 years as my mom began to break the three rules she grew up under. She started talking. Haltingly at first. Over these last seven years, I've had conversation after conversation with her, practically *begging* her at times to engage with me on a real level. And although it was clearly, at first, amazingly painful and difficult for her to do it, she *never* gave up. About three months ago, my extended family gathered around my mom's hospital bed and she gave a speech to all of us. She said "I've learned, from Megan and Benjamin and Kat, that the don't talk rule is no good. I'm going to die soon. And so we're going to talk about it. Here's what going on for me, and here's how I feel, and here's what I think. And now *you* guys talk! What do *you* feel? What do *you* think?" I just about busted with pride for her.

In choosing to open the door to the terrifyingly dark realities in her own true story, my mom also opened the door to the astounding beauty and joy and hope and *life* in her story. And she began, over these last couple years, to *enstory* us! So I know *some*--not all, not even *many*, but *some* of the pieces of my mom's story now. She began filling in that black abyss of unstory. I am *super* grateful to my mom for doing that. As I said, she is one of the gutsiest most amazing people I've ever had the privilege to know. I do *not* think of her as the victim of childhood sexual abuse, but rather as the *survivor* of childhood sexual abuse--it has the same sense as "holocaust survivor", and she deserves, in my mind, a similar honor. My mother chose to *really* hope--not the fake easy hope that pretends the darkness doesn't exist, or that the pain and damage and horror aren't real, or that they can somehow be dismissed or instantly fixed. But rather the impossible hope that chooses to turn and face the darkness head on, daring to hope beyond hope that somewhere in and through the darkness there is a *real* glory that is actually more powerful than that darkness. Her dizzyingly powerful hope is one I can only hope to emulate, as I attempt to choose to understand my own story and to enstory my own children.

Thank you for letting me share.

If you are a victim or perpetrator of child sexual abuse, if you know of or have suspicions about an abusive situation, if you have questions about how to prevent child sexual abuse for your own children or your church or group, or if you simply have questions, please feel free to call StopItNow’s totally confidential helpline:
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gretta at lothlorien said...

Benjamin, That is a wonderful eulogy - I think the most powerful I have ever heard. Your Mum would have been so very proud of you, as I am. love and prayers

Alan said...

Ben, thank you for sharing. Your mom's story and your telling it has made an impact.

Joe said...

Well said mate. I'm glad you were able to tell the story.

Fishpimp said...

Ben - thank you for sharing these times. I barely know you and never met your mom, but I am continually impressed with the depth of comprehension you seek in everything. I hope that you can capture some of your mother's hope. It's not as irrational as you may feel.

Lets get a beer sometime soon.

Megs said...

I love you darling Bens. You are so very gifted at seeing and understanding, and so very courageous that you share that which you understand.

Thank you.

I love you.

I am blessed beyond all measure to be your wife.

Love and hugs and kisses each new day that Mom isn't here with us on earth. May there be comfort in your pain, dear husband.

Love ever,

brooke said...

this is really astounding ben. thanks for writing it. i know your mom would have been proud, and considering what you wrote, probably very humbled and maybe a bit embarrassed as well?

Benjamin Ady said...

Gretta, Alan, Joe, John, Megs, Brooke,

Thank you for your gracious words.

John--the beer sounds good.

Brooke--it's a line of thought that's a bit wierd to go down. To what extent do secrets still belong to a person after they are dead? The eulogy certainly would have been different if she wasn't dead. We can't really praise the living in quite the same way as we can praise the dead.

Embarrassment is part of what makes us living humans in this sphere of things. If my mother continues to exist somewhere, in some other sphere of things, is she still ... capable of embarrassment? It's a strange question which is impossible to answer =).

Thank you for posing the question. It's interesting.

Anonymous said...


D said...

Somehow you put something beyond words into words.

Secrets begin to lose their power when they are told.

Rachel said...

Wow, Benjamin. That was powerful and beautiful and illuminating.

byron smith said...

Thank you.

Justin said...

Benjamin, May I ask how it was received?

I have kept you all in my prayers.

Benjamin Ady said...


Thank you for asking =)

So they laughed very connectively during the funny stories in the first half.

And then it got ... very quiet during the second half. I was reading, so I didn't get a *super* good sense of their eyes/faces. But Megan was watching them, and she said they were fully engaged.

And then afterwards, at least six, maybe 7 different women and one guy came and thanked me very kindly, and many of them said they had gone through similar things, or their friend had, and they were so grateful for my honesty and courage and so forth. And I had a couple rather good conversations actually. And no negative reactions at all at the event. I saw one negative reaction on the blog of a person who was there afterwards, who felt ... humiliated, he said, at the public revelations.

Overall I would say it was received very well.

Justin said...

I would like to have been there for you'all.