James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

Eulogy for My Mother

Andria Kennington McCallister

June 4, 1946 — September 7, 2015

James D. McCallister

In the last couple of years I’ve found myself tasked on occasion with giving eulogies. Gracious, it must be that time of life for me—middle age. This summer I had a 25th wedding anniversary, and only two weeks ago turned 50.

Wow, right? Nice timing, universe.

Before I get up to speak at these things I think of Kevin Kline in The Big Chill—remember that movie? The whiny yuppies bemoaning the loss of their 60s ideals along with the late friend who had best espoused them? Right. You remember how he can’t finish his eulogy.  “But I know, that wherever he is now . . .” with the thought about his departed friend left forever unfinished. Anyway, that’s what I always think right before I get up to give a talk like this about someone I’ve lost. Whether I have the courage to get through it without breaking down. Am I gonna be Kevin Kline? ‘Cause you all know I’d rather be William Hurt. This one will be the real test.

 

 

Together in happier times.

Together in happier times.

 

But that’s the drama of the movies. My family always loved going to the movies, some of my finest adventures as a kid. I can remember being little enough to stand up in the back seat of the car at the Sky-Vue Drive-In in Camden, SC watching something like Vanishing Point, and seeing the Sean Connery 007 pictures, the disaster movies, and so many more up to the time when Jaws and Star Wars dominated our imaginations. I always loved going to the movies, but especially with mom, who seemed as excited as me about the big genre films that came out every summer.

You all remember the drill, or you do if you had kids in the 70s and 80s, anyway. I’ll always treasure moments like how surprised we were by Raiders of the Lost Ark, or how we cried at ET. Mom was a big Spielberg fan. She couldn’t bring herself to watch War Horse a couple of years back, however. I didn’t blame her. She couldn’t abide suffering, even, or perhaps especially, that which is depicted in the movies.

Over the last few years we kept trying to recapture that feeling of the lights going down and being transported to places more exotic than South Carolina. We remained fairly faithful to our moviegoing over the decades of our family’s life together. But the movies have changed, and so have I, and we couldn’t ever seem to quite capture that fun again. No movie really did it for us the way the old ones did.

They don’t make them like the used to—isn’t that what the old timers always say? Maybe it’s because CGI can’t capture the uncanny valley of the human eye. The backgrounds behind the actors, if they’re actual humans at all, look and feel animated. The fantasies no longer feel real—if they ever did.

My mother was real, though. And so am I. And so is my family, gathered here before you today.

And let me tell you, what we’ve all been through caring for my mother was like no movie I ever saw. That’s for sure. The ordeal of our lives has just unfolded, but the details of that will remain with us, and set aside for the purposes of this day. That path is for our steps alone, which is wisdom from a song that she loved, by a singer named Jerry Garcia, whose live performances with his band the Grateful Dead would in the late 80s and early 90s provide me and my mother with a fresh ritual over which to bond and enjoy little adventures together. We traveled together to see this dinosaur rock band, to revel in the sense of freedom, love, and community that exists among its fans inside and outside the shows. As the old bumper sticker used to say, ‘There’s Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Concert,’ and for her going to those involved experiencing very little suffering, only joy and fun. Her spirit opened up at those concerts. She put on her tie-dye and spun around and danced alongside us all. When they would play a special song she loved, she’d cry. Jerry had a way of making it seem like he sang just to you. The whole experience seemed to invigorate her, instill a sense of fellowship that resonated like the music from the guitars.

It wasn’t just the music or the community. She also knew how much of a struggle Jerry’s life had been in his recovery from a near-death experience. How he had almost succumbed to a diabetic coma in 1986, but came back to see his work become more popular than ever, to become more venerated and successful than ever before. She took solace in his story; she could see how much courage it took for him to be able to perform again at such a high level after drifting so close to the shore, so to speak.

She didn’t know why yet Jerry’s perseverance would mean so much to her. But later, much later, the example of his fortitude would serve her well.

If anyone’s struggling with the philosophical implications of why a sweet and dear soul like my mother would be struck down with such a heinous and virulent illness as hers, suffice to say in this forum that being alive involves enduring some degree of suffering, but rest easy knowing that one day you’re released from your travails. You might not be able to count on the weatherman, but you can count on this part. So take comfort in the knowledge of eventual release rather than fear the inevitability of your own crossing.

I know that today I take comfort that my mom’s arduous struggle is over. Not that I won’t miss her terribly. She loved life, loved her family, loved her pets. Wanted to spend her time alleviating the suffering of others, not dealing with her own. She was disgusted by her illness. It stood in the way of an active woman’s life, one she was trying her best in retirement to enjoy.

Except . . . she didn’t let her illness get in the way. She continued on. She lived. She loved. She persevered. She survived, and thrived, longer than most would have thought possible.

I know; I was there in the hospital with her on that morning in December, 2011, when she received the news. I want you all to know this—those wise people in their white coats gave my mother no hope whatsoever. They gave her six months, is what they gave her. A year at most. She could start chemo, sure. It could wait until after Christmas, they said. Their eyes spoke volumes. They didn’t think it mattered if she did chemo or not. Now that’s a prognosis nobody wants to hear.

Well now, that year turned into forty-five months. Somebody didn’t factor into their statistics a person like my mother, stalwart, steadfast, of indomitable will, possessed of a fiery, fierce spirit, and with a burning desire to defy death. And so she defied them, in their western medical wisdom. Showed them who was in charge of setting timetables. Showed them who was in control of her own life.

But doctors, they’re only human. They roll with these damnable illnesses the best they can. I don’t blame them for being wrong about her prognosis. I’m just glad that they were.

Make no mistake, she would go on to put herself through quite a bit of what I would call medical interventionism, but nothing at all what some folks suffer through on their journeys with illness and decline. She was so fortunate. She wanted to live, and by God, she did. Forty-five months when they told her that she wouldn’t make it to another Christmas.

And speaking of Christmas, no one loved the holiday more than my mom, and after we celebrated that first ‘last’ Christmas with her in 2011, she’d go on to enjoy three more. Christmas, Birthdays, Flag Day, a random Tuesday, a rainy Saturday—any day was a good day for my mom to go out and buy someone a gift, or put on a full meal for her family after a hard day’s work, or feed a lonely, lost animal who needed care, all of which she did with both aplomb and abandon.

Somehow, she did all this also with an improbable frugality, born of her and my father’s decades of hard work in their respective industries, through times of disciplined austerity and careful management of their lives. Both came from depression-era parents; both know the value of a dollar, and of hard work, and faithfulness to an ideal of family. These are parents who put their son through college—the first in the family to attend—by writing checks for his tuition from the money they’d managed to squirrel away. That’s discipline. They were still working class back then, not yet management as they would both become in the mature phases of their working lives. Take a page from their masterful book. I know I could.

Y’all should know that she burdened her heart with worry over everyone’s wellbeing. Lost sleep over hoping that she could fill all our bellies, and fix all our problems, and give us all the life she apparently never imagined for herself: a carefree one, with everything and everyone squared away always.

I’m not sure life quite works that way, however. We all have to suffer at least a little bit along the path. That’s the well from which wisdom springs, and springs anew with each difficult or unpleasant traverse and encounter with suffering and death. Annie so loved us all that she wished none of that hard-won wisdom to come our way. Hard-won wisdom hurts. So much sometimes that it feels like death itself. But you grow from the experience. I know I have, some of which is so recent that the processing of what I’ve been through will likely take a degree of time and disciplined effort on my part.

Those who know me will take comfort in knowing that I am well versed in these matters; grief and growth is how I roll.

And as for death, I believe part of the reason my mother managed to stay ahead of her disease as long as she did is that death has never been real to her—she could never accept its bookending role in our little reality play here on this spinning rock. Couldn’t imagine what purpose it served. Despised and rued the very possibility of it. Wished time and again she could change the reality of it. Make it go away. Bring all her loved ones back in the here and now. It’s a hard hope to hold, that one. Because death is having none of her disbelief in it. Eventually Death takes us all home.

But despite its inexorable march, for nearly four years death faced down a will as strong and determined as anyone who has ever lived—all of you who lived and worked with my mother through the years know what I mean. Death barely stood a chance! You all know that it’s true.

And as for me? I’ve had a hard time imagining my mother’s departure from this plane of existence, which is all I think that death is. Our spirits come here into this 3D reality for a time to have the experience, and then we go back to from whence we came, to report back, maybe. Process our time here, much in the way I’ll process the fifty-year journey I enjoyed with my mother and my whole loving family.

And maybe, depending on what you believe, we come back again, and sometimes over again. Whether this is a voluntary endeavor or otherwise, it is this idea that gives me the most hope, because one way or another, I know in my heart that my mother’s strong and enormous spirit will live on in some fashion. If in your heart that translates as an idea like Heaven, well, then I think that’s just as valid and real as my own notions about who we are and where we fit into the great, spinning, eternal clockwork that is this cosmic firmament we call the known universe.

Thank you all for gathering here today, you who loved her so. Honor her now for her contribution to the betterment of all our lives, our hearts, our spirits. Thank you, mother, for being here for us all. We needed you. We need you now. But your time is done; you are finished becoming, and now you are being. May you rest well, like a good wife and mother does at the end of a day’s meaningful time spent caring for her family. Few cared as much as you did. We’re all blessed and enriched for having been able to receive your earthly blessings in the fine manner that we all have. Like the song says, God only knows where I’d be without you.

As for all of you, count and treasure those moments you shared with her. Hold them close, keep them nearby, and in this manner sweet Annie will always live on in your heart and mind the way I know she will in mine.

A final thought about Andria Kennington McCallister from a playful and wise writer himself long departed from this mortal coil:

 

“Let her with

the saints repose

She was a rare one,

goodness knows.”

—G. I. Gurdjieff, upon the death of his mother

Circa 1967

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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