jayfurr: (3-Day Ambassador)
Tomorrow morning my wife Carole and I will begin walking the 2011 San Francisco Bay Area Susan G. Komen 3-Day For The Cure. It's a sixty mile walk with a simple goal: raise funds for the fight against breast cancer. It will raise awareness as well, and will embolden and hearten those currently fighting the disease... seriously. I know for a fact that quite a few breast cancer patients cite making it to the next year's 3-Day as one of the most important things that keeps them going and fighting week after week, month after month. But in the end, it's really about raising the huge sums of money needed to pay for research, treatment, mammograms, and more.

This will be my ninth 3-Day. I've crewed the Boston walk three years running and I've walked DC twice, Philadelphia once, Twin Cities once, and Tampa Bay once. This is my first time ever walking in the San Francisco 3-Day... same for Carole. It's a hilly route with incredible scenery and we've both been looking forward to it for months.

Even as I type, we're finishing our preparations for the walk. We've both loaded big duffel bags with our sleeping bags and bedrolls and extra clothing and cold-weather gear for wearing around camp at night. Camp will be on an island smack in the middle of San Francisco Bay and it's going to be windy and in the high 50s at night. We'll drop these off at opening ceremonies tomorrow morning before starting the Day 1 route and they'll be waiting for us at camp tomorrow night.

This 3-Day will be unlike any of the others I've done before. While each walk I've participated in as a walker or crewmember has been special and interesting in its own way, this weekend's walk is so beclouded by the recent death of my mother that I'm afraid that my head won't really be in the game. Mom passed away just over a week ago from congestive heart failure and related symptoms. Not, I must stress, from breast cancer. She died four days shy of her 82nd birthday. She led a full life, but her death came suddenly and as a surprise. My siblings and I hadn't realized the situation was so dire until we got the "get here NOW" message. And unfortunately, none of us made it before it was too late.

You can read the blow-by-blow of Mom's passing here and here.

I'm here tonight, when I should be getting to bed and getting a good night's sleep before rising early to hit the street, to tell you the rest of the story.

Many people have cheered my decision to go ahead and walk San Francisco less than week after my mom's funeral and assumed that I'm walking to honor my mother.

You want the truth?

I'm not. Mom was never over-enthralled by my fervor for the fight against breast cancer. By the time I started walking in 2008, she was tired and mostly focused on hearing news about her grandkids -- my nieces and nephew. I'm quite sure that the empowered, feminist, boldly-speaking woman that she was when she was a bit younger would have been very cheered by my being so interested in women's health issues, but at the end of her life, my mother thought my work was okay and all that, but didn't really perk up each time I called to say that I'd finished another 3-Day walk. On a scale of Deep Importance, my walks and my training and my fundraising were on the level of, say, my new hot water heater or our plans to plant a patch of mint at the bottom of our driveway.

And that's unfortunate. I wanted, among other things, to make Mom proud by doing something for other people, something that didn't really benefit myself in any way. I just waited too late in life to start.

I loved my mother very much. I don't hold against her that my sudden zeal to change the world started when I turned 40 and she'd turned 78. I know that the woman she was when she was in the prime of life would have been proud to have a son who was less interested in what was on TV that night than in persuading people to donate to a good cause.

So if I'm not walking in honor of my mother, why am I walking? Who am I walking for?

Why, your mother. And your sister. And your aunt. And your daughter. And your neighbor. And for you. I'm walking for my friends at church, Penny and Paula. I'm walking for my co-workers, Robin and Diana. I'm walking for my wife's aunt Debbie. I'm walking for Bridget Spence, diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in her early 20s and still fighting as her 30th birthday approaches. And I'm walking in honor of incredible people like Julie Kauker, 3-Day crewmember and mother of my 3-Day friends Kristian and Kenneth. Kristian and Kenneth know all too well what it's like to lose their mom; Julie passed this year after a multi-year fight against breast cancer.

Losing my mom was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. One day she was there, sarcastically witty as always. I assumed she'd be around for years and years to come.

Then, suddenly, she wasn't.

I walk because it's awful losing someone you love. I don't want anyone to have to experience what I experienced a day sooner than absolutely necessary. When you love someone, you'd really rather Death not steal them away like a thief in the night.
jayfurr: (3-Day Ambassador)
Tomorrow morning my wife Carole and I will begin walking the 2011 San Francisco Bay Area Susan G. Komen 3-Day For The Cure. It's a sixty mile walk with a simple goal: raise funds for the fight against breast cancer. It will raise awareness as well, and will embolden and hearten those currently fighting the disease... seriously. I know for a fact that quite a few breast cancer patients cite making it to the next year's 3-Day as one of the most important things that keeps them going and fighting week after week, month after month. But in the end, it's really about raising the huge sums of money needed to pay for research, treatment, mammograms, and more.

This will be my ninth 3-Day. I've crewed the Boston walk three years running and I've walked DC twice, Philadelphia once, Twin Cities once, and Tampa Bay once. This is my first time ever walking in the San Francisco 3-Day... same for Carole. It's a hilly route with incredible scenery and we've both been looking forward to it for months.

Even as I type, we're finishing our preparations for the walk. We've both loaded big duffel bags with our sleeping bags and bedrolls and extra clothing and cold-weather gear for wearing around camp at night. Camp will be on an island smack in the middle of San Francisco Bay and it's going to be windy and in the high 50s at night. We'll drop these off at opening ceremonies tomorrow morning before starting the Day 1 route and they'll be waiting for us at camp tomorrow night.

This 3-Day will be unlike any of the others I've done before. While each walk I've participated in as a walker or crewmember has been special and interesting in its own way, this weekend's walk is so beclouded by the recent death of my mother that I'm afraid that my head won't really be in the game. Mom passed away just over a week ago from congestive heart failure and related symptoms. Not, I must stress, from breast cancer. She died four days shy of her 82nd birthday. She led a full life, but her death came suddenly and as a surprise. My siblings and I hadn't realized the situation was so dire until we got the "get here NOW" message. And unfortunately, none of us made it before it was too late.

You can read the blow-by-blow of Mom's passing here and here.

I'm here tonight, when I should be getting to bed and getting a good night's sleep before rising early to hit the street, to tell you the rest of the story.

Many people have cheered my decision to go ahead and walk San Francisco less than week after my mom's funeral and assumed that I'm walking to honor my mother.

You want the truth?

I'm not. Mom was never over-enthralled by my fervor for the fight against breast cancer. By the time I started walking in 2008, she was tired and mostly focused on hearing news about her grandkids -- my nieces and nephew. I'm quite sure that the empowered, feminist, boldly-speaking woman that she was when she was a bit younger would have been very cheered by my being so interested in women's health issues, but at the end of her life, my mother thought my work was okay and all that, but didn't really perk up each time I called to say that I'd finished another 3-Day walk. On a scale of Deep Importance, my walks and my training and my fundraising were on the level of, say, my new hot water heater or our plans to plant a patch of mint at the bottom of our driveway.

And that's unfortunate. I wanted, among other things, to make Mom proud by doing something for other people, something that didn't really benefit myself in any way. I just waited too late in life to start.

I loved my mother very much. I don't hold against her that my sudden zeal to change the world started when I turned 40 and she'd turned 78. I know that the woman she was when she was in the prime of life would have been proud to have a son who was less interested in what was on TV that night than in persuading people to donate to a good cause.

So if I'm not walking in honor of my mother, why am I walking? Who am I walking for?

Why, your mother. And your sister. And your aunt. And your daughter. And your neighbor. And for you. I'm walking for my friends at church, Penny and Paula. I'm walking for my co-workers, Robin and Diana. I'm walking for my wife's aunt Debbie. I'm walking for Bridget Spence, diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in her early 20s and still fighting as her 30th birthday approaches. And I'm walking in honor of incredible people like Julie Kauker, 3-Day crewmember and mother of my 3-Day friends Kristian and Kenneth. Kristian and Kenneth know all too well what it's like to lose their mom; Julie passed this year after a multi-year fight against breast cancer.

Losing my mom was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. One day she was there, sarcastically witty as always. I assumed she'd be around for years and years to come.

Then, suddenly, she wasn't.

I walk because it's awful losing someone you love. I don't want anyone to have to experience what I experienced a day sooner than absolutely necessary. When you love someone, you'd really rather Death not steal them away like a thief in the night.
jayfurr: (Phantom)
It was eight days ago that I was informed that my mother was dying.
 
“Was informed” is a genteel way to put it.  It calls to mind a polite cough from a discreet member of the household staff, begging one’s pardon for interrupting with unpleasant news.   I haven’t actually got any household staff, not counting our several cats, but otherwise, that would have been an acceptable manner of being brought up to date, as it were.
 
No, I found out in a rather less dignified fashion. 
 
I got a text. 
 
I imagine that’s becoming a more and more common way of hearing unwelcome tidings in this day and age, but it’s not one that I endorse and relish.
 
To the credit of my cousin Anne, she didn’t intend to give me the news via text; she left a voice mail message since I was at work, delivering a lecture via teleconference and a web-sharing session.  But the good folks at Google have been working overtime to bring us the latest in modern advances, not least of which is the ability of the Google Voice service to automatically transcribe verbal missives and deliver them to one’s cell.   And, subsequently, display them onscreen where a casual eye might alight.
 
“Your mom’s being transferred to a hospice.  We think this may be the end.”  Or words to that effect.  You’ll pardon me if I didn’t keep the message around for the benefit of posterity. 
 
As ways of hearing bad news go, seeing a text pop up saying “Your mom’s dying” really sucks.
 
So what have I done in the week since the tolling of that unfortunate bell?
 
My mom, Dora Furr, died late on the evening of Wednesday, August 31.   12 hours later I was touching down in Tampa, Florida and driving north to Mom’s hometown of Brooksville, Florida… accompanied by my sister Julie who’d harnessed the four winds herself and taken the first flight south from North Carolina.    My brother Rob and his wife Jessica arrived from Calgary, Alberta later in the day.  We’d all hoped to be in time to say goodbye to my mother… but we weren’t in time.   Rather than coming down for a death watch, we were in time to help plan a memorial service.   My father and my sister Elizabeth both lived with Mom and, therefore, were already on hand.
 
Some people leave elaborate instructions for their families to follow on the occasion of their death:  white doves, a harpist playing selections from Chopin, the very best banquet room at the Palladium Club for the reception following the service, a green marble sepulcher topped by a cherub wielding a trout and a bunch of grapes.  Mom kept things simple: she wanted to be cremated, she wanted her ashes to be scattered beneath the big oak tree at our old house in Blacksburg, Virginia, and she wanted us to be sure to play a recording of a Scots bagpipe band playing “Amazing Grace”.   Other than that, she didn’t much care.  She wasn’t very religious.   She could take or leave religion, though she did belong to the local Unitarian Universalist church in Brooksville for a few years after her retirement. 
 
This didn’t exactly make it easy for my father and the rest of us when the time came to plan the service.  The funeral director we met with on Thursday afternoon at Dad’s house gave the impression of having heard and seen just about everything in his many years in the world of mortuary management… but we probably took the cake for the sheer number of “I dunnos” we offered up.  All we could be sure about was that we didn’t want the body made up and displayed in a fancy coffin – we all knew Mom would have scoffed at the expense and the pointlessness of going to all that effort when she was going to be cremated anyway. 
 
We wound up agreeing to have a chaplain from the hospice facilitate the service. We agreed that we’d bring over some pictures of Mom and a couple of her favorite orchids to place on a center table.  I located the CD of Scottish Bagpipe Favorites® Mom had almost certainly had in mind.   Dad told the chaplain that he didn’t want a very religion-heavy service.    We agreed that after the chaplain opened things we’d turn the floor over to whomever wanted to speak.   And we discussed the one thing that none of us felt comfortable about – the question of whether we’d want to view the body.  In the end, we said we would – and the funeral director said he’d have it tastefully on display, on a wheeled cot, under a blanket, without makeup or adornment.   
 
We took everything over the next day.  We viewed the body.  Dad didn’t want to; he’d said his goodbyes already.  The rest of us did. 
 
It wasn’t Mom.  It was what she left behind.  We said our goodbyes and shed our tears anyway.
 
On the day of the memorial service, Saturday, September 3, I picked my wife Carole up from the airport – she’d had to work Thursday and Friday while the rest of us flew south.  Julie’s husband Paul and my nephew Alex and my nieces Maddy and Lily arrived via car from North Carolina, having driven through the night after school got out on Friday. We picked up everyone from Dad’s house and went on over to the funeral home for the memorial.   Dad wound up mildly annoyed at the chaplain, a genial old retired minister named Chuck, for more-or-less ignoring the request to keep the service light on religion.  After firmly telling him that no, we did not want to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the end of the service, and no, we did not want to substitute his favorite Irish pipes version of Amazing Grace, we were good to go.
 
I feel like I should note that I’m not hostile toward religion.  I’m a Methodist and attend church in Vermont most Sundays.  I’m, believe it or not, a Sunday school teacher – though not a very good one – for the 8th through 12th graders.   I’ve been to plenty of very religious funeral services and haven’t typically felt a need to sit around quietly scoffing at the trappings of organized faith.  But Mom and Dad were skeptics to the core, feeling disdain for a lot of what’s done in the name of organized religion.  Dad knew Mom wouldn’t have wanted a generic service with a lengthy epistle on the nature of love and faith with quote after quote from the Bible, followed by a fill-in-the-blank recitation of the facts of the dearly departed’s life offered up by someone who had never met her.  Even though Mom was lying dead in a refrigerated drawer in the morgue area of the funeral home and was certainly unlikely to voice her objections in person, we all knew in our hearts that that kind of service would have exasperated her no end, and we could all hear an irritated “I told you I didn’t want that” echoing in our heads. 
 
I’d guess that there were about forty or fifty people in the chapel when the funeral director thanked everyone for coming and introduced the chaplain from the hospice.  Most were extended family of some sort, including two of Mom’s brothers and one of her two surviving sisters (out of eight children from her family overall).  Many nieces and nephews were there, my cousins.   We also had a pretty good sized contingent from various groups that Mom had been active in, such as the local writer’s group, the local music appreciation group, and so on.   I wondered, as they filed in, which of them might be inclined to speak.  I hoped some of them would.
 
Ultimately, I wound up as main eulogist for the service.  My brother Rob was unsure that he’d want to speak; Elizabeth definitely didn’t want to.  My sister Julie thought she’d probably have some words to say but did not want to go first.  And my father made it abundantly clear that he wouldn’t be speaking at all.  Not because he didn’t care.  Not because he hadn’t loved my mother, or because he didn’t miss her.  More that he cared a very very great deal and knew he’d get about six words into whatever it was he had to say before breaking down irretrievably.
 
So that’s how I wound up thanking, on behalf of the family, everyone for coming.   That’s how I keynoted my own mother’s memorial service – something I’d never anticipated or planned for.  I told everyone that the obituary which the chaplain had obligingly read to the assembled mourners did not do my mother justice.  It would have had to have been pages and pages long – at $25 a line, it cost $500 as it was – to even come close.   And I said that we’d viewed the body the day before – and that was not my mother either.  It was merely what had not gone on.    I told them all that each person present who knew my mother and loved her had their own personal point of view – and I could no more sum up the whole of the person than I could fly to the Moon on a kite.    I cried a bit.
 
But, I said, I could tell them what it had been like to have her for a mother.  I talked about how smart she’d been.  What a shame it had been that she had not finished her PhD in plant physiology simply because Virginia Tech had already offered my father a position and would not hire a family member, same department or not.   I talked about how she’d volunteered in the schools… been a Girl Scout and Boy Scout leader.  I mentioned that she’d always taken my brother and me to Brownie meetings when my sisters were in Scouts and that we’d always had the mistaken belief that we, too, were Brownies.  I talked about how she’d valued the arts – making sure we kids got to the library once a week to take home boxes and boxes of books.  I talked about going to see plays and musical performances with her.  I shared the infamous story of how I fell asleep, and snored loudly, at a local production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan… and got elbowed awake by my mother, evidently the only person present who hadn’t dropped off into a stupefied snooze.  (It was not a good performance.)   Somewhere along the way I threw in references to the many lessons I’d learned about cooking – and about her belief that one does not waste food.  I’ll spare you the details… but let’s just say those present at the service heard all they probably wanted to hear, and then some, about giant monster zucchini … and about badly homogenized, locally-obtained raw milk. 
 
My goal had been to tell about the Dora Furr I  knew… and to convey why and how much I missed her.  And to cry a bit, and to laugh a bit, and to leave those present remembering their own memories, some silly, some less so, from their time with my mother.  I hope I succeeded.
 
My sister Julie went next and spoke more briefly, and with less silliness, and her own share of tears.  And then my brother Rob spoke, also briefly, feeling a need to chime in with his own notes about the zucchini.  Yes, Dora Furr, you raised some strange kids. 

But after each of us had spoken, my father and my cousin Anne got up to speak.  Dad spoke briefly.  Very briefly.  He said that despite all that had been said, no one had mentioned what to him was the most important thing of all: that he and my mother had deeply loved one another.  And then he sat right back down.  That was all he could manage.  Yes, tears were involved.
 
Anne got up to relate the story of the time she’d come across the street and dropped in on Mom and Dad having one of their daily, quasi-recreational arguments.   Mom and Dad loved to argue and I swear, it really didn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, because they, both of them, could’ve argued a fencepost into giving up and saying Uncle.  Mom looked at Anne and said “I would separate from that man in a heartbeat… if only someone could guarantee that I’d still wake up next to him the next morning.”
 
We heard from a few of Mom’s acquaintances – the woman who did her nails, oddly, and from someone in her local music group, and from my cousin Kim.  But most people either preferred to keep their memories to themselves, or more likely, were simply uncomfortable with spontaneous public mourning.
 
We closed with “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.   You probably know the arrangement – the one that starts off slow, with only a few pipes playing, and then swells as the entire band comes in.  Those of you who recall the Star Trek movies may recall it being played at Spock’s funeral at the end of Star Trek II.  I doubt very much that Mom had that film in mind when she made her musical preferences known to us, but it was every bit as moving a moment in person as you’d expect.  I cried like a baby, leaning on Julie, who was matching me sob for sob.
 
Carole and I and everyone else went back over to Dad’s house when the service was over.  Various people brought by food and I went around thanking people for coming and trying to make sure that someone was always in the room with Dad during the course of the evening.  I’ve never really liked the way funerals seem to turn into silly family reunions, but at least, that night people weren’t standing right next to a body in a coffin talking about how things were going for little Billy at school and showing photos of the new bass boat they’d purchased.   I’ve seen that more often than I care to recall. 

It’s not that people were disrespectful; I know that people who don’t see relatives every day want to take every chance they can to get caught up with one another.  I just didn’t like to see the way people sort of gravitated into the main family room to chatter and hang out, leaving Dad to his sorrow in the living room.  I would periodically try to herd people back in there to at least provide some company, but Brownian motion and the attractive force of the larger gathering in the main room tended to undo my work.
 
The following day we all began the work of what-comes-after.   Dad had spent so much time at the hospital and rehab facility over the last six weeks, keeping Mom company, that a lot of household bills had piled up, mixed in here and there with stacks of old newspapers and mail and magazines.  His office was a total wreck.  Carole and I went around the house trying to find everything remotely bill-related, then hauled stacks of paper out of Dad’s office and organized it as best we could.  Eventually, a trip to Office Depot to buy file boxes and folders and tabs and markers took place.  My sister Julie methodically wrote thank-you notes to everyone who’d brought food or sent flowers, and my brother Rob spent at least half the day fixing Dad’s new-ish Mac and his older PC. 
 
But that was just Sunday.  Even after Rob and Jess had flown back home to Canada on Monday and Paul had flown off to North Carolina to catch a flight to Germany and Julie had taken the kids and headed back north in their car, Carole and I stuck around. 
 
Our original plans for the week had been to fly to San Francisco on Saturday – the Saturday of the memorial service – and take a week of vacation there before walking in the San Francisco Bay Area Susan G. Komen 3-Day For The Cure the following weekend.   When Anne’s text came in saying that Mom was being taken to hospice and might not last long, we had no idea how long it would, in fact, be.  Dad had originally thought that she might linger on for days, given that the plan had been to continue intravenous hydration but without a feeding tube (Mom didn’t want that kind of heroic measure.  If she couldn’t swallow and was dying of congestive heart failure, then she’d just do without).   I’d booked our air travel hoping that she would survive for some time… in fact, I’d hoped to find myself in the “unfortunate” position of finding Mom still alive when we’d been there a week.  
 
That wasn’t to be, of course.  But our tickets out of town, and on to San Francisco for the 3-Day, weren’t for a week… and we had a hotel and rental car in Brooksville for that whole week.  We knew that if we felt too miserable and sad we could pay a change fee and just head home… and if we decided we felt up to walking sixty miles in a charity walk to raise funds for breast cancer… well, then, we’d do that instead.   But in the meanwhile, we did errands around town with Dad.  We continued working on his bills and files.   We went shopping.   We started the checklist given to us by the funeral home… beginning with “Let the Social Security Administration know.”   We went around town trying to find someone to take the giant bag of prescription medications Mom wouldn’t be needing anymore – and got turned down at the county board of health and at her local pharmacy.  In the end, we decided it would take too long to dissolve them all in water and wash them down the drain – there were a LOT of pills – and just threw them away.  We hope no one decides to root through a bag of trash from a Publix  looking for medication. 
 
Dad was about sick of us by the end of the day Wednesday.  I think our nagging and “helpful” cleaning had just about used up his patience and good will… and when we told him we were heading out on Thursday, he didn’t beg us to stick around and help clean the gutters and process his back bank statements. 
 
And that brings us to today.   We decided that we would fly on to San Francisco from Tampa instead of just heading home to Vermont… and we would take part in the 3-Day For The Cure.   We’ll walk our sixty miles over the next three days for two reasons:
 

  1. We trained all spring and summer long for this walk – and while I do have two more walks coming up (in Philadelphia and Atlanta on consecutive weekends in October), this is Carole’s only planned walk for 2011.   It’d be a shame to do all that training and then never actually do the walk we’d trained for.

  2. Having just lost a mom, albeit not from breast cancer or cancer of any kind, I now know, up close and personal, just how much it really, really bites.  I don't want anyone to have to bury a loved one before their time.  My walking will not prolong anyone's life -- but I hope that by fulfilling the commitment I made to those who donated on my behalf, donations to fight breast cancer will continue to come in -- both this year, and in years to come until we finally find a cure.   (And if you, gentle reader, would care to help with that, you can donate here:  http://www.the3day.org/goto/jayfurr -- and thanks.)

Was it my mom's time?  Yeah, probably it was.  Her cause of death was complications from congestive heart failure.  Or, as the official death certificate put it, complications from diseases of the elderly.  Nonetheless,  that doesn't make it any less upsetting and any less of a shock to have happened so suddenly.  

I guess I can honestly say I'm glad to be here in San Francisco... but this weekend, my head and my heart are probably going to be a couple thousand miles away.
jayfurr: (Hiking inna dark)
It was eight days ago that I was informed that my mother was dying.
 
“Was informed” is a genteel way to put it.  It calls to mind a polite cough from a discreet member of the household staff, begging one’s pardon for interrupting with unpleasant news.   I haven’t actually got any household staff, not counting our several cats, but otherwise, that would have been an acceptable manner of being brought up to date, as it were.
 
No, I found out in a rather less dignified fashion. 
 
I got a text. 
 
I imagine that’s becoming a more and more common way of hearing unwelcome tidings in this day and age, but it’s not one that I endorse and relish.
 
To the credit of my cousin Anne, she didn’t intend to give me the news via text; she left a voice mail message since I was at work, delivering a lecture via teleconference and a web-sharing session.  But the good folks at Google have been working overtime to bring us the latest in modern advances, not least of which is the ability of the Google Voice service to automatically transcribe verbal missives and deliver them to one’s cell.   And, subsequently, display them onscreen where a casual eye might alight.
 
“Your mom’s being transferred to a hospice.  We think this may be the end.”  Or words to that effect.  You’ll pardon me if I didn’t keep the message around for the benefit of posterity. 
 
As ways of hearing bad news go, seeing a text pop up saying “Your mom’s dying” really sucks.
 
So what have I done in the week since the tolling of that unfortunate bell?
 
My mom, Dora Furr, died late on the evening of Wednesday, August 31.   12 hours later I was touching down in Tampa, Florida and driving north to Mom’s hometown of Brooksville, Florida… accompanied by my sister Julie who’d harnessed the four winds herself and taken the first flight south from North Carolina.    My brother Rob and his wife Jessica arrived from Calgary, Alberta later in the day.  We’d all hoped to be in time to say goodbye to my mother… but we weren’t in time.   Rather than coming down for a death watch, we were in time to help plan a memorial service.   My father and my sister Elizabeth both lived with Mom and, therefore, were already on hand.
 
Some people leave elaborate instructions for their families to follow on the occasion of their death:  white doves, a harpist playing selections from Chopin, the very best banquet room at the Palladium Club for the reception following the service, a green marble sepulcher topped by a cherub wielding a trout and a bunch of grapes.  Mom kept things simple: she wanted to be cremated, she wanted her ashes to be scattered beneath the big oak tree at our old house in Blacksburg, Virginia, and she wanted us to be sure to play a recording of a Scots bagpipe band playing “Amazing Grace”.   Other than that, she didn’t much care.  She wasn’t very religious.   She could take or leave religion, though she did belong to the local Unitarian Universalist church in Brooksville for a few years after her retirement. 
 
This didn’t exactly make it easy for my father and the rest of us when the time came to plan the service.  The funeral director we met with on Thursday afternoon at Dad’s house gave the impression of having heard and seen just about everything in his many years in the world of mortuary management… but we probably took the cake for the sheer number of “I dunnos” we offered up.  All we could be sure about was that we didn’t want the body made up and displayed in a fancy coffin – we all knew Mom would have scoffed at the expense and the pointlessness of going to all that effort when she was going to be cremated anyway. 
 
We wound up agreeing to have a chaplain from the hospice facilitate the service. We agreed that we’d bring over some pictures of Mom and a couple of her favorite orchids to place on a center table.  I located the CD of Scottish Bagpipe Favorites® Mom had almost certainly had in mind.   Dad told the chaplain that he didn’t want a very religion-heavy service.    We agreed that after the chaplain opened things we’d turn the floor over to whomever wanted to speak.   And we discussed the one thing that none of us felt comfortable about – the question of whether we’d want to view the body.  In the end, we said we would – and the funeral director said he’d have it tastefully on display, on a wheeled cot, under a blanket, without makeup or adornment.   
 
We took everything over the next day.  We viewed the body.  Dad didn’t want to; he’d said his goodbyes already.  The rest of us did. 
 
It wasn’t Mom.  It was what she left behind.  We said our goodbyes and shed our tears anyway.
 
On the day of the memorial service, Saturday, September 3, I picked my wife Carole up from the airport – she’d had to work Thursday and Friday while the rest of us flew south.  Julie’s husband Paul and my nephew Alex and my nieces Maddy and Lily arrived via car from North Carolina, having driven through the night after school got out on Friday. We picked up everyone from Dad’s house and went on over to the funeral home for the memorial.   Dad wound up mildly annoyed at the chaplain, a genial old retired minister named Chuck, for more-or-less ignoring the request to keep the service light on religion.  After firmly telling him that no, we did not want to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the end of the service, and no, we did not want to substitute his favorite Irish pipes version of Amazing Grace, we were good to go.
 
I feel like I should note that I’m not hostile toward religion.  I’m a Methodist and attend church in Vermont most Sundays.  I’m, believe it or not, a Sunday school teacher – though not a very good one – for the 8th through 12th graders.   I’ve been to plenty of very religious funeral services and haven’t typically felt a need to sit around quietly scoffing at the trappings of organized faith.  But Mom and Dad were skeptics to the core, feeling disdain for a lot of what’s done in the name of organized religion.  Dad knew Mom wouldn’t have wanted a generic service with a lengthy epistle on the nature of love and faith with quote after quote from the Bible, followed by a fill-in-the-blank recitation of the facts of the dearly departed’s life offered up by someone who had never met her.  Even though Mom was lying dead in a refrigerated drawer in the morgue area of the funeral home and was certainly unlikely to voice her objections in person, we all knew in our hearts that that kind of service would have exasperated her no end, and we could all hear an irritated “I told you I didn’t want that” echoing in our heads. 
 
I’d guess that there were about forty or fifty people in the chapel when the funeral director thanked everyone for coming and introduced the chaplain from the hospice.  Most were extended family of some sort, including two of Mom’s brothers and one of her two surviving sisters (out of eight children from her family overall).  Many nieces and nephews were there, my cousins.   We also had a pretty good sized contingent from various groups that Mom had been active in, such as the local writer’s group, the local music appreciation group, and so on.   I wondered, as they filed in, which of them might be inclined to speak.  I hoped some of them would.
 
Ultimately, I wound up as main eulogist for the service.  My brother Rob was unsure that he’d want to speak; Elizabeth definitely didn’t want to.  My sister Julie thought she’d probably have some words to say but did not want to go first.  And my father made it abundantly clear that he wouldn’t be speaking at all.  Not because he didn’t care.  Not because he hadn’t loved my mother, or because he didn’t miss her.  More that he cared a very very great deal and knew he’d get about six words into whatever it was he had to say before breaking down irretrievably.
 
So that’s how I wound up thanking, on behalf of the family, everyone for coming.   That’s how I keynoted my own mother’s memorial service – something I’d never anticipated or planned for.  I told everyone that the obituary which the chaplain had obligingly read to the assembled mourners did not do my mother justice.  It would have had to have been pages and pages long – at $25 a line, it cost $500 as it was – to even come close.   And I said that we’d viewed the body the day before – and that was not my mother either.  It was merely what had not gone on.    I told them all that each person present who knew my mother and loved her had their own personal point of view – and I could no more sum up the whole of the person than I could fly to the Moon on a kite.    I cried a bit.
 
But, I said, I could tell them what it had been like to have her for a mother.  I talked about how smart she’d been.  What a shame it had been that she had not finished her PhD in plant physiology simply because Virginia Tech had already offered my father a position and would not hire a family member, same department or not.   I talked about how she’d volunteered in the schools… been a Girl Scout and Boy Scout leader.  I mentioned that she’d always taken my brother and me to Brownie meetings when my sisters were in Scouts and that we’d always had the mistaken belief that we, too, were Brownies.  I talked about how she’d valued the arts – making sure we kids got to the library once a week to take home boxes and boxes of books.  I talked about going to see plays and musical performances with her.  I shared the infamous story of how I fell asleep, and snored loudly, at a local production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan… and got elbowed awake by my mother, evidently the only person present who hadn’t dropped off into a stupefied snooze.  (It was not a good performance.)   Somewhere along the way I threw in references to the many lessons I’d learned about cooking – and about her belief that one does not waste food.  I’ll spare you the details… but let’s just say those present at the service heard all they probably wanted to hear, and then some, about giant monster zucchini … and about badly homogenized, locally-obtained raw milk. 
 
My goal had been to tell about the Dora Furr I  knew… and to convey why and how much I missed her.  And to cry a bit, and to laugh a bit, and to leave those present remembering their own memories, some silly, some less so, from their time with my mother.  I hope I succeeded.
 
My sister Julie went next and spoke more briefly, and with less silliness, and her own share of tears.  And then my brother Rob spoke, also briefly, feeling a need to chime in with his own notes about the zucchini.  Yes, Dora Furr, you raised some strange kids. 

But after each of us had spoken, my father and my cousin Anne got up to speak.  Dad spoke briefly.  Very briefly.  He said that despite all that had been said, no one had mentioned what to him was the most important thing of all: that he and my mother had deeply loved one another.  And then he sat right back down.  That was all he could manage.  Yes, tears were involved.
 
Anne got up to relate the story of the time she’d come across the street and dropped in on Mom and Dad having one of their daily, quasi-recreational arguments.   Mom and Dad loved to argue and I swear, it really didn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, because they, both of them, could’ve argued a fencepost into giving up and saying Uncle.  Mom looked at Anne and said “I would separate from that man in a heartbeat… if only someone could guarantee that I’d still wake up next to him the next morning.”
 
We heard from a few of Mom’s acquaintances – the woman who did her nails, oddly, and from someone in her local music group, and from my cousin Kim.  But most people either preferred to keep their memories to themselves, or more likely, were simply uncomfortable with spontaneous public mourning.
 
We closed with “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.   You probably know the arrangement – the one that starts off slow, with only a few pipes playing, and then swells as the entire band comes in.  Those of you who recall the Star Trek movies may recall it being played at Spock’s funeral at the end of Star Trek II.  I doubt very much that Mom had that film in mind when she made her musical preferences known to us, but it was every bit as moving a moment in person as you’d expect.  I cried like a baby, leaning on Julie, who was matching me sob for sob.
 
Carole and I and everyone else went back over to Dad’s house when the service was over.  Various people brought by food and I went around thanking people for coming and trying to make sure that someone was always in the room with Dad during the course of the evening.  I’ve never really liked the way funerals seem to turn into silly family reunions, but at least, that night people weren’t standing right next to a body in a coffin talking about how things were going for little Billy at school and showing photos of the new bass boat they’d purchased.   I’ve seen that more often than I care to recall. 

It’s not that people were disrespectful; I know that people who don’t see relatives every day want to take every chance they can to get caught up with one another.  I just didn’t like to see the way people sort of gravitated into the main family room to chatter and hang out, leaving Dad to his sorrow in the living room.  I would periodically try to herd people back in there to at least provide some company, but Brownian motion and the attractive force of the larger gathering in the main room tended to undo my work.
 
The following day we all began the work of what-comes-after.   Dad had spent so much time at the hospital and rehab facility over the last six weeks, keeping Mom company, that a lot of household bills had piled up, mixed in here and there with stacks of old newspapers and mail and magazines.  His office was a total wreck.  Carole and I went around the house trying to find everything remotely bill-related, then hauled stacks of paper out of Dad’s office and organized it as best we could.  Eventually, a trip to Office Depot to buy file boxes and folders and tabs and markers took place.  My sister Julie methodically wrote thank-you notes to everyone who’d brought food or sent flowers, and my brother Rob spent at least half the day fixing Dad’s new-ish Mac and his older PC. 
 
But that was just Sunday.  Even after Rob and Jess had flown back home to Canada on Monday and Paul had flown off to North Carolina to catch a flight to Germany and Julie had taken the kids and headed back north in their car, Carole and I stuck around. 
 
Our original plans for the week had been to fly to San Francisco on Saturday – the Saturday of the memorial service – and take a week of vacation there before walking in the San Francisco Bay Area Susan G. Komen 3-Day For The Cure the following weekend.   When Anne’s text came in saying that Mom was being taken to hospice and might not last long, we had no idea how long it would, in fact, be.  Dad had originally thought that she might linger on for days, given that the plan had been to continue intravenous hydration but without a feeding tube (Mom didn’t want that kind of heroic measure.  If she couldn’t swallow and was dying of congestive heart failure, then she’d just do without).   I’d booked our air travel hoping that she would survive for some time… in fact, I’d hoped to find myself in the “unfortunate” position of finding Mom still alive when we’d been there a week.  
 
That wasn’t to be, of course.  But our tickets out of town, and on to San Francisco for the 3-Day, weren’t for a week… and we had a hotel and rental car in Brooksville for that whole week.  We knew that if we felt too miserable and sad we could pay a change fee and just head home… and if we decided we felt up to walking sixty miles in a charity walk to raise funds for breast cancer… well, then, we’d do that instead.   But in the meanwhile, we did errands around town with Dad.  We continued working on his bills and files.   We went shopping.   We started the checklist given to us by the funeral home… beginning with “Let the Social Security Administration know.”   We went around town trying to find someone to take the giant bag of prescription medications Mom wouldn’t be needing anymore – and got turned down at the county board of health and at her local pharmacy.  In the end, we decided it would take too long to dissolve them all in water and wash them down the drain – there were a LOT of pills – and just threw them away.  We hope no one decides to root through a bag of trash from a Publix  looking for medication. 
 
Dad was about sick of us by the end of the day Wednesday.  I think our nagging and “helpful” cleaning had just about used up his patience and good will… and when we told him we were heading out on Thursday, he didn’t beg us to stick around and help clean the gutters and process his back bank statements. 
 
And that brings us to today.   We decided that we would fly on to San Francisco from Tampa instead of just heading home to Vermont… and we would take part in the 3-Day For The Cure.   We’ll walk our sixty miles over the next three days for two reasons:
 

  1. We trained all spring and summer long for this walk – and while I do have two more walks coming up (in Philadelphia and Atlanta on consecutive weekends in October), this is Carole’s only planned walk for 2011.   It’d be a shame to do all that training and then never actually do the walk we’d trained for.

  2. Having just lost a mom, albeit not from breast cancer or cancer of any kind, I now know, up close and personal, just how much it really, really bites.  I don't want anyone to have to bury a loved one before their time.  My walking will not prolong anyone's life -- but I hope that by fulfilling the commitment I made to those who donated on my behalf, donations to fight breast cancer will continue to come in -- both this year, and in years to come until we finally find a cure.   (And if you, gentle reader, would care to help with that, you can donate here:  http://www.the3day.org/goto/jayfurr -- and thanks.)

Was it my mom's time?  Yeah, probably it was.  Her cause of death was complications from congestive heart failure.  Or, as the official death certificate put it, complications from diseases of the elderly.  Nonetheless,  that doesn't make it any less upsetting and any less of a shock to have happened so suddenly.  

I guess I can honestly say I'm glad to be here in San Francisco... but this weekend, my head and my heart are probably going to be a couple thousand miles away.
jayfurr: (Phantom)
Everyone, thank you very much for your kind notes and Tweets and Facebook postings. Yesterday was a very hard time for my whole family; none of us slept much since we got the news from the hospice about my mom's passing late on Wednesday evening and none of us was in a very upbeat mood. My father is very upset unless we distract him, and when we distract him, we feel bad about being silly when my mother is newly deceased and awaiting cremation. It's very hard knowing what balance to strike. :(

My mother spent a hard last couple of weeks of life. She had been battling weakness and an infection of her legs and had been in a rehab center in Florida, trying to get her strength back and beat the infection. Then she began feeling so sick and weak and was in so much pain that she insisted on being admitted to a full hospital and taken to the ICU. Unfortunately, they were not able to do much for her. Her strength went quickly and when we called to see how she was doing she was not very lucid. My father and our Florida relatives spent as much time with her as they could, but despite the care and the company she declined rapidly. I had planned to come down and visit in October but when I got a text from my cousin Ann at noon on Wednesday informing me that Mom was in really, really bad shape and was being transferred to a hospice and that this might be the end, I immediately booked tickets to get down here ASAP.

I wasn't in time. I got here to Brooksville at 1 pm yesterday; Mom passed 14 hours before, late on Wednesday night. My father and my sister Elizabeth had just taken her to the hospice, gotten her checked in, and gone home to get some rest... when the phone rang saying "come back! we don't think she's going to make it much longer."

She didn't. When Dad got back to the hospice she was already gone. It was hard for him, walking and finding her ...

Today at the funeral home we were offered the opportunity to see her one last time; we had already decided not to have an open coffin at the memorial service and to simply honor her wish for cremation. Dad did not want to see her that way again; he had already said what turned out to be his final goodbyes at the hospital during a moment when Mom was somewhat lucid. My sisters Elizabeth and Julie and my brother Rob and I went in and took turns saying what we had to say. None of us were entirely comfortable going in and seeing my mother lying under a blanket, only her head uncovered, un-made-up and basically as she had been at the hospice... but we knew that if we didn't take that one last chance we would forever regret it. But I don't really want my memory of my mother to be forever that -- frail and shrunken and devoid of the life and spirit and humor and irritability that always informed her.

I will miss her very much.

We have planned the memorial service for 4 pm tomorrow at Merritt Funeral Home in Brooksville, Florida. We'll all speak about our memories of Mom and we'll probably spend a lot more time crying than laughing, but eventually I imagine we'll eventually be able to smile again.

The obituary will run in tomorrow's St. Petersburg Times and the Roanoke (Va.) Times. My father has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, or the local charity Jericho Road.

I know I'm not the only person ever to lose his mother. I got notes yesterday from many people talking about how they'd recently lost one or both of their parents... and I hadn't noticed their postings to that effect. I lead a very self-absorbed life at times. :(

It's hard to prepare oneself for the experience of losing one's mother. No matter how many times I've reminded myself in recent years that this day would come, the reality and the suddenness were hard to deal with when they showed up in all their cold, concrete reality.

You know how I found out that my mother was on the verge of passing? I was sitting in my office at work, lecturing to a great group of staff at a customer on the West Coast via a websharing/teleconference session, when my cell rang. I couldn't take the call then, obviously, and I silenced it -- but Google Voice happily transcribed the message for me and showed it on my cell's screen. "This is Ann. Your mom's being transferred to a hospice. She's going fast. They think this is the end."

It was not easy to keep lecturing after that. I did my best, but realized after a bit that my mind was a million miles away and said "I'm sorry. I just got a text that a member of my family's gotten very bad health news. Very, very ... bad." And then I kept on going.

To their credit, they put two and two together and called me during our lunch break and told me that they'd like to reschedule the balance of our time together for a couple weeks hence.

And I called United Airlines, tried to change our frequent flier award tickets to San Francisco into tickets to Tampa, and wound up having to just buy new ones and get a refund on the old ones. I had no idea what to say for my return date... Mom was still alive, though failing rapidly, and for all I knew she would rally and survive for weeks. Would I still be able to go to San Francisco at the end of next week and take part in the long-anticipated 3-Day For The Cure walk there with Carole, or would I still be waiting, worried, next to my mom's bed? I wound up saying "Route us on to San Francisco on Thursday of next week, then home to Vermont the Monday after." I knew that if Mom held on, I could always pay a change fee and stay longer and skip the 3-Day.

Then I went home and packed, wondering how long I had before Mom would pass, or if she would pass at all... and felt awfully bad about even entertaining the idea of making it to San Francisco. Carole and I have trained and walked hundreds of miles all spring and summer long to get ready, but that dwindles into insignificance next to my mom's health, doesn't it?

I called my brother Rob in Canada and my sister Julie in North Carolina and found that both of them were only planning on staying through the weekend -- unlike me, they hadn't had a week of vacation coming up. I knew they felt bad about the prospect of leaving to go back to their regular lives with Mom still hanging on, but what could they do in the face of so much uncertainty?

Then it all became moot. Our frantic plans to try to beat the clock and get here while Mom was still holding on became moot Wednesday night at 10:30 when Dad called to tell me that she was gone.

We are glad to know that she's no longer in pain and feeling miserable and sad and confused and desperate. But still -- there are no words, despite my lengthy rambling above, to really let you know how I feel. And there may never be.
jayfurr: (Hiking inna dark)
Everyone, thank you very much for your kind notes and Tweets and Facebook postings. Yesterday was a very hard time for my whole family; none of us slept much since we got the news from the hospice about my mom's passing late on Wednesday evening and none of us was in a very upbeat mood. My father is very upset unless we distract him, and when we distract him, we feel bad about being silly when my mother is newly deceased and awaiting cremation. It's very hard knowing what balance to strike. :(

My mother spent a hard last couple of weeks of life. She had been battling weakness and an infection of her legs and had been in a rehab center in Florida, trying to get her strength back and beat the infection. Then she began feeling so sick and weak and was in so much pain that she insisted on being admitted to a full hospital and taken to the ICU. Unfortunately, they were not able to do much for her. Her strength went quickly and when we called to see how she was doing she was not very lucid. My father and our Florida relatives spent as much time with her as they could, but despite the care and the company she declined rapidly. I had planned to come down and visit in October but when I got a text from my cousin Ann at noon on Wednesday informing me that Mom was in really, really bad shape and was being transferred to a hospice and that this might be the end, I immediately booked tickets to get down here ASAP.

I wasn't in time. I got here to Brooksville at 1 pm yesterday; Mom passed 14 hours before, late on Wednesday night. My father and my sister Elizabeth had just taken her to the hospice, gotten her checked in, and gone home to get some rest... when the phone rang saying "come back! we don't think she's going to make it much longer."

She didn't. When Dad got back to the hospice she was already gone. It was hard for him, walking in and finding her ...

Today at the funeral home we were offered the opportunity to see her one last time; we had already decided not to have an open coffin at the memorial service and to simply honor her wish for cremation. Dad did not want to see her that way again; he had already said what turned out to be his final goodbyes at the hospital during a moment when Mom was somewhat lucid. My sisters Elizabeth and Julie and my brother Rob and I went in and took turns saying what we had to say. None of us were entirely comfortable going in and seeing my mother lying under a blanket, only her head uncovered, un-made-up and basically as she had been at the hospice... but we knew that if we didn't take that one last chance we would forever regret it. But I don't really want my memory of my mother to be forever that -- frail and shrunken and devoid of the life and spirit and humor and irritability that always informed her.

I will miss her very much.

We have planned the memorial service for 4 pm tomorrow at Merritt Funeral Home in Brooksville, Florida. We'll all speak about our memories of Mom and we'll probably spend a lot more time crying than laughing, but eventually I imagine we'll eventually be able to smile again.

The obituary will run in tomorrow's St. Petersburg Times and the Roanoke (Va.) Times. My father has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, or the local charity Jericho Road.

I know I'm not the only person ever to lose his mother. I got notes yesterday from many people talking about how they'd recently lost one or both of their parents... and I hadn't noticed their postings to that effect. I lead a very self-absorbed life at times. :(

It's hard to prepare oneself for the experience of losing one's mother. No matter how many times I've reminded myself in recent years that this day would come, the reality and the suddenness were hard to deal with when they showed up in all their cold, concrete awfulness.

You know how I found out that my mother was on the verge of passing? I was sitting in my office at work, lecturing to a great group of staff at a customer on the West Coast via a websharing/teleconference session, when my cell rang. I couldn't take the call then, obviously, and I silenced it -- but Google Voice happily transcribed the message for me and showed it on my cell's screen. "This is Ann. Your mom's being transferred to a hospice. She's going fast. They think this is the end."

It was not easy to keep lecturing after that. I did my best, but realized after a bit that my mind was a million miles away and said "I'm sorry. I just got a text that a member of my family's gotten very bad health news. Very, very ... bad." And then I kept on going.

To their credit, they put two and two together and called me during our lunch break and told me that they'd like to reschedule the balance of our time together for a couple weeks hence.

And I called United Airlines, tried to change our frequent flier award tickets to San Francisco into tickets to Tampa, and wound up having to just buy new ones and get a refund on the old ones. I had no idea what to say for my return date... Mom was still alive, though failing rapidly, and for all I knew she would rally and survive for weeks. Would I still be able to go to San Francisco at the end of next week and take part in the long-anticipated 3-Day For The Cure walk there with Carole, or would I still be waiting, worried, next to my mom's bed? I wound up saying "Route us on to San Francisco on Thursday of next week, then home to Vermont the Monday after." I knew that if Mom held on, I could always pay a change fee and stay longer and skip the 3-Day.

Then I went home and packed, wondering how long I had before Mom would pass, or if she would pass at all... and felt awfully bad about even entertaining the idea of making it to San Francisco. Carole and I have trained and walked hundreds of miles all spring and summer long to get ready, but that dwindles into insignificance next to my mom's health, doesn't it?

I called my brother Rob in Canada and my sister Julie in North Carolina and found that both of them were only planning on staying through the weekend -- unlike me, they hadn't had a week of vacation coming up. I knew they felt bad about the prospect of leaving to go back to their regular lives with Mom still hanging on, but what could they do in the face of so much uncertainty?

Then it all became moot. Our frantic plans to try to beat the clock and get here while Mom was still holding on became moot Wednesday night at 10:30 when Dad called to tell me that she was gone.

We are glad to know that she's no longer in pain and feeling miserable and sad and confused and desperate. But still -- there are no words, despite my lengthy rambling above, to really let you know how I feel. And there may never be.

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