Jewish Goodbye

One of six eulogies delivered today to say farewell to my mother, Marilyn Keller.

Thank you all for coming.

Now this is where one would, under other circumstances, say, “I’m pleased to be here,” but I am not pleased to be here. I am not ready for this. I am unprepared. Because for a long time I did the math in my head. I looked at Mom’s genetic profile and her obvious vitality and I was willing to lay odds on another ten years.

Yes, she was slowing down this year in ways that were worrisome. But I figured that we were at last, belatedly, entering old age. Mom’s capacity would diminish and there would be life changes, difficult but doable. A move. Or more help. Manageable steps.

But for this I was not prepared. Because she was too full of life and love to go from there to not-there in 5 weeks. And I know all the blessings; I feel them, honestly I do. That she was with me in California when the stroke happened. That Lynn and I and my family and friends were able to take good care of her. That we had time to share a mountain of love. These are all undeniable and I feel immense gratitude.

And still, I am not ready. I cannot prepare for shiva without asking her where she keeps the filter basket for the fucking percolator. I cannot talk to cousins about the family photos in her house this week without having her there to identify who is in them. I cannot go through this experience without calling her to tell her about it. I cannot absorb her absence. Nor can I conceive of it. Nor do I even yet perceive it.

Because five weeks of emergency is a long time together. She is still in my system the way you step off a boat and still feel it rocking.

It was a beautiful end to our life together, these weeks, and I am not yet ready to let it go. They were intense and immense days. We became accustomed to each other in a way we hadn’t since my sister’s and my childhood, as all the unnecessary shmutz fell away.

And we became reacquainted with each other in surprising, thrilling ways. I got to see Mom’s magic. I saw how with a smile and a look and fewer than five reliable words, she was able to melt the hearts of jaded doctors and overworked nurses, until they were fawning, vying for her attention.

What magic was this? Because honestly, I didn’t always see it. When did she become this way? When did she start being everyone’s favorite relative? Mother to all? She has adopted scores of children and they have adopted her. PFLAG kids. Strays. Children and grandchildren of her friends. Her local great nieces and their husbands. My shul friends in California. The Kinsey Sicks. They all think of her as mom, or the mom they wish they had.

And she comes alive with it. Like she was born for this role, and she only needed to wait to be old enough for the garment to fit her properly. And now, for the last ten or fifteen years it has fit her like a glove.

Mom was always naturally proud of us, of Lynn and me, I think. But in the 1970s and 1980s we tested her pride in lots of ways, at least I did. I came out of the closet. I became not just a gay person but a really loud gay person. I went on to make a huge and unexpected career choice: lawyer. Oren and I created a family in a most unorthodox way, with unconventional rules that would require her to have to explain things over and over to everyone she cared about, which she did without complaint and with complete devotion. And then there was another career change. And yes, that other one too.

And in each instance, her love for us, her pride in us, prevailed. And just became stronger in the process. Like a muscle she kept exercising.

This readily flexed parental pride is what made her such a good advocate for LGBTQI rights. She was effective because she loved her kids and she was not going to let bullies mess with them. And we were all her kids.

And her parental pride is what made her such a good friend to young and old alike. She could absorb anything you’d tell her, and she would respond with such confidence in you. “I know you’ll do the right thing.” “This is going to work out.” “I love you no matter what.” So matter-of-factly, that you had to do the right thing, you had to make it work out, because who would want to let her down?

I know I should tell you things about her. Things you don’t know. Her childhood. Her musicianship. How she took over for her mother as the hub of the family, the person whom all the cousins report to. How she loved working so much more than cooking. How she challenged herself to chant Torah for the first time at age 79. How she created rituals like a weekly Friday-morning Shabbat Shalom email sent to my sister and my family and my Israeli in-laws and even a cousin so distant that we don’t know how she’s related but Mom fell in love with her anyway. Or how at age 21 or so she saw a young sax player at a dance and went home and told her parents that she’d met the fellow she was going to marry and then she actually made it happen.

There’s so much to tell. A lifetime well lived, full of moment piled upon moment. Not all happy. Not all sweet. But in the aggregate beautifully done. So much to tell. And still I don’t want to be here doing it.

It’s hard to know how consciously people choose their time to go. But we know how fiercely independent Mom was. She had even just passed her driver’s test and gotten her license renewed the day before she came to visit, two days before her stroke. Afterwards she improved, but so very slowly.  Ahead of her lay years of a life unlike anything she'd ever wanted for herself. But she stuck it out for five weeks. Why? Well, there is an old joke that gentiles leave a party without saying goodbye, and Jews say goodbye without leaving. Mom stuck it out in order to give us – all of us – a nice long, loving Jewish goodbye. And then, satisfied that everyone was taken care of, she waited until no one was looking and slipped out the back way.

Very classy, Mom. And no surprise.