A slightly revised version of the eulogy I gave at my mother’s memorial service. What good qualities I possess, I owe solely to this woman, and I will never stop missing her.
My mother lost her father when she was eighteen and I grew up with her stories of Raymond Skelly – his great height (he was 6’4) and his unusual intelligence, he was forced to turn down a college scholarship during the Depression to support his family and he established a successful construction and landscaping business before the botched operation that destroyed his health. Despite his interrupted education he was a voracious reader, and happiness for him was between the covers of a book – everything from detective fiction to James Joyce (he read Ulysses) to his particular favorites, the novels of Jane Austen. My mother always suffered from the tragedy of his early death, above all the fact that her children never met him. When I became an equally obsessive reader, my mother would often say, ‘He would have loved that about you.’
My mother had no shortage of self-awareness and she understood that her choice of a nursing career – one of the few professions open to a woman in 1960 – was influenced by an adolescence spent caring for a semi-invalid. At her bedside two days ago, her brother, my uncle, told me that when my grandmother went to the hospital for brain surgery in 1957 (they were not the luckiest family), fourteen year-old Nancy Skelly immediately started preparing all their meals. No one told her to do this, she simply took on the responsibility without question or complaint. My uncle’s anecdote captures the sense of commitment my mother had to her family – she did what needed to be done.
For most of my life my mother left for work at 530 a.m. Into her 70s, years after she had left Providence for Charlestown and could have retired comfortably, she would drive out in the darkness for an hour-long commute up Route 95. My memories are filled with the sound of her alarm clock ringing before dawn. Despite her early shift, she rarely went to bed before eleven p.m. and I’d often see the light on in her bedroom after midnight, a sign that she was trying to finish another book. I don’t think there was ever a time when she wasn’t sleep-deprived but she wouldn’t let perpetual exhaustion kept her from engaging life.
Yet there was much more to my mother than devotion to family, including a deep sense of social justice. She dated her political awakening to the exposure of the 1968 My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. ‘I was watching the news with you in my lap,’ she said. ‘When they announced the story and showed photos of the murdered children, I burst into tears. I couldn’t stop crying. I’d been taught that Americans couldn’t do anything like that and I never questioned it. All of a sudden, I realized that I’d been lied to for years and that the values I’d been raised with had been completely betrayed by our government.’ In the wake of this experience, she became active in the Women’s Movement and helped to establish the first Rape Crisis Center in Rhode Island. A quarter of the century later, she was still working in progressive politics. For my mother, activism was a simple case of doing what was right. Why shouldn’t women get equal pay for equal work? Why should a woman who’d been assaulted by a husband or boyfriend not be protected? This sense of justice is something she passed on to all of her children.
My mother could be incredibly determined and there were few obstacles that stopped her for long. In her 20s, she went back to school and earned a bachelor of science degree, all while working as an R.N. and with three boys under the age of six at home. I still have no idea how she managed that. Later on, she picked up acquired her masters and became a nurse anesthetist.
My mother refused to accept that anything was out of her reach. When she decided she wanted to learn how to sail, she took sailing lessons and bought a boat. When she fell in love with Chinese cuisine, she bought a cookbook and tracked down the one Chinese grocery store in Rhode Island. When genealogy became an interest, she tracked down distant relatives across the globe. She was always eager for new experiences and her enthusiasm took her to Alaska, to Ireland, down the Rhine, and to Newfoundland, where we tracked down birth and marriage records of her ancestors.
The only time I saw my mother truly afraid was six years ago in the aftermath of her cancer diagnosis, as she struggled through chemo and radiation treatments. It was a harrowing experience for her, as I’m sure anyone who has experienced cancer will attest. She told me, more than once, that she wanted to give up. She said that she couldn’t keep going through the nausea and depression. But she did, and her courage brought her fruitful years in which she tackled quilting, and saw each one of her children settle down and begin raising a family (we all got pretty late starts and there are two more grandchildren on the way). In this final illness, she didn’t display any of her former fear. She’d worked through it and was prepared for whatever came next.
In his diary, the German-Jewish author Franz Kafka wrote, ‘Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life.’ This quote has been echoing through my mind since I first heard that mom’s life was in danger. I know it’s been a long time since Sunday school for some of you, but in the story of Exodus, the Israelites flee Egypt and wander through the desert before reaching the Promised Land. Their leader, Moses of course, communicates directly with God. At one point, Moses doesn’t follow God’s directions to the letter and in typical Old Testament fashion, he is severely punished. God informs Moses that he will be able to look upon the Promised Land but not enter it.
For me, what Kafka meant when he wrote, ‘Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life’ is that a human life is never long enough for us to achieve all of our goals, to be completely fulfilled in our loved ones and ourselves. In the days since my mother’s illness became threatening, I’ve suffered terrible regret at what I haven’t done with her, at everything my mother will miss. All autumn and winter I made plans to visit her with my young daughter, but we kept having to delay the trip. My mother will not get to meet her two unborn grandchildren. She loved the natural world, and I have always hoped to be able to send her on a photo safari to East Africa and the Serengeti. That too, won’t happen.
Nancy only had her father for 18 years, while I had her for 49 and yet I am still racked by the sense that she was cheated. That we were all cheated. And the fact is: we were. Everyone is. No matter how long I had my mother it would never have been enough. That is the essential tragedy we face as human beings. We can describe entire eco-systems – trees, ferns, dinosaurs, pterodactyls – that haven’t existed on the earth for hundreds of millions of years. Our minds soar across galaxies to see light from the beginning of the universe 13-odd billion years ago. Yet we’re stuck in these fallible, ridiculous bodies and our lives go by much too fast. As someone wrote, ‘days drag; years fly.’
To dismiss the regrets and suffering of this loss would be to diminish how much my mother gave us. In fact the loss and suffering tell us just how important Nancy Aneyci was. The presence of all the people in this room tells us of her importance. The fact that not a minute goes by without my thinking of her tells us of her importance. When my family got news of her illness, we rallied from the across the country to gather at her bedside. Our phone didn’t stop ringing with calls from concerned friends and our refrigerator filled to overflowing with their gifts.
My mother was a remarkable woman who accomplished far more for her family and community than an East-Side Irish-Catholic girl in the 1950s would have ever imagined. The positive, enduring legacy that my mother created lives on through all of us. On behalf of my family, I thank you for joining us here to recognize, mourn and celebrate her.