Today is the one year anniversary of my mom’s death. In tribute to her, I am copying the eulogy I wrote and gave at her memorial service.
Nancy Derbyshire- Born March 27, 1942, died July 25, 2012
For those of you who personally knew my mother, no explanations are necessary, nothing I can tell you today would shock you. My mother was a vibrant, loving, happy, joyful and grateful person who made sure that those she loved knew it so that when the day came that she was no longer here with us, we would have no doubt, no unresolved issues, no guilt or fear that we had not been everything and more to her and that she appreciated us to our core.
For those of you who were not personally acquainted with my mom, it might shock you to hear her life story and to think that someone who went through the trials of life that she endured would be the kind of person that she was. Let me tell you a bit about her life…
Nancy Mary Elizabeth Elfrieda Holton was born to her parents Reginald and Elfrieda a bit too early. Her mother was a somewhat older than average woman of childbearing age and had thought that her son Bill, who was already a 7-year-old, would be the only child she would be blessed with but, at a late age, she found herself joyfully and miraculously pregnant with my mother. Elfrieda, who did not like her name much and was called Nancy by those who were her family and friends, developed what we now know as pre-eclampsia of pregnancy, but at that time was known as toxemia. Her blood pressure sky-rocketed and a few months too soon, my mother was born, weighing only slightly more than 2 lbs. In 1942, this was basically a death sentence for an infant, and she was given last rites and placed in a warmed bassinette to await her return to heaven. But something of a miracle occurred. My mother lived, day by day getting a bit stronger and a bit larger. The joy of Nancy and Reg could not be contained. Within the next days and weeks though, a tragedy occurred that no one was expecting. My mother’s mother developed complications and as she praised God every day for her newborn daughter’s will to live, her own life ebbed away. She died not too long after my mother was born. Her best friend from nursing school, Marj, who had never married and was able to step in to help my now widowed grandfather with 7-year old Bill and a premature Nancy, eventually married my grandfather and when my mother was well enough and heavy enough to leave the hospital, became mother to my mom. My mother was never told the story of her own mother’s tragic death and believed Marj to be her real mother. Two more brothers were born very quickly to Marj and Reg, her brother Art and her brother Bruce.
At some point during her preadolescence, her own paternal grandmother, who suffered from some undiagnosed mental illness, was visiting and became angry at my young mother, who would not mind her on the right way to snap the ends off the green beans. My mother told her grandmother, in a child’s special way, “I don’t have to listen to you, you are not my mother!”
Well, Grandma Holton became enraged at such insolence and told my mom that Marj was not her mother either, that my mom had “killed” her real mother just by being born. My mother ran to Marj and cried and asked if this was true and finally learned that her biological mother had died shortly after her birth. For many years after this revelation, my mother suffered terrible guilt that she had caused her own mother’s death.
Once the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, it became somewhat clear to my mother why her big brother Bill was always so angry and had moved out of their house, running away numerous times and finally leaving for good at only 16 years of age. From his 7-year-old perspective, his own dear mother had been replaced quickly after my mom’s birth and he could never accept that and had not been allowed to grieve. There was terrible tension after his dad married his step-mother Marj and he had to just keep quiet and accept another woman as a replacement mom, so his sister Nancy did not ever find out. This was the way things were done in 1942, everything swept under the rug and not dealt with. Something else that now made sense to her was why every summer when she and Bill would visit their cousins up in Canada, Art and Bruce did not go. They had their own cousins to visit.
Something else that was not really discussed back in the 1940’s and 1950’s was child abuse. My mother’s father unfortunately suffered from the same mental illness his own mother did. He had been terribly abused by his own mother and, in turn, abused all of his children. He was a hard man who enjoyed inflicting pain on his children, both physical and emotional, and they all just thought this was normal.
My mother met my father at age 17 after running into each other at a mutual friend’s home where my mom had gone to ask to borrow their automatic transmission car to take her test to get a driver’s license, it was love at first sight for my dad, who offered his own brand new car to her immediately and then began to court her.
At age 19, just two days after graduating high school, my mom married my dad and learned that the way she had been raised, the beatings and the verbal abuse and the feelings of shame, were not normal, that a man could be loving and strong at the same time and that children could be loved and cared for with warmth and encouragement. In spite of the way she had grown up, she managed to be such a loving mother to my brother Jim and me. My mother and father had wanted lots of kids, but her own mother’s problems of pregnancy seemed to plague my mom as well. She almost died giving birth to my younger brother and was told that she should have no more children. This saddened her, but she was happy to have the two children she got.
My mom was a typical housewife of the early 1960’s; she stayed at home and cooked and cleaned and looked after us. Coming home from school to the smell of a freshly baked loaf of cinnamon raisin bread is one of my favorite memories. My dad worked 3 jobs most of his life to support the family. They never owned a home and we lived in a small garden apartment in Maywood and life seemed good. There was never much money, but there was love. There was lots of love.
When I was age 7, my mom just 27, she had a mini-stroke while defrosting an old refrigerator/freezer with a big pot of boiling water and she burned over 90% of the front of her body, 3rd degree burns that were so severe, my mother was again, not expected to live. After 8 months of skin grafts, painful peeling and healing and peeling and healing, she again beat the odds and came home to be a mom to my brother and me. The doctors all said it was truly a miracle she had survived. Twice now in her life, she had beat the odds against her and lived.
Our lives went back to “normal;” my brother and I grew and gave our parents the hard time that all kids give their parents during our early adolescence and teenage years….life was not perfect, we were not the “Father Knows Best” clan or the “Ozzy and Harriet” ideal. We had our issues, all of us, but we loved one another and always knew we were loved and accepted for who we were, especially by our mom. She offered something that not even our Dad was quite capable of giving, unconditional love. No matter how bad we might behave or how angry she might get at us, she never held onto that anger and always let us know that in spite of how we behaved or how we might not be the “ideal child” at that particular moment, that she was grateful for us and loved us anyway. This is something not too many people get from their parents. She herself never got it and it was a miracle that she was so ready and able to give it.
My dad, on the other hand, suffered terribly from depression as he aged and although he was loving, he would go deep into his darkness at times and be very uncommunicative with us. My mother was the only one who could soothe his troubled psyche while providing us with enough unconditional love for the two of them.
Three days after my mom turned 40, she suffered a massive stroke and 2 heart attacks. She could not speak, she could not move her left side at all, and she had been left handed. For the first time in my life, I watched my mother grow very depressed. She went to a rehabilitation facility but did not have the will to be compliant with therapies designed to get her a bit better. After six months of inpatient rehabilitation, my father took my mom home, supposedly to die. The rehab said they could do nothing more with her, she had no will to live.
Once back at home, my dad would not give up on her, insisting on her getting back her will to live, he just would not take no for an answer. Tom and I got engaged and told my mom she had a wedding to look forward to. Slowly, day by day, through my dad’s love for her and the numerous loving caregivers and therapists we were blessed to have taking care of her while we all went to school and work, her fighting spirit returned and within a year of coming home, she was up and walking with cane, dragging her left side around, but walking! And, her speech returned with a vengeance! From that time on, you could never shut her up! Her happy nature returned and, believe it or not, life pretty much got back to normal for my parents.
Tom and I married, had our three kids, giving mom so much joy and so much more vitality and energy; she had new little ones to love in her life! Then Jim and Eileen followed with their beautiful wedding and Jimmy and John. Mom grew happier and more joyful with each wedding, each child, each passing day. My parents managed to take vacations and visit with their friends and family across the country, in spite of my mother’s fairly severe handicap and with the help of numerous earthly angels. They were overjoyed to help both my brother and I buy our first homes, something they had never been able to afford themselves.
We had many happy times at our children’s birthdays, baptisms, graduations, proms….. my mother fully enjoyed each and every moment of the rest of her life. She never complained or allowed herself to become depressed over her physical limitations ever again. Her body hurt in the places it had atrophied, as the years went by, first 10, then 20 and, then this year, 30 years post-stroke, she praised the God of her heart for giving her more time. She was overjoyed to see Arielle finish high school this year and secretly hoped against hope that one of the boys might even get married for her to see before her time here was through.
Losing my dad 18 months ago had been a huge blow to her. But even though their love for one another was a miracle and a blessing to them both and what sustained her through so many trials, she still was not ready to leave this earth. When we all went in to tell her that her beloved husband was gone, we thought she would go quickly. But no, she was just not ready yet. She missed her Derby and she grieved his loss, but she still managed to go through each of her days with a sense of purpose, loving those who cared for her both at home and at the place she called home for the past 7 years, the Maywood Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation.
Her lifelong friends became her telephone support line, her half brothers became closer, calling her more often and developing stronger ties in their older ages. Her new friends, her roommate Bunny, her volunteer visiting buddies, her fellow residents at the nursing center, they needed her too. Dad could wait. She was growing tired, but her need to be with people and to talk and to welcome newcomers to the nursing home, making new friends up until the end of her life, were inspiring.
She was an inspiration to me, becoming more so as she got older and her hardships increased but her spirit continued to become stronger, happier and more loving and accepting of all that life had blessed her with, including her infirmities.
If I’ve cried these past few days, it’s only been because I miss her, I miss her complete and total acceptance of me with all my flaws and her unconditional love for me, in spite of all I was not able to do for her. If I continue to cry at times, it’s just because I will continue to miss her. She was the most positive influence in my life, loving children who were sometimes very unlovable, loving a man who, at times, was not easy to love, attending all the religious services she could at the nursing home, because she knew that God does not live in a specific religion or a specific church or temple, but that God lives inside each and every one of us. And, even as I struggle with doubt and with the absolute faith that my mom had that God has prepared a place for us all, I know in my heart that she is with the mother she never got to know, that she is rejoicing at reuniting with my father again after 18 long and lonely months, and that her spirit is free of her broken down body. She is dancing and laughing and loving those who she has missed since they’ve gone from their earthly bodies. I know this because if my mom believed it, it must be true.