About My Mother: Leah Barry 1930-2015
On July 20 my mother suffered a massive stroke. Twenty-four hours later she moved from the seen world to the unseen world. Those twenty-four hours were heartbreaking, as my dad (her husband of 66 years) and our extended family sat in her hospital room, watching and waiting as her frail body went through the normal processes of physical death. Those twenty-four hours were also beautiful, filled with the shared stories of the loving ways she had marked each person who came to say their last words of appreciation to her. When she took her last breath, she was surrounded and embraced by her family: my dad, my brother and I with our spouses, a dear aunt and several cousins. It felt like an extraordinary privilege to be with her as she passed from this land of brokenness to the land of the fully alive.
My mom was truly one of the kindest, warmest, most giving women I’ve ever known. She cared for foster babies, volunteered for hospice, offered live-in hospitality to released prisoners, and gently tended both my grandmothers who requested to die in the peacefulness of my mother’s home.
My father had adored her since they met in third grade; the delightful story of their romance was highlighted and enjoyed at Mom’s memorial service. At the end of the service, I told the story—and challenges—of their life together in more recent years, as well as the way Mom’s life so thoroughly shaped mine. I offer here these words as a tribute to the lovely life my mom lived. And because my mom loved flowers as much as I do, I’ve included a few early morning photos of her garden, as well as flowers from her memorial service.
Spoken at her memorial service:
You’ve heard a lot about my mom this evening. And I’m sure that later many more of you will tell stories about her and say things like:
• She loved everybody unconditionally.
• I never heard her say an unkind word to or about anybody.
• She would do anything for anybody whether she knew them or not.
• She was just so darn cute!
• She seemed so quiet, but she was surprisingly good at humorous one-liners.
• She had an almost magical way of calming babies.
• She was such a gifted listener.
• All of that . . . and so much more is true about my mom.
But things changed a bit in the last few years. Nearly three years ago, when my dad began battling cancer, it was very sudden, intense, and extremely stressful for Mom. During that time Dan (my brother) and I noticed that it was getting increasingly hard for Mom to remember things and to handle some of the details that she’d handled so competently before that. We just thought, She’s 83; this is a very stressful time; of course she’s not quite up to par.
But as life settled down and moved back into a more routine and peaceful era, it became evident that it wasn’t just about Mom dealing with stress; her capacity to remember and handle details actually was changing—and changing quite rapidly.
As a family, we entered a new era. First it was just Dad, Dan and I, and our spouses. Mom was a very private person and we didn’t want to violate her privacy by speaking much of this to others. But gradually we invited some extended family and a few close friends into this new kind of circle of life.
This new era was very hard for Mom because she couldn’t do all the things she used to do to take care of others. It grieved her to realize that her new way of being in the world no longer allowed the very things that had given her energy and meaning and pleasure.
Those of us closest to her tried, as best we could, to make life good and joy-filled for her in this new reality. We could not stop the insistent falling away of her memories and abilities, but we learned new ways to minimize confusion and maximize simple pleasures. As we walked closely and gently with her during this era, we stumbled into some really beautiful moments.
Especially during the last year, I spent a lot of nights in the basement bedroom of Mom and Dad’s house. I scattered things around that room like a teenager and totally took over Dad’s desk in the corner. (But they never once complained!) I enjoyed a lot of evenings watching movies and documentaries with both of them, early morning conversations with my dad, afternoon outings with my mom.
As I look back on this time, I think what made it so sweet is that the only way to make it work was just to really slow down. There was no place for rush. No place for hurry. No place for pushing. No place for multi-tasking. You really had to pay careful attention to determine exactly what each moment required for this person you loved.
I didn’t always do that, but when I did I was gifted with truly precious experiences.
When Mom and I went out for tea, we spent long moments reading all the labels of fancy green teas, and white teas, and oolong and blacks tea, and fruity herbal infusions. Then we’d each get a different kind so we could share and both taste two fancy teas.
When we picked out Mother’s Day flowers for her new little flower garden, we walked up and down the aisles in three garden centers before we decided on the best combination of colors and petal shapes. Then we planted them—a job Mom always took very seriously, gently tucking in each tender tangle of roots. Every morning in the weeks to come, the “Queen” walked slowly around the yard to survey “Her Kingdom,” as she’d been doing for years. I love that memory of her. The first thing I did the morning after she died was go outside and deadhead the petunias and pull up any weed that had invaded during the night, as I knew she would have done.
During recent months we also put together a lot of jigsaw puzzles. My dad knew how much Mom loved to reminisce about the past and to look at old photos, so he turned photos into puzzles. To be a dutiful daughter I helped put pieces in place with great enthusiasm while we reminisced. I must, however—for the sake of full disclosure—confess that I did finally refuse to do one more black and white and gray puzzle; they’re just too hard. So, the last puzzle Dad ordered was vibrant with Mom’s favorite colors. Unfortunately, we barely got started on that puzzle. So, if you happen to see a puzzle in process here somewhere tonight, please, please put in a few pieces. If you don’t, Dad and I will be very busy with that puzzle for the next few weeks. Please help! (I loved watching those who lingered over the puzzle after the memorial service, sliding pieces in place and sharing their favorite “Leah stories.”)
On my last couple of outings with my mom we went to the mall and headed straight for the children’s department at Macy’s, so she could help me pick out some summer clothes for my grandsons while everything was on sale. I had to keep luring her away from the baby clothes—especially the little girl clothes—and say, “Mom, Henry and Mac are pretty big now—and they’re boys!—so lets look over here.” So she’d traipse around after me, her arms loaded with shorts and shirts and hoodies as she helped me find the right sizes.
After purchasing, we’d reward ourselves with a leisurely walk through the mall, arm in arm, pointing out our favorite—or least favorite—items in each window. On our last trip, we bought her a pair of shoes, and she totally flirted with the young store manager. I’m not kidding! But he didn’t seem to mind at all. (My mom was generally quite understated, but she enjoyed a little bling on her feet: she loved TOMS Black Glitters!)
Of all the lifetime of delightful memories I have with my mother, it’s these slow ones toward the end that seem most beautiful to me. And maybe that’s her last lesson to me—to intentionally move a little more slowly through life, to sink fully into those special moments whose richness can only be discovered and taken in slowly. I believe I will be forever changed by this lesson.
The morning after she died I walked through her little garden, the rising sun sealing in my soul the holiness of slowed-down moments.
At Mom’s burial service, a young woman who had been one of the babies Mom cared for years ago said, “I placed a white flower on your Mom’s casket. White for purity. She was the purest woman I’ve ever known.”
Many people would compare my mother’s life and mine and think they’re very different. Her circle of relationships and her work was very local, whereas mine is increasingly global. But you need to know this: Every time I snuggle a refugee baby anywhere in the world, or silently listen to and weep with a woman who has been brutalized by the horrors of war, I am only doing what my mom taught me to do—not by her words, but by her loving way of being in the world, her tender way of being present to people. And always, always—wherever I have travelled and whatever I have done—her faithful, loving, mother prayers have been with me.
After Mom’s hospital room had emptied and most of the family members had gone home, I went back into her room alone for the last time. I put my hands on her head and said something I hadn’t actually put into words before that very instant. I said, “I love You, Mom. You gave me life . . . and then you taught me how to live it.”
And that is totally true. Thank you, Mom.