October 2009

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This is the eulogy I gave for my Mom, Faye Parkinson, at her memorial service on October 24, 2009.

The BBC was founded, Johnny Weismuller broke the one minute 100 yard freestyle, Warren Harding introduced the first radio into the White House, construction began on the original Yankee Stadium, and the Eskimo Pie was patented – all in 1922 when Faye Wilson Whitmore was born.

Every one of you who has ever written a eulogy knows how impossible it is to summarize a life in a few moments … and how important it is to try. Faye’s story spanned over eight and half decades. It was a tale of faithfulness to family and to education. Spiritually, Faye’s story was a cliffhanger right up the end.

Her father was trained as an electrical engineer in Montana, and her mother was in nursing when she married. Growing up out West in the late 1800‘s, they were tough, practical, independent people willing to take a risk. Their risk was migrating to romantic Florida to strike it rich raising oranges. They accomplished the Herculean task of clearing away jungle and getting an orchard going just in time for … the Great Depression.

Life was hard for them. Their four children were taught to depend on themselves and each other, and not to find false comfort in religion. Faye told us that she always wanted to go to church as a child, but never had the opportunity. It’s been interesting for me to go through her old newspaper and magazine clippings. So many of Faye’s clippings had religious themes, and warm thoughts about Jesus, even though they were from what you might call a secular point of view.

Florida made some good memories, like her marching band that one first place (she played the baritone). But, as it was for all but the wealthy few, hardship was the name of the game during the Depression. The family scraped by any way they could – renting rooms, Faye assisted in a photographic studio. What a tribute to her parents, Albert and Halle, that all the kids went to college and were prepared for bright futures. Patty would become one of the Army’s first women lawyers; Jean would head up a department at Rutgers University. Faye set her sites on invading the male-dominated world of pharmacy.

But during college, she met a genuine WWII war hero – a decorated young civilian pilot who few as the engineer on 53 bombing missions, and was rewarded by being sent to Pensacola for enough college to fly as an Army pilot. They fell in love, and after an unsuccessful attempt by Bob to love the orange business, they were off to Bob’s hometown of Eastport, Maryland, where Bob carved out a career at Friendship Airport. (Excuse me for being sentimental, but I still like “Friendship” better than “Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall.”)

Life didn’t work out quite as Faye thought it would. At first, sexual harassment in the workplace short circuited her pharmacy career. And then, there were soon three boys to raise. She turned to education, helping the next generation love learning the way she did. She spend 26 years in the Anne Arundel County School System, mostly at Severna Park Elementary, where she touched hundreds of lives, several of whom have kindly written to me upon hearing of her death to tell me how much she meant to them when they were in third grade. Eventually, she rose to Vice Principle at Oak Hill.

In fact, I think my most vivid memory of Faye – vivid because it was reinforced so many nights all through my early years – was of Mom grading papers. She was always grading papers.
Faye was the last survivor of four siblings. Jean just died a couple of years ago. David and Patty are buried at Arlington. David was a pilot on D Day. He survived the war, but was later killed in an air crash testing new equipment. I was seven years old and was there when Mom got the telephone call – it was just about the only time I ever saw her really cry.

Faye taught me a love for learning, for reading, for science, for thinking. I read through all the classics in our small library at home, and hungered for more. My brothers were more normal – into hydroplaning and bicycling and other good stuff. I was the bookworm. It must have been a challenge to raise three fellows with such different interests.

As a child, I remember long road trips to Florida to see her parents, and how good the free orange juice tasted when we crossed the Florida State line. I remember hot summer days at Ocean City with huge french fries and arcades. My idea of heaven as a six year old was to hold out my hands in front of an Ocean City arcade, and watch my parents fill them with nickels – which is what you needed to play those wonderful machines. Faye made the best crab cakes in the whole world, and a truly remarkable lima bean casserole. Most people go camping in a tent. Occasionally, we would take out the 16 foot runabout that Dad and Mom built with their own hands in he back yard. They would throw over an anchor on some river or creek, throw a tarp over our heads, and we would camp out on the water.

She and Bob left Eastport in 1960 to build their dream house on the water at Weems Creek. What a project! I have never worked harder than I did at her side – clearing the land, hand mixing never ending loads of concrete for a large patio, building terraced steps down a 60 foot embankment to our pier, digging out the hillside to add a special family room. Faye especially enjoyed caring for the flowers and landscaping.

During those years at Weems Creek, when I was a young teenager, we would occasionally, at her initiative, watch Billy Graham Crusades together on television. Each time surprised me, because she always echoed, almost in a parrot-like way, her parents’ dislike for conservative religion. She was raised that way, and didn’t see any reason to change. Even so, Mom seemed to look wistful – but each time, we both agreed that the gospel he was selling didn’t really make any sense. Trusting in Jesus for salvation and eternal life, public confession and baptism – that was not for us.

Faye took more pictures than anyone I’ve ever known. Unfortunately, they have deteriorated quite a bit – it was a lot of work just restoring the few we have on display today. But she was a good photographer. Working in the darkroom for hours led to chemical allergies, but she continued to take pictures as long as she could remember how to work a camera. Her landscape photography was remarkable. And that helped her with another passion of hers, which was oil painting. Her passion for landscapes led her through all 50 States in her lifetime. She actually put together one picture-book for children, though it was never published. She did, however, publish my Dad’s memoirs. How we wish she had also written her own.

When Dad died, she began the last 15 year chapter of her life in this world. Her next house was designed the way she liked it – bright and airy, rather than dark and moody. She became involved in her community as she had not been before – especially with quilting and genealogy and exercise. And she suddenly found a vigorous voice when it came to politics. She attended church here occasionally, because she always supported her sons. Micki knew that same support – Faye drove Micki to her own mother’s funeral when my injured back had me laid out. Faye was definitely a second Mom to Micki.

The last 10 years were hard for Faye. Her mother had sunk into deep dementia before she died, and her younger sister, Jean, went down that same, long path. Faye cared for Jean as long as she could. She also enrolled in a John’s Hopkins program testing Alzheimer’s treatments. This meant that she had regular screening, and against all our hopes, it soon became evident that she had the same disease.

Our grief is focused today, but it’s been smeared across ten years of losing Mom a little bit at a time. It’s not like she became a different person – she didn’t. Right up to her last illness, her caretakers remarked about her graciousness and warm smile. She had a great smile. And I can tell you that I never heard her complain about her condition – not even once.

The disease didn’t change who she was; it’s just that there was less of her every week. At first, it was just her short-term memory. Then she began to forget things, and confuse people. The folks who cared for her in her Alzheimer’s unit thought my name was David, because she referred t me as her older brother). Once, she thought I was her Dad – but that’s understandable because I look a lot like him, especially in the way I’m follicly-challenged (bald). It didn’t matter though. She was always glad to see us – I think she recognized us, even if the names were hard. And besides, we always remembered her.

There was one short period that was fun – that when she started having great-grandchildren. There were a few weeks when I would go in and tell her about her grand-children, and it each time, it was as if she had just heard it for the first time. That was fun.

But that was all that was fun – for me, anyway. Frankly, my faith was greatly challenged by her Alzheimer’s. For several years, I agonized with God over her deterioration. The Bible says that God always works good out of difficult circumstances for those who love him. Mom never told me that she loved God – and even if she did, I wondered how could God ever use such a scourge as Alzheimer’s disease?

And then, and I believe it was partly in answer to prayers, there came a period – before serious confusion took over – when Mom got younger. She began to react to flowers and trees and nature with the wonderment you usually only see in children. I believe that the Alzheimer’s actually reduced her mental age – took her back for a short while to the days of her youth, when her interest in God had been redirected by her parents. And then, back before even that.

She said she wanted to come to church regularly. And through some very special people here who brought her every week, she got to know some genuine Christians outside of her own family. She liked what she saw. She sat in the front row here a couple of years. True, she often went to sleep during the sermon, but there’s nothing really unusual about that(!) She asked for a Bible, though by then she couldn’t read it. We did get some very child-like books about God’s promises and such, and she liked it when I read to her from them.

Then one week, both to me and to others, she worked very hard to ask something. Her ability to frame sentences was so frail that it took her three tries that week to communicate it to me. She wanted to be baptized. She wasn’t content to just sit there and enjoy her new faith; she wanted to go up front and be baptized for all to see. Her faith was childlike, but it was one of the last fully rational things she ever did. The God who turned the cross into the gate to eternal life had actually used the Alzheimer’s for good!

And consistent with her new faith, Faye changed. While she didn’t always respond a whole lot to me as I droned on, or sang to her – yet, whenever I read the Bible, or prayed, she would get a big smile, or raise one hand up toward heaven. And she did give me a smile whenever I told her how much I was looking forward to spending eternity with her.

I miss Mom today. I know I will see her again, though – not with confusion on her wrinkled face, but with that winning smile of hers. The smile that will forever delight the God she was moved to seek so long ago, and finally found.

Remember, O LORD, what has happened to us …. we have become orphans …” (Lamentations 5:1–3)

Mom died today.

I’m certainly grateful that her final struggle is done. Anyone who has cared for a parent with Alzheimer’s knows that you lose a little more of that special person with every visit. It is a great comfort knowing that one of her very last rational decisions brought her to faith. Faye was well cared for in both assisted living and at the nursing center.

Still, one is never ready for the day when you become an orphan. After Dad’s death fifteen years ago, I expected this day to arrive. But a parent is an irreplaceable thing. When the relationship orbits closer, and when it arcs farther away, a parent always provides … not a second home, but a second haven. A face that recognizes you as none other can. A door that always opens. A history that is part of what you are.

When both parents are gone, there is an emptiness beyond the grief of losing someone you love. However much they have done for you and however old you are, when they are gone, you become an orphan. Nothing – not even your web of friends and family – can change the fact that you have become profoundly alone in a new way.

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18–19)

Jesus understood this aloneness as the legacy of human death. Praises to God for every parent and child reunited in the new heavens and new earth. But Jesus came to eliminate my orphan-ness even more fundamentally. He restored familial roots with my Creator that were torn and shredded by sin. The cross reconnected me with a parent’s love that will never pass away – because this Parent will never pass away. I feel alone in my little world decorated with past memories. But I will never be alone in the universe I have yet to shape in eternal fellowship with my Lord.

Being an orphan is hard. But bless the Living God – he loves orphans.