I remember a time long ago, when I told my mom how frightened I was by the thought of losing her. I must have been about six years old -- I was a pretty intense child -- and I was crying uncontrollably. Upon hearing this, my mother took me in her arms and, rather than allaying my fears with some false but pretty-sounding words, she tried to comfort me with an answer that was truthful.
In case you haven't heard today's weather report, heavy showers are expected this afternoon. (NOTE: When my mother's casket was taken to the cemetary, it did indeed downpour.)
That conversation between us -- my mom and me -- was roughly twenty-six summers and a thousand years ago. And now, the day I have dreaded all my life has come to pass. My mom is gone.
In the time leading up to this service, my father and I sat down and looked through an assortment of photos of my mother, each a small window into a various stage in her life. And after meeting some of you here, and listening to old stories from those of you who knew her long ago, I couldn't help but be a little envious. I wish I could have seen my mother through your eyes -- as Eileen, when she was young...giddy…a school girl…a teenager. Or even in her early adulthood, before God decided to bless her with three kids in the span of 22 months.
But then again, I know I am all the luckier, for Eileen McDaniel I called "Mom". It was a title for which she was the prizewinner, and I can't imagine anyone else capable of matching her 12 rounds in that arena. Don't get me wrong -- I know for a fact that there are many, many wonderful mothers in the world, present company included, and I know in their childrens' eyes, each is the champion. But in my eyes, there's no match, and no contest.
I don't suppose any scholar would ever write a book about my mother. Such things are reserved for those who've scaled mountains, waged wars, or walked through uncharted lands. But Eileen McDaniel always encouraged her children to reach for the stars...and that is all the more fitting, for now she is touching them.
There are a few stories I'd like to share, and I'll do my best to keep them brief. Now I'm the last guy here who would ever want to encourage the vice of cigarettes, and I'm sure the church has a strict "no smoking" policy. But if my mom were here, at this point she'd probably be rolling her eyes and silently whispering, "Light 'em if you got 'em, 'cause it's gonna be a long day."
Father Kindon mentioned how my mother held such affection for animals. This was certainly true. Late one night some years ago, in our house in New Jersey, one of our cats had cornered a baby mouse. My father grabbed it and, not wanting to kill it -- a fate my mother would have wholeheartedly objected -- he walked up to our kitchen door and was ready to put it outside. "No!" my mom cried, "It's too cold out there! The poor thing will freeze to death!" She ended up taking the mouse, putting it back inside a small hole in the floor, and then encouraging it to "Shoo! Shoo and go find your family!"
How I wish you could see my mom through my eyes. When it came to the chores of gardening, of cooking, of hosting the holidays for her family, she had every bit the finesse of Martha Stewart, and none of the bad attitude -- or criminal record. Mom also had that very special magic, seldom so found, in turning every house we lived in into a home.
Mom endured much in her life, and she dealt with things in a way that no one else would, or could. She was devoted to her parents, and when their health started to decline, she spent months at a time caring for them. As fate would have it, and despite her endless sacrifice, she was robbed from the opportunity of being there when each of her parents passed.
And yet, Mom endured an even greater pain -- the greatest pain, the unthinkable pain: the loss of a child, her daughter, Mary. She did not bury her grief by tossing away memories, or shutting out the world. Rather, she carried her grief with her, through laughter and through tears. No doubt she would expect the very same from each of us.
Mom was always quick to extend a helping hand. She did so without thought of reward, without judgment or pretension. She didn't judge people for their differences or their faults.
That is not to say my mother was not proud. She was always self-conscious about the way she looked, even when she was at her most radiant. In the throws of her sickness, when her health declined, month after agonizing month, she often had to compromise a bit of her pride before those who needed to care for her. But never did she compromise her bravery.
Less than one month ago we had to bury another family member. My aunt Suzanne was my mother's youngest sister. But she was also something so much more: she was my mom's best friend. After Sue's service, I went home and did my best to describe it to Mom, who by then was far too sick to attend. I found myself weeping uncontrollably. Mom, who, fragile and dying, had more reason to weep than anyone, then held my hand and began consoling me… Me.
That is the kind of mother Eileen McDaniel was, and I am so very proud of her. I feel grateful simply having known her at all. All our lives, between us there was never a feeling of love that was ever doubted, nor an aching word that was ever left unsaid. Sometimes, perhaps, I may have said too much, but never did Mom say too little.
Shortly before she died, I asked her if she had any regrets -- if she would she have done anything different with her life. She told me that she wasn't afraid of dying, and that her only regret was leaving me behind.
I loved her more than words can say, and I know she loved me back. That is the only thing that sustains me through this unspeakable time. She believed in me, even when I didn't believe in myself. She was my everything -- my light, my life, my mother, and my best friend. Parting is all I know of heaven, and all I need of hell. I'd give anything to have her back.
Whatever your faith -- whatever your notions may be of heaven, of the afterlife, of God and fate -- I tell you now, with certainty: you can believe in angels. For my mother was one, and shall forever be...in heaven as she was on earth.
I ask all of you to please...remember her. Remember her beautiful, her smiling, and her laughing. For those of you who did not know her, look into the very best and bravest part of your own souls -- and even then, that would only be the tip of the iceberg.
Eulogy for Suzanne Sizelove: August 23, 1954 - April 26, 2006
Given during her funeral service at St. Martin of Tours Church, New Hope, PA.
Monday, May 1, 2006.
Thank you all for coming. This occasion weighs heavily upon all our hearts, for you can not truly celebrate someone's life at its end without first coping with the devastating grief in losing them.
Those of you who knew Suzanne Sizelove must be sharing the grief I am feeling right now. But for those of you who did not know her, I grieve more.
Sue touched the lives of everyone around her, to each in their own special way. For me, as a child, she was my Aunt Sue -- encouraging, doting, comforting, and above all, loving. But as an adult, I saw in Sue so much more.
She was my friend -- one who I could open up to when I was desperate for an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on when I needed to shed a few tears. And, as all best friends should be, Sue, to my eternal astonishment, was fun! And fun is not a word I ever use lightly, for it can only describe those possessing not just a sense of humor, but a grand sense of adventure...and more than a little mischief.
There's a great family story -- some of you may not know it. Years ago, Sue once told one of her children that she wished she had a magic wand that could take all their pain away. Later on, on a special occasion, her daughter gave Sue a very special gift -- a toy magic wand. It would become one of her most precious treasures. And while Suzanne Sizelove may not have had the ability to use that wand for any astounding feats of hocus-pocus, that is not to say she wasn't magical.
These last few years marked a new phase in Sue's life -- a life within the beautiful, wonderful land of Bucks County, shared with family members so dear to her, and whom she loved so very very much. This occasion is not just to pay tribute to Suzanne, but to support and comfort those who needed her most. None moreso than two her children.
Katie and Rebecca, our hearts go out you. That your mother adored you, you need not me to say. But you were her brightest light, her dearest friends, the bottom of her heart, and her very soul. I see you now, and I know that Sue is still with me.
In spite of our grief, let us be grateful for those few mercies given to us. The comfort in knowing that Suzanne lived long enough to witness her daughter Katie's wedding day, and welcome a new son in law into our family… Knowing that despite the insurmountable physical ravages of her sickness, Suzanne never surrendered her dignity… And knowing that Sue passed on gently, at home, and in the company of loved ones. Each of us should be so lucky at the end.
If there is one word in the English language that is the saddest, the cruelest of all, for me it is the word "goodbye". Knowing Sue, I wouldn't presume to use such a word at these proceedings. So instead, let us not swallow up our grief, but face it, head on. Let us remember her, no matter how many tears we shed. And let us not say goodbye…but rather, simply, "Sue…until we meet again."
Memoriam: Thaddeus Gesek
It was the evening of June 5th when I learned of the passing of Mr. Thaddeus Gesek, professor emeritus of theatrical design. An email message from a Vassar alum broke the news; I must have read it a dozen times before the words finally sank in.
I first had Mr. Gesek as a teacher during my freshman year, in Drama 101. I remember that class vividly. He struck me as a funny little man whose methods of communicating his point -- broad hand gestures, mouthing sound effects -- were far removed from the conventional, stuffy classroom podium lecture. I might have considered his behavior mildly eccentric had I not, oddly enough, completely understood what he was trying to say -- words, noises, gestures, and all.
Great advice came to me that following spring, after working on a production of Shakespeare's "Scottish play" at the Powerhouse Theater. (It opened on April Fool's Day, with a cast of -- you guessed it -- 13!) During the ensuing wrap party -- a stately affair with generous quantities of pretzels, beer and vodka -- the director, a senior Drama Major, in a moment of clear, awakened sobriety, looked at me and said, "Take classes with Gesek. Trust me, just take them."
I'm happy to say that I followed the advice. Throughout the four years I studied under Mr. Gesek, his role in my life grew from teacher to mentor, then mentor to friend. Our talks were not just about the academic lessons at hand, but about history and the world, our lives and our families, our hopes and our fears. On one occasion, Mr. Gesek gave me a shoulder to cry on when I needed it most. I think he would have made a great therapist. But then again, Thaddeus Gesek made a great many things.
I last saw him in March of 2002. He treated me to lunch and gave me a tour of his basement -- a treasure trove of wondrous sculptures and designs. He loved using common things in uncommon ways, finding exotic textures within the seemingly banal. The man could literally turn a cardboard box into a work of art.
When we last spoke in February 2003, I had no idea how ill he was. His voice was strong, his energy and enthusiasm seemingly boundless. A few weeks later, he left a voicemail message on my answering machine; he had just read my first book, and stated how much he enjoyed it. ("It reads like a pretty neat movie," he said.) To my eternal regret, I never bothered calling Mr. Gesek back.
To me, the defining heart of Vassar lay not with its campus, nor even its students. Its greatest resources, its most valuable treasures, are those teachers who, through their passion, knowledge, and integrity, make a difference in the hearts and minds of their students.
And what a teacher! Gesek was a visionary whose instruction in theatrical design would take an hour to hear and a lifetime to master. He didn't just open your eyes, but a whole new world for you to see, to feel. With his death, I mourned not just the loss of the man, but his unfinished work, his unrealized dreams.
I'm proud and grateful to have had him in my life. I shall not see his like again.