It was the mid-1980s and my brother and I were visiting my mother in Yonkers and going to the Westchester County Fair. She lived within walking distance to Yonkers Raceway where the fair was held every year. But this particular Saturday night my mother and I left the fair early so I could watch the movie Beverly Hills Cop on cable television.
We ran through the crowds at the fair and down the quieter streets off of Central Avenue to get to the house where my mother’s apartment was. We made it just in time.
There’s a point in the film where Eddie Murphy’s character makes fun of the way someone says “banana in the tailpipe” that I found uproariously funny. I perhaps laughed harder than I had every laughed before.
From that time forward, if I was taking life too seriously or my mother wanted me to smile in a photograph she would whisper “banana in the tailpipe” and despite my efforts at serious, curmudgeonly dignity I would eventually smile. She had long ago decided that life, even at its most solemn moments, should be met with a certain levity. When I danced with her at my wedding and she looked as if she might be overcome with emotion, I got to tell her “banana in the tailpipe,” to keep the occasion’s needed levity.
My mother was a theater person and that’s how she and my father met. My brother and I are proud to be descended from theater folk on both sides of our family. My mother’s life was an extension of her love for life upon the stage. For her life was a grand performance where she relished every part she played and interpreted each role in her own unique way. She lived life with the expectation of celebration and a disdain for conventions that would get in the way.
When I learned my mother had ovarian cancer, I was hopeful. They were doing surgery, and that’s a sign of hope for ovarian cancer, which is often detected very late. I started planning the victory party early. We would do the T.E.A.L. 5k Run and Walk and have cool t-shirts made up about my mother making cancer her bitch. We’d enjoy a jack-o-lantern show every year from then on out to make up for the one she missed when she first became ill. Things would go back to normal, I was sure of it.
I made the mistake that is so common; I thought I had more time. I thought that my mother would be able to see her grandchildren at least once more, that I could say goodbye to her in some organized way that would leave me with no lingering regrets. I didn’t know that the last time I saw her or spoke with her would be the last time. I don’t really remember the conversation that well. She told me she didn’t have long to live and I believed her, but I left that conversation thinking we had a few more weeks or even months. Two days later I got a call from my stepfather informing me that my mother had passed away the night before.
If there is one moment in time with my mother that I could somehow freeze or replay forever, it would be the moment I went to the waiting room at the hospital after our first two girls were born, and seeing my Mom as a grandmother for the first time. I don’t know if I ever saw her happier than at that moment. I had made her dream of becoming a grandmother come true and she had years of happiness ahead of her as a Grandma.
While I mourn my mother’s loss and regret all that we have lost with her, I’m comforted by the fact that our older girls were gifted with very early memories of her and saw her almost every week of their lives until she was diagnosed.
A few weeks ago, we held a memorial service for my mother at Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain was a popular place for us to meet up and it was the last place I saw my mother. Friends and family from all over came to remember how my Mom had held a special place in their lives. I had a few prepared remarks that I kept brief, and signed off with this:
“My mother did not believe in funerals or being memorialized with an engraved stone. She left it up to us, her family and wider family of friends, with the lives we live and the love we share, to create her monument. We thank you for joining us in this.”
Hauling musical gear on the back roads of the Connecticut countryside was satisfying. I followed my friend Steve past some interesting houses in the woods of Killingworth: one giant massive estate that was under construction was already completely out of place with the houses around it. Another house was built in a strange dome-shape, eccentric to the last.
We were done loading the gear for my friend’s big July 4th party. I invited Steve to join me for some pizza, but he couldn’t. He had to make a phone call to a friend’s mother. The friend was in Texas and had committed suicide. It was an online gaming friend; they had never met in person, but the loss was hard to fathom. The guy was young and had a lot to live for if he had only been able to see that. Now it was up to my friend Steve to try to console his friend’s mother. Steve has a lot of friends and cares deeply about people despite his cynical and jaded exterior. He’s a person people are drawn to and for good reason, but this also means he spends a lot of time facing life’s tragedies. He’s seen more than his fair share.
The day after July 4 my father flew into town and rented a car at LaGuardia airport. He came to our apartment in Queens and visited briefly with me and my wife and our two little girls. My Dad lives in Georgia and doesn’t get to see his granddaughters much.
Then we headed to Poughkeepsie for a wake.
Mickey Murphy was my father’s best friend. They had been friends since they were 13-year-old freshman at All Hallows High School in The Bronx.
Mickey and his wife Denise are my godparents and were a very good influence. They were adults that spared me the drama of regular hectoring and criticism required of parents. There are times in every person’s life when they hate their parents; but I could never think a bad thought about the Murphys Mickey was always a friendly face, a calm voice even amid the sturm and drang of adolescence. His wife Denise is the liveliest and friendliest person of every place she goes.
Mickey had diabetes and had not had an easy time of it. He had experienced heart surgery, kidney dialysis and a lot of other non-fun things. He’d be permitted a measure of self-pity about it but that was unthinkable. He was a constant doer of good and could keep his head up even through very bad times.
My father and I drove to Poughkeepsie talking about things to keep our minds off of our destination. We gabbed about the sorry state of politics, the health and well-being of our own family, how his granddaughters are growing and his difficult travel schedule.
At the wake the significance of the loss was evident. Whether people knew Mickey for 15 years or 50, they considered him their best friend.
I owe Mickey a lot, because he was always giving my father interesting books to read and helped shape him as a voracious reader in high school. Not too many 16-year-olds can tackle Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness but Mickey Murphy and my Dad did.
My father was asked to say a few words and he came with prepared remarks prepared. As per usual he made me very proud to be his son.
Here is what he said:
“I met Mickey in freshman year high school now more than 50 years ago. In the past few days many of our classmates have been exchanging reminiscences and nearly all of them recall his amazing abilities. One of us wrote that, given what Mickey could do on the basketball court as well as in the classroom, he was a kind of superhero to the rest of us. And that was true. I remember describing Mickey to someone once who said, ‘Really, a guy who can do everything really well, sounds pretty hateful.’ But in Mickey it wasn’t. He was a gracious man and there wasn’t an ounce of swagger in him anytime, ever. In fact, if there was a flaw to point to at all, it was that he seldom paused long enough to even take in the great thing he had just done before he went on to the next.
“Mick had a successful career at IBM before illness cut it short. He had a series of important positions in our Human Resources function and ended up as Director of HR for the company’s corporate headquarters division where he had responsibility for the global headquarters site in Armonk. When I asked him about his executive responsibilities he said, ‘It’s simple, it’s just the stuff you already know. ’ Mickey had a welcome sign placed at the desk in the headquarters lobby. So yes, that’s simple and it was certainly something that Mickey knew to do, but no one had thought to do that before. He carried a reflexive graciousness with him throughout his life and applied it everywhere.
“Thirteen years ago Mickey and I visited Ireland. The trip was a Christmas present from our wives. Neither of us had ever been and it was a pilgrimage of sorts. We visited our mothers’ birthplaces. Mickey’s mom’s in Charleville and my mother’s hometown of Roscrea. We also hit all the sites that would draw any self-respecting brooding romantic Irishman. We went to Kilmainham prison and saw the yard where the leaders of the 1916 uprising had been executed. We traced the bullet holes in the walls of the post office on O’Connell Street in Dublin. I remember joking that if we had to have all of the darkness of this heritage couldn’t we at least have some of the light? I get the brooding intensity and sense of injustice unpunished and all that but what about the mirth and the magic? Isn’t there supposed to be a pot of gold here someplace, Murphy? So I got him to go to the Art Museum. It’s really convenient being right here next to the prison. I insisted we go to the Abbey Theater in Dublin to see a play. True, it was a brooding tragedy about a dying young man, but it was the theater.
“This struggle between the darkness and the light – not letting one overtake the other – is something all of us of Irish descent inherit. We don’t always achieve a manageable balance and it can be a life’s work. There is one thing this week that gives me comfort. Today Mickey is with Our Lord of whom Scripture says, “In Him there is no darkness only light.” So we know that for Mick a perfect balance is now achieved and all the physical challenges he bore so graciously throughout his life are resolved. Because we understand the truth of the Resurrection, we know that Mickey is restored to the fullness of his abilities and all the great gifts God gave him just as he was when I first met him. This is a promise made to all of us and in the sadness we feel at having to say goodbye to our great friend, this gives us legitimate cause to celebrate.”
My father is one of seven children born and raised in the Bronx. Growing up with many aunts and uncles is great. Aunts and uncles are adults who are not your parents and so they are automatically cool and interesting from the time you are a kid. Being taken to see ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ off-Broadway by my uncle Tim remains one of my happiest childhood memories.
Our family lost my aunt Liz this past week. She suffered a massive stroke one morning and never regained consciousness. She was only 55.
We are lucky to come from a very creative family. My family is saturated with musicians, writers, actors and lots of people for whom creativity is second nature.
Liz loved to sing and had a beautiful singing voice. One of my earliest memory of my Aunt Liz is going to see her play music. This was back when my grandparents and several of my aunts still lived in The Bronx. There was a street fair of some kind going on. There were rides and games, and music. Liz sang and she was great. I remember watching her sing and thinking how cool it was that a relative of mine was so loud and awesome out here in front of all these people.
Years later, she was driving me to the train after a family visit and she popped a CD of a recent recording of her singing into the car stereo. She hadn’t lost a thing in the 20+ intervening years. It was a comfort knowing that whatever else was going on in our lives, contending with the routine hassles of raising families, paying bills, staying employed, we remained true to the creativity in our blood.
Liz dealt with a lot of the usual unpleasant crap that abounds in the modern age: divorce, being a working single mother, unemployment, underemployment, illness and the like. But through it all I never remember going to a family gathering where I couldn’t share a laugh with her at some point.
She and my other aunts made a habit of playing Scrabble together whenever they could. Years ago at a family party I joined them and since I was new to the game, asked for leniency in how we judged words. Liz noted that “Fffft!” was not a word. We all had a good laugh at that, and since then whenever I play Scrabble, Words with Friends or any similar word game, I can’t help but think of Lizzy’s admonition that “Fffft!” is not a word.
Liz never lost the joy of singing and making music. A few years ago, Liz’s band, Coyote, got back together for a reunion. They played in The Bronx and the show was packed. It was wall-to-wall people and my wife and I managed to scrap our way through the crowd to be close to the stage area. Before Coyote played, Liz and my Uncle Danny (who plays guitar) did a short set. It was great to see them play together again. I remember being a very young child watching them sing and play guitar at a family party. Coyote was true to form and seeing my aunt play to a packed crowd made for another great family memory.
The news of her death was a shock. Lizzy’s passing came suddenly and too soon. There were seven brothers and sisters my father’s side of the family and now there are six. Six: the number seems obscene now, unfair.
But where my family has been unlucky it has also been strong. Liz’s daughter, my cousin Kerry, is a rock. I hope I can raise my daughters as well so that they love me as much Kerry loved her mother. And if they are half as strong as my cousin, they will be set for life.
My awesome Grandmother should not have had to bury a daughter, but her resolve to comfort others in the midst of her grief proves we are made from stern stuff.
If my family has any official spokesman or representative, I’m glad it is my father. He has been the one to most eloquently voice our grief and our pride both this time and years ago when we lost my Grandfather.
My Dad recounted his happiness in seeing my aunt sing in the Bronx at the street fair and described her contagious laughter, generous spirit and her incredibly tenacious nature. When Liz caught a pickpocket trying to steal something from her bag on the subway, the police had to pry her fingers from the would-be thief’s arm.
Seeing my father and cousin speak about my departed aunt was as proud a moment as it was sad. In the midst of this tremendous loss, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have had an aunt like Liz but also how lucky I am to come from a family that produces such people.
And true to form, the last thing my father heard from my aunt was a joke that he declined to repeat in church. But anyone who asked outside of church was granted the wish of hearing it. I heard it at the restaurant later where we all gathered for lunch. It was topical and funny, and completely in line with the good humor of Aunt Liz.
No family gathering will feel the same without Lizzy’s laughter, but her passing has served as a reminder of what a great family we have.