I was late to my mother’s funeral. I thought I’d allowed enough time. It just wasn’t enough for the D.C. beltway at 9:00 on a Tuesday morning. I was wearing a suit. The last time I’d worn the suit was June 4. I knew because I’d felt something in the inside coat pocket and found the June 4, 2016, order of service for the funeral of my best friend, Hugh James Byers III. Now it was Mom’s turn. And I was to give the eulogy.
The traffic was all but stationary. Maybe somebody had hit a Dixie cup 2 miles up the road. Okay, I thought, arrest me. I put my flashers on and drove down the shoulder of 495. I was in a suit, had the printed-out notes for the eulogy on the seat beside me, and I was late to my mom’s funeral. Maybe the cop would give me a break.
I didn’t get stopped. I made it to the church and found my way to the front pew. The sermon was given by Florence Ledyard, a minister who has been a close family friend for 30 years. This is a woman who believes in the Gospel. She tore it up. When it was my turn, I stood at the lectern for a moment, then said, “Well, I suppose this is what it would feel like to be John Denver following James Brown at a talent show.” I talked about growing up listening to friends doing bad imitations of mom’s gentle Birmingham accent based on Gomer Pyle and Andy of Mayberry. I talked of how she made every person who entered our house feel like they were the only one in the room, the one she most wanted to speak with. How it wasn’t an act, she wasn’t trying to manipulate them. Her interest was genuine. She just wanted every guest to feel welcome and honored in our house. It was a kind of grace she had. I never knew how she came by it. I wished I’d absorbed more of it from her.
I talked about how profiles of people who weren’t famous but were nonetheless extraordinary were one of the things I most enjoyed writing. That all this really required on my part was a genuine interest and curiosity. That in writing these, my greatest concern is always being worthy of the trust the person placed in me by the person sharing his or her story, about living up to that trust by getting it right. How the highest compliment someone I’d written about could pay was if they said, “You paid attention.” How those words alone could move me to tears.
I talked about the time Mom had gone shopping for wedding dresses with my ex, how they’d looked at dozens before settling on a simple, elegant one. When Jane saw the price tag, she’d been flummoxed. “I don’t get it. Why is this one so much more than the ones with frills and bows and lace?” she’d demanded. “What are you paying for in a dress like this?” Mom had looked at her kindly and said, “Why, the restraint, dear.” It was the shortest, most comprehensive lesson on aesthetics I’d ever heard.
I got through the eulogy. I got through the reception. I drove home to an empty house and put my suit away. And then, not knowing what else to do, I drove to the woods and started walking, looking for sheds. I walked for hours. I wanted to cry, knew I needed to mourn the loss of the only completely unconditional love I’d ever known. But the tears wouldn’t come. I made myself start repeating the words, “I miss you, Mom. I miss you, Mom.” A mantra. I said it dozens, maybe a hundred times. At last the first tear fell. Soon my face was wet and contorted and I was being flooded and I kept saying it anyway.
I walked until dusk. Not 200 yards from the car, I finally found a shed. It was at least a year old, possibly more. Earth-stained and rodent-chewed, a left antler with four points. Nobody’s trophy. I placed it at the base of a tree. A small offering to Mom.