A quick update, without too much preface. I’ve been meaning to put this up for a while; it’s already on Facebook. My mom passed away late this July after almost two years fighting cancer (her second). It feels like there is so much to be said about this woman. I wish I could hand people a book (or three book set) and say “this is my mom.” I made a start when we talked about who would speak at her memorial service in Troy, and I was the only one who in the immediate family who wanted to. I spent one long evening on an initial draft, and ran it by Dad and Kate. Here’s the result:
If you’re listening, Mom, then, well done. Have a rest. You earned it. I worry that as a disembodied spirit, you might forget to rest, out of excitement that you aren’t held back by bodily fatigue.
I say this by way of introduction, because I know it was a long road by which Karen came to be prepared to lay down her life so gracefully. She was tireless in spirit. In life, as in a single day, she packed the hours with life, and love, and intention, always aware that the time marched on and that bedtime was ever nearing.
As kids, Kate and I felt the effects of this, but it wasn’t a philosophy that was drilled into us. It was just lived out before our eyes. Maybe you’ve heard of tiger moms–well, ours was a bear mom. Patient and generous, but relentlessly determined to clear a path for her children to succeed. Even if it meant bending the reality of the public school system like a metal toothpick.
When I grew older, and I learned more about mom’s history with cancer, I began to understand that relentlessness. She knew her time in our lives would be shorter than usual, and she must have resolved to burn that much brighter in the time she was given. Once we were grown, she would tell us that every additional day was a gift, not to be taken for granted.
Facing death can transform people in this way, but it can also break them. But Karen came from sturdy stock, to say the least. Her mother Sonya was another long-time survivor of cancer, who went on to do big things in her later years. From Sonya we learned the dao of casinos and ocean cruises, love of the arts, and an unsinkable attitude. Also: the power of a stern voice, a warm hug, and a ready supply of hard candies. Sonya delighted in raising and teaching children, and everyone she met became her children, even big burly men. It’s that inclusive, familial attitude for which Deiber women are so well remembered. And my mother took that and ran with it.
There may be cleverer mothers out there, or stronger. But Karen was certainly the doing-est, caring-est mother I know of. Of course, I am her son. So I thought it would be cool to include some remarks from others who have known her.
The first comes from mom’s friend since college, Anne March. When they sailed to Puerto Rico together, they were told by staff that no churches would be open for Saturday mass. Anne says Karen didn’t buy it. She ran all over town, asking shop workers and police officers where she could find [with hand gestures] “a church,” even though no one was speaking her language.
Denise Balfour says that it was understood Karen would take a phone call from a friend at 4 in the morning, and be over in 15 minutes, ready to help, with no questions asked. Not that people did this, it was just clear to everyone she was that kind of friend.
Not only friends, but also neighbors in need, were a matter of great concern. Her good works and volunteering efforts are innumerable. My sister recalls how the winter holidays were especially connected with service in our family. We would all serve Thanksgiving meals at Van Rensselaer Manor, sing carols at the doorsteps of Visiting Nurse Association patients, and on Christmas day we’d deliver meals-on-wheels packages from this very building. Even the family dogs volunteered from time to time, as therapy animals.
A hodgepodge of other superhuman attributes have been offered. Karen was “badass,” “simply lovely,” compassionate and intelligent. She used her broad medical knowledge to look after her friends, as a patient advocate and invaluable second opinion. She welcomed our friends and loved ones with an open mind and open arms, even when our hearts ran a bit to the unconventional. The family of family was family, period. Even toward the end, when standing and speaking were difficult, she wouldn’t let Kate’s boyfriend leave without first asking, “Did you have enough to eat?”
And Barb Ashcroft writes, “She had no missed opportunities.” I can attest to this. Even as her health failed, mom was the captain of her personal adventure. She took us on whale watches, rode a camel, kayaked the Hudson, went joyriding in her convertible, and dined at her favorite restaurants. She even put on waterproof waders and braved the notorious Charles river on a cramped little raft, to see Boston’s 4th of July fireworks from up close. Karen was adamant that her treatment should maximize the number of good days, and she filled those days.
And when the good days were over, she accepted it, and tried to help her family do the same. We circled the wagons, we put things in order, we kept her comfortable. She went to bed. And one day, she didn’t rise.
Now we’re at the hard part. The present day. Our family is pulling together and trying to make sense of this for ourselves. Some of you may be doing the same. All I can say is that my mother once shared a sublime observation while ushering us off a cruise ship in New York City harbor.
We had been at sea for a week or so, and that time in the lap of luxury had made us soft. So when it came time to pack our stuff, disembark, wait in lines, and be reminded of our comparatively dreary lives back home, we were all mopey. And she asked me to think back on our past road trips to Florida and the Carolinas.
Did we ever relish the prospect of going home? Not really. Some mournful feeling is natural after an exciting trip. But looking back, which did we remember more, the sad farewells or the glorious vacationing? The vacationing, of course. That was the stuff of memories. And we couldn’t have had the vacation without the humdrum life back home. So whichever place we were headed to, we were heading in the right direction.
One of mom’s favorite fortune cookies, affixed to the refrigerator back home, says, “You are heading in the right direction.”
I also did an acoustic cover of this, which was well received. I wish I’d been able to get Kate to play something though.