My mother called us a couple of weeks ago asking if one or both of either Dani or I could come down to Southern California the Friday before Thanksgiving to help mom drive up here. The plan was that Mom would arrive here a week before Thanksgiving and help us get ready for our first major holiday in our new house. Unfortunately, she tore a tendon in her leg, so she needed someone to help her pack the car and drive up. Dani, being currently unemployed, seemed like the right person for the task. So she bought a plane ticket and prepared to fly down to see Mom on the 18th and the both would drive up on the 19th.
I’m not clear on what Mom did to hurt her leg – she either stood up on it wrong or took a misstep. Regardless, she was a tad embarrassed by it and it seemed to hamper her mobility a bit. Being only 57, though, she was still strong and resilient. So, when I received a phone call at about 7:15pm from the hospital on Sunday, November 13th, with a nurse asking if I knew an Ann Michele Flaherty, I assumed she had fallen and hurt herself. Thus, my response was concerned, yet somewhat jovial.
Nurse: Do you know someone by the name of Ann Michele Flaherty?
Me: Of course. That’s my mom. Aw, jeez, what did she do?
Nurse: You’re her son? You’re part of her family?
Me: Yes. What happened? Did she fall?
Nurse: Sir, at about 5pm this evening Ann called 9-1-1 with an emergency.
Me: Aw jeez. Is she OK?
Nurse: She reported having a shortness of breath and discomfort in her abdomen.
Me: Huh? Did she fall and hurt herself?
Nurse: The paramedics arrived in moments, but she was unresponsive when they got there.
Me: What? What’s happened to her?
Nurse: They immediately rushed her to —
Me: Is she OK? What’s going on? Just get to the point. Is she OK?
Nurse: I’m sorry, sir. She didn’t make it.
Nurse: Ann passed away at approximately 5:–
It’s at that point that I threw the phone across the room as if it were a bomb and burst into hysterics. Dani was fortunately home and, being duly concerned, grabbed the phone and asked what was going on. When the nurse told her, she too joined the hysterics.
Every horrible, terrible thought blew through my head. My mind was chaos and I was torn to pieces. My mother and father divorced when I was seven and, from that point on, Mom raised me practically by herself, making every sacrifice to ensure that I was well taken care of and had every opportunity I could get. Losing her has been the single worst experience in my life, and that moment – that first moment when I first found out – was heart breaking and crushing in every conceivable way. Somewhere in the chaos, though, a single thought rose to the top and has stayed with me ever since – “Your mother did not raise you to fall apart in a crisis.”
I quickly calmed down and took the phone from Dani, who was trying to be strong and still talk to the nurse, but was having trouble getting her words out. I asked for the details that I had ignored moments before. Apparently, sometime around 5pm that evening my mother began to experience shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and abdominal pains – classic signs of a heart attack. She had the wherewithal to call 9-1-1 but, when the paramedics arrived, she didn’t respond. They performed CPR on her and tried to resuscitate her, to no avail. They got her into the ambulance and rushed her to Chapman Medical Center around the corner from her condo – the one she had just bought in May. They continued to try and revive her at the hospital, but their attempts didn’t work. She passed within minutes of her call.
The EMTs looked through her purse for information. They found her driver’s license and an address book, but somehow overlooked the three emergency cards she kept in there explaining her medical history (type II diabetes) and her emergency contacts (Bernie, a close friend of the family, listed first because he lived right around the corner from her, then me).
When Mom passed, the nurse tasked with notifying the family apparently had a heck of a time of it. She called my Uncle Robert first because he shared a last name with Mom (who took back her maiden name after her divorce). After getting his answering machine, they tried the next name they found – Sandy Goerlitz, another close friend of our family’s. Sandy explained that she was not blood related, so the nurse couldn’t tell her anything. At this point, either Sandy told her my name or the nurse flipped to the back of the address book. She said she thought I might be related when she saw my birthday listed next to my name. I was the third call she made in an attempt to notify someone of my mother’s passing.
As I mentioned, my mom and dad divorced when I was seven. Since then, mom has remained single, though she lived with Bernie for almost 20 years. I lived with them both for probably 10 of those years. Bernie and Mom were never romantically involved to my knowledge except for very early on in their relationship. When he lived with us, he had his own room in which he kept mainly to himself. I am an only child, so it was mainly Mom and me against the world. Thought I saw my father very other weekend, we have always been very different people which has sort of limited the depth of our relationship over the years. My mother and I, however, were extremely close.
When I married Dani two years ago, Mom genuinely felt that she had finally gained the daughter she always wanted. Don’t get me wrong – there has never been any sense in my life that my mother wanted a girl instead of me, but I do know she had always hoped for a daughter in her life. When I came along, she gladly settled for a daughter-in-law and, someday hopefully, a granddaughter. Dani gave her that first wish and the two of them got together in a way that I could have never anticipated nor hoped enough for.
With the recent marriage and the purchase of a new house, mom was extremely excited for us and took great efforts to be as helpful as she could be. She’s never been pushy and stopped being too overbearing long before I left for college (all single mother’s of only children are overbearing and over-protective to one degree or another. Mom was never egregiously bad, though) so we had no problem with her wanting to be so much a part of our new life. I believe she visited us twice since we bought the house. This past week would have been her third trip. We were all very much looking forward to it. She had begun her excited calls – the ones she always made in greater anticipation of seeing us – about a month before she was due here, which was a bit extreme even for her. Her excitement, of course, fueled Dani’s and my excitement, even as we laughed at her for it.
With all this excitement, all this anticipation, her death stuck an especially hard blow. As far as we know, she was the picture of health. At 57 years old, she was as young, strong and independent as I have ever known her. Though she had diabetes, it was totally under control. So much so, in fact, that she was no longer taking IV insulin. She had been taking insulin shots for a few years until about a year and a half ago. Actually, let’s step back five or more years and give you a clearer picture.
Several years ago, a friend of hers died in her sleep from a heart attack. She was morbidly overweight – more than 300 lbs and less than 5′ 6″ tall – and, what’s more, chose to ignore her doctor’s health warnings, bingeing on all the wrong foods and refusing to exercise. Her blase attention to her own health, and the fatal results, scared mom straight. She began walking every day, just to get some exercise. She began watching what she ate, eventually discovering the South Beach Diet through us. She stuck to that diet fairly well. So well, in fact, that her doctor saw an immediate improvement in her blood sugars and took her off the IV insulin, switching her to straight oral insulin – and almost unheard-of occurrence. Mom was extremely proud and excited for this achievement and kept her regimen up.
My Uncle Robert spoke to her on Saturday, the day before she died. He said she sounded great, excited to be seeing us, excited for the holidays. I spoke to her on Friday and heard the same thing in her voice. She was healthy as could be, it seemed. Though harder on myself and the rest of us missing her, it is fortunate that her death was rather quick with very little suffering. At most, she may have been uncomfortable for a day. I will never have to witness that strong woman age, weaken and wither away. Small comfort, but comfort none the less.
The first call I made after getting off the phone with the nurse was to my boss. There was no question – we’d be going to Southern California to take care of everything. It’s just me – no one else could really do anything. He was, of course, extremely understanding and shocked by it all. We all were. “Take as much time as you need,” he said. “We’ll hold down the fort.”
Next I called my father. The divorce was not as ugly as it could have been, but the years following were not as good as they could have been either. When you break him down to his essence, my father is basically a good man with good intentions but a lousy way of making them known. Rather than go into all the details of everything, suffice it to say that relations between my mother and him were left very strained and, now, without a sufficient resolution. He, too, went into mourner’s shock and called me throughout the rest of the evening to remind me to take care of things and call people I had already thought to take care of and call.
I then called Bernie. As I said, they had lived together for almost 20 years, but she moved out of their home in May. He sold the house and moved into a condo in the same complex as hers not too long after. The details of their rift are a bit hazy to me but are, frankly, not really my concern. They tried to remain friends after the rift, but the wounds were still fresh. It was a rebuilding process, but one they both were working on together. I knew that losing her in the middle of that would, like it had for my father, leave some regrets unresolved. Fortunately, she and Bernie were still extremely close, loving friends. He took it about as hard as I expected – about as hard as I did but without the hysterics. Bernie may as well be family, so hearing him hurt across the phone line was maddening.
I then called Sandy and Uncle Robert to fill them in on why they had received calls from the hospital. Sandy has always been like a second mother to me, her kids like the brothers and sisters I never had. She was comforting and consoling, something I genuinely appreciated and needed right then.
Uncle Robert, of course, was also in shock. These first calls were all the ones I knew who would be hit hardest, so I knew I had to be strong and be as consoling as I could muster. There were comments that I was taking it exceedingly well, but I relied on the need to be there for someone else and to keep moving as my crutch. That, and I knew the best way to honor my mother and all she had done for me was to keep it together, stay strong, not betray my feelings and my grief, but not fall to pieces either.
I spoke with the nurse a couple more times during the evening. She explained that they had taken my mother to the Ferarra Colonial Mortuary, where they would hold her for up to 24 hours before I had to make any decisions. She warned, however, that the organ donor folks would be calling me soon and that some of them were less than caring when it came to the grieving families. For the major organs, you have roughly six hours after the body has perished to harvest. For the corneas, you have about 18 hours. For the skin and marrow, you have 20. The organ donation people could be pushy, she said, and not all were the more reliable. She told me to call her once they called me to confirm I was working with good people.
My mom was an organ donor, but the pink sticker is not on her license. I was drained and desperately wanted to go to sleep in the hope that Mom might visit me in my dreams to comfort me like her father had done for me when he passed almost 15 years ago. The night he died, I slept and dreamt that I was in his living room. He invited me to sit down next to him. We talked about life, what was new and the same things we always talked about. Then he explained that everything was OK, that he was in a better place, free of his pain. Not to worry, he said. Everything will be OK. I didn’t find out he had died until the day following that dream. I’m still waiting for Mom to visit me.
The organ donor folks finally called at about midnight. Dani, unable to sleep, took the call but couldn’t make any decisions on my behalf. She also didn’t want to wake me, so they said they’d call back in the morning. By the time I got a hold of them the next morning, time was critical. It was already too late for her major organs, but there was still an hour or so for her corneas and a couple of hours for her tissues. They asked me a bank of questions, some almost humorously personal and seemingly inappropriate but necessary to understand the viability of the organs (questions about my mother’s sexuality, use of drugs, etc.). Finally, I gave my verbal consent and they went to the mortuary to cut apart my mother in the hopes of saving others.
Dani had changed her plane reservation and made a new one for me the night before. The earliest flight we could get had us arriving in Orange County at about 4pm. Bernie offered to meet us at the airport. Dani packed while I just existed in a haze. I cleaned the kitchen until it was spotless. I meandered aimlessly around the house, fielding phone calls, making lists of next steps and just trying to keep my head together. My humor coping mechanism kicked in and I began trying to make jokes and laughing. It helped a bit. The shuttle driver who took us to the airport joked along with me here or there until he finally asked, “So, you guys going to Orange County on vacation? Going to Disneyland?”
“No, actually,” I said, “My mom just died.” Captain Buzzkill had made his first appearance.
We got to the airport, ate our airport pizza (tradition) and hopped onto the plane. It was a quiet, dark ride. I read my magazine, Dani listened to her music, both of us trying to get our minds off the dread.
As we began our descent, my thoughts turned to the airport. I left home for college in 1993 and never went home for more than a week or two. When I did go home, I often flew. Before 9/11, mom would be waiting for me right at the end of the jetway. She’d catch my eye the moment I came into view and her smile, little laugh and quick wave was a warm welcome home I always looked forward to. After 9/11, when non-ticketed individuals were no longer allowed past security, I began missing her jetway greeting. She made up for it, however, by standing at the bottom of the escalator, looking up, catching my eye and giving me the same warm welcome. We always greeted each other with a big hug.
I was melancholy the entire trip, but when I began weeping openly as we began to land, I’m certain the flight attendants didn’t know what to do with me. The stranger sitting next to me in the aisle politely ignored my emotion, while my wife rubbed my arm and joined in the chorus. I got it together when the plane touched ground, but completely lost it when I instinctively scanned the end of the jetway for my mother’s familiar face. Even as I write this, my eyes grow moist. To know I’ll never experience that again, either at the jetway or baggage claim, is among the worst losses.
Bernie was circling the airport in his van when I called him. After we got our bags, we went out front and waited. He pulled up and I immediately threw my arms around him. I knew he and I would be suffering roughly equally, and I wanted him to know he had me as his support.
Once the crying stopped, we joked a bit about the flight. All three of us laughed nervously, glad for some respite from the sadness. Then he told me I’d need a hammer to open Mom’s front door. I sort of laughed him off, but he wasn’t kidding. “I went by there after you called me. They had to break into her house. They nailed the door shut.”
So we took a detour to Home Depot where I bought a hammer. When we arrived at mom’s, I saw what he was talking about. I pulled out the nail – probably six inches long – and the door just lightly opened. Mom was always a bit of a security nut, so she kept the doors locked, even when she was just sitting in the living room, like she had been on Sunday night. The fire department had to jimmy through the deadbolt, ripping off the door jamb. It was a violent entrance. The splintered jamb littered the floor and a chunk of the drywall had been ripped out along with it. Dani found a wrapper and length of gauze the EMTs had left behind.
That morning, I woke up early to ensure that I called Mom’s office and give them the news. I knew she arrived early, so I called them at 7am. The only number I had was her direct line. She worked at State Farm as a Claims Representative. If you were in an accident and had State Farm Insurance, there’s a good chance you spoke with her at one time or another. I got one of her co-workers and asked for a supervisor – I had forgotten Mom’s supervisor’s names. The women on the line asked what it was regarding. Rather than start a rumor panic, I chose to simply say, “It’s in reference to one of your employees,” which sounded like I was calling to complain. She informed me that all of management was at an off-site for the week. I told her it was rather urgent and that I needed someone in management now. One manager was left in the entire department, so I spoke to her. She did not take the news well. I would find out later that the entire office took the news horribly, a testament to the power of my mother’s character and charisma.
When I got into Mom’s condo, I received a call from one of her co-workers, Linda Hagins. She expressed her condolences and shock and I hazily rambled on into everything that had happened to that point, including the need for a hammer and nail as lock and key. She told me her husband was a carpenter and may help us fix the door, or at least make it secure, and do it right away. I told her we were starving and about ready to go to dinner, but she said no problem – her and her husband would be there shortly, we should just go to dinner. So I nailed the door back up and Dani, Bernie and I headed out to the Macaroni Grill.
Bernie has always been something of an enigma to me. I owe him a great deal, though. It was his influence that led me into computers. My first computer, a TRS-80, was handed down to me from him when it was deemed obsolete. He saw the interest I took in it and the speed in which I learned to use it and encouraged my mother to buy me an IBM-compatible 8088 that wasn’t obsolete, even helping foot the cost. Over time, it was his influence that encouraged me to want to become a mechanical engineer, an interest he fostered by handing down his engineering magazines, drafting tools, copies of Autocad and other tools and information that I absorbed like a sponger. Were it not for him, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today.
Despite this, though, we never an especially active participant in my life. He’s always been a very private person and extremely respectful of my mother and her right to raise me. In short, he never wanted to interfere. He spent most of his time in his room, occasionally coming out to eat dinner with us or, at Christmas, open presents with us under the tree. Each Christmas brought with it a new technical toy and a new educational challenge for me, so when the gifts were done, we all went on our way to play with our new gizmos.
Until my wedding two years ago, I hadn’t really had the opportunity to properly thank him, nor have I really had the chance to spend a lot of time with him. Dinner at the Mac Grill was, therefore, a first. For Dani, it was even more exciting as she saw him even less than I ever did. Bernie’s a remarkably complex yet wonderful guy, and I was such a joy to spend time with him and get to know him even better. We laughed, we joked, we shared stories. Then Captain Buzzkill struck again. I told him that the next day, Tuesday, was the day we’d be doing an “ID Viewing” of mom. Mom told me in no uncertain terms that she did not want a funeral and, especially, did not want to laid out in a casket for all to see. She wanted to be cremated and her ashes spread. An ID viewing is one in which the body is only slightly prepared – covered up, but still on the gurney, nothing special. If she had her way, we wouldn’t have been able to do that either, but I wanted one last chance to see my mother’s face before her body would be no more. I told Bernie he was welcome to come as well, but if we wanted to decline I’d understand. He seemed honored to be included and said that, yes, he’d be there.
My father wanted badly to see Dani and I and offered to take us out to breakfast before the viewing. I hadn’t really intended on him going with us – I’m quite sure Mom wouldn’t approve of that – but I felt it may help him let go of some of his pain as well. He drove to Orange from Perris and took us to a little soda fountain near Old Town Orange in the Circle. Dad is always excited about cool places like the soda fountain and he spent much of the breakfast reminiscing about his childhood and how much the place reminded him of the places he knew in his neighborhood. When I left to use the restroom, he asked Dani, “Honestly, how is he doing?” She told him I was doing pretty well, considering. It wasn’t just an act. I was keeping it together well. Again, it’s the way my mother raised me.
I dreaded the viewing. The mortuary prepared us for the worst. They told me she had gone through a “full harvest”, which means they took everything they could. In my mind I saw my mother’s face, ashen and sunken. This was not how I wanted to remember her, but I felt a strong need to defy her wishes and take one last look. She was my mother, after all. How could I not still love her?
Bernie met us at the mortuary and, once we were all there, we went inside. Tedde, the lady who worked with us there, led us to the room where mom was laid out on the gurney. They had swaddled her body with white sheets from head to toe, leaving only a small opening around her face. Tedde explained that they had taken some skin from her lip, but otherwise left the face untouched. They didn’t even take her corneas like they said they would.
I was relived to see that her face had the color and shape I was familiar with. Whether they applied makeup I don’t know, but she merely looked to me like she was resting, though uncomfortably. All four of us – Dad, Dani, Bernie and myself – broke down into tears. It was hard to see her, but it seemed to confirm things for me. Up to that point, it all seemed like some sick joke. When we were at her condo, I kept expecting her to walk in and say, “What are you guys doing here?” Seeing her at the mortuary like that, though, confirmed and solidified it for me. It was the closure I needed, hard as it was.
Tedde led us all into another room and sat us around a table to discuss the arrangements. At this point I hadn’t really done any comparison shopping for mortuaries, but they had been rather good up to that point and I saw no need to dicker. I was up front about Mom’s wishes – she wanted to be cremated and spread, plain and simple. Tedde didn’t mess around either. She pointed me to the price list and showed me the costs. For about $770 you get the cremation package – a simple cardboard box to hold the body during the cremation, the cremation itself, handling of all the paperwork and a modest plastic urn to hold the remains once all is said and done. She explained that I’d need several official copies of the death certificate at $13 a pop. The mortuaries handle all that – both the requests and the distribution to the families – so we’d pay through them. I ordered 10 to be on the safe side. The viewing itself cost about $160. When all was said and done, the final bill came to about $1275. Had we wanted a funeral with a casket, had we needed to move the body to, say, Northern California, had we really needed anything beside the basic, the cost would have risen almost exponentially.
We were all astounded by the costs associated with burying the dead. My father, a veteran of the Coast Guard, began asking questions about veterans benefits paying for it all. Tedde told him that they did, indeed, cover the costs providing he had his discharge papers in order. He also has the rights to a full military service and burial at the National Cemetery out in Riverside, a place he apparently loves. He expressed his wishes to me to be interred there and asked for more information on setting it up so that everything would be covered by the time his time came.
What with the new house and Dani’s recent unemployment, money has been tight in our household. The sudden costs of flying down, eating out and, now, paying for my mother’s cremation began to weigh heavily on us, especially when we learned that I wouldn’t have access to any of my mother’s assets for at least 35 days. All of the vagaries of a person’s death must be dealt with almost immediately with little or no time left for personal grieving. I kept asking the hospital and the mortuary for some guide to help understand what my next steps should be, but they were unable to provide me with anything concrete. Later in the week, when I visited the HR rep at State Farm, I was given a book titled “Saying Goodbye With Love” by Sheila Martin. Oh how I wish I had this from the beginning. As it was, we were flying by the seat of our pants with every decision, hoping it was the right one.
Dani asked to borrow some money from her parents to help us pay for the cremation costs. We later learned that we should have told the mortuary to submit their request for payment to my mother’s estate as a creditor, which would have relieved us of the financial burden at that point. Unfortunately, however, it’s not in the mortuary’s best interest to do that, therefore they won’t typically volunteer that information. What’s more, some mortuaries apparently have two different fee schedules – one for the families when thy pay it out of pocket, another for the estate when they must submit as a creditor. That second fee schedule is often higher than the first, in some cases double. Seeing as I am the lone heir that money would, essentially, still come out of my pocket. It’s a tricky, nasty little game, but one you should consider should you find yourself in a similar situation.
After the viewing, Dani and I set about to planning the memorial. Mom said she didn’t want a funeral and was, at one time, rather adamant about it. After I met Dani, however, she changed her tune. Dani and I mother had apparently discussed this one day and Dani, who has now been to about 21 funerals in her life, insisted that a funeral is not for the dead but for the living, to help them move on. Mom told me that if I chose to have a funeral, that would be fine, though she did not want her body or ashes on display.
Given her reticence to a funeral, I was initially wary of having a memorial service. After spending the first two days fielding heartfelt calls from family and, mostly, friends from work, I acquiesced. When I was growing up, my mother, myself and my best friend Bill and his mom Judy all attended the Blessed Sacrament Episcopalian church together. I believe it was part of Mom and Judy’s attempt to bring morality into our lives. It was the first place I thought of for a memorial, so we gave them a call. That coming Saturday was extremely busy, I was told, but the priest in charge, Father Bauman, promised help us get it together. I later received a phone call from Father Michael, a recent transplant from Ontario, Canada, who would be available to conduct the services at 1:30pm that Saturday. We set it up.
I was eager to keep my momentum. I wanted to see the lawyer ASAP and get Mom’s will rolling. When you watch movies and there’s a reading of the will, there’s always that impression that whatever is named in the will happens immediately and is, essentially, law. Without a will, the estate goes into probate, which could take months or years to resolve. My mom did, indeed, prepare a will, naming me executor and sole beneficiary. It was prepared by a lawyer in Tustin, Jane Bauer, and both my mother and I assumed that meant everything should be pretty cut and dry. Not so.
I called the lawyer on Tuesday and explained that I had the will and wanted to meet with her so that we could begin gathering my mother’s affairs. The lawyer’s assistant explained to me that, because my mother didn’t have a living trust, her estate would have to go into probate.
“But she has a will!” I declared.
“A will only provides instructions for dividing up the estate,” she explained. “It grants no powers to the executor. Only the court can do that, which is why it needs to go through probate.”
“But I’m the executor AND the only person named in the will!”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’ll probably go much faster as a result – typical probate in these situations is roughly 35 days.”
So the lesson there is IF YOU OWN ANY ASSETS AT ALL – A HOUSE, A STOCK PORTFOLIO, VALUABLE COLLECTIBLES, ETC. – GET IT ALL PLACED INTO A LIVING TRUST. Do it right now. Call your lawyer and get it set up immediately. Do not hesitate. My mother was actually in the process of researching it to get it done when she passed. No one saw her death coming.
We set up an appointment to meet with the lawyer on Thursday, the soonest we’d be able to get everything rolling.
I seem to have completely lost track of Wednesday. I know that Wednesday and Thursday were both spent preparing for the memorial service. Danielle purchased a flower bouquet for the service that was meant to be from us. I had requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to The Orangewood Children’s Foundation, a charity my mother supported through work, The American Diabetes Association, for the obvious reasons, and The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundations, since we found a receipt for a donation she had made there herself recently. As a result of this request, we didn’t expect too many flowers at the memorial, so Dani wanted something that would stand out. We then went to a local photographer and asked them to digitally enlarge and enhance a picture we had of her, taken the first time Mom and Dani met. In the picture, Mom and I are arm in arm. Dani wanted them to digitally remove me from the picture (I was dressed like a scrub) and leave only Mom (who was dressed, as usual, quite nicely).
Dani and I began planning the post-memorial reception, which we planned on having at her condo, but Sandy Goerlitz intervened. She called to offer her services and her son’s beautiful home for the reception. I was deeply touched that they would do this (“This is what family does for each other, Bob,” she explained) and, though I knew it was asking a lot, accepted her gracious offer. I told her I was expecting maybe 20 to 50 people at the memorial. I would soon find out how wrong I was.
On Thursday, we visited mom’s work in order to gather her things and say hello to her team. Her supervisor Beth and I had been in contact since early in the week. My mother’s death was such a big deal in that office that Beth left her weeklong off-site to come back and be with everyone so they could grieve together. Dani and I drove to Mom’s office in Costa Mesa. We had a difficult time finding the door, but fortunately someone saw us wandering the hallways and called out to me, “Bobby!” Dani and I both turned to face her and she walked toward me, throwing her arms around me and crying. There would be a lot of that.
When we got inside, I met with Beth and we cried and hugged. Soon, a circle of faces, some familiar some not, were around both Dani and I. They all came over and hugged us, asked how we were holding up, if there was anything they could do. They shared stories about Mom, asked about the service, laughed cried and talked. It was very, very emotional and sweet. It seemed like everyone wanted to touch me, seeing as I was their closest contact with Mom. Being an only child, Mom talked about me all the time. Since she worked for State Farm for more than 20 years, many of the folks there had seen and heard about me growing up. She shared everything with them over the years – my difficult junior high years, my weird high school years, the money problems during college, the thrill of my graduation, the excitement of my marriage. They knew an awful lot about us, especially considering how little we knew about many of them.
Beth told me that, since so many people had expressed a desire to go the memorial, they were closing down the office on Saturday so everyone could attend – a virtually unheard-of event at State Farm. I told them that I was expecting 20 to 50 people and they all laughed. “Bobby,” one of them said, “There’s 100 people in this office alone, and people in other offices have already said they would be coming as well. Your mom touched a lot of lives.”
This was further evidenced by the memorial wall they put up in honor of my mom. Letters of condolence and loss, pictures of mom in all kinds of different situations – wearing a Hawaiian shirt for someone’s birthday, dressed as Mother Superior for Halloween – covered the wall. It was both endearing and heartbreaking. It was a life of my mom’s that I knew very little about.
When we left State Farm, I called Sandy to try and give her a heads up that my count was off. She assured me that everything would be fine and to not worry. I am surrounded by wonderful people.
We met with the lawyer on Thursday to discuss everything regarding Mom’s estate. The process goes something like this: When someone dies, a lawyer must files letters of probate with the judge. If there’s a will and a clear plan of action for the estate, it takes about 35 days for them declare an executor and supply them with Letters Testamentary. These letters essentially allow the executor to act on behalf of the deceased to carry out the instructions of the will under the court’s supervision. The executor is required to open an interest-bearing bank account in which to collect all cash assets. Creditors to the estate are then taken in particular order to request disbursement of those funds. Once the creditors are satisfied, whatever is left is disbursed to the beneficiaries according to the instructions in the will. In this case, I’m both the executor and sole beneficiary, so once the creditors are done with, whatever is left of her assets immediately goes into my name. In the meantime, however, I pretty much need to run her estate like a business. I filed for an Employer Identification Number – basically a Social Security Number for companies – and will have to conduct her affairs from a bank account opened in the name of her estate. If she had a living trust naming me as executor, I’d have immediate access to her assets and be able to do all this immediately.
Seeing as my mother had a mortgage to pay and property taxes due, the lawyer requested special administrative letters for the interim while we waited for the testamentary letters. The special letters allow me to collect her assets and pay off immediate house-related costs to keep the home from having a line placed against it or going into foreclosure. This is one of those rare times when I’m glad to be an only child with divorced parents – it’s made all of the legal stuff much easier to deal with.
Friday came and found Dani and I dreading the next day. We went to lunch at Moreno’s, a legendary local Mexican restaurant on Chapman Ave., where Dani had a Cadillac margarita that laid her out for the rest of the day. I took that time to run final errands and get some last minute things together. One of my oldest friends, Jamie Hart, told her parents about the whole situation. Her father, who is literally one of the nicest, most stand-up people I know, is a contractor. He offered to come out to Mom’s condo and completely replace the jamb for the cost of materials. I took him up on that offer and, at about 6:30pm, he came over and got to work while Dani and I went out to take care of a few things. He didn’t finish until after 11pm, but when he was done the door frame looked brand new. Dani primed it the next day and Mr. Hart went back after we drove back up to the Bay Area to paint it and put on the finishing touches. He and I are also working out a deal to fix a few other things around the condo to make it more salable. Once again, I’m surrounded by wonderful people.
Dani and I arrived at the church on Saturday about an hour and a half before the service. We hadn’t had too much contact with the church and I wanted to make sure everything was in place and OK. The entire church grounds were deserted. It was almost an hour before someone associated with the church who just happened to be stopping by asked us if we were there for a service. Some of the folks attending the service had already begun to arrive and were standing in the parking lot waiting for some sign that the church might be open.
The minister finally arrived about 20 minutes before the service. Being from Canada, he had a much different style about him. His vestments were more akin to those of the original church of England than of the more modern Americanized version of the Anglican church. He told me he had never done a service at that church on his own before and didn’t even know how to turn on the lights. While he lit the candles, I looked around for a switch and finally found a dimmer that lit up the church from my youth.
We met in the back office and discussed the service. Since many of the folks there weren’t Episcopalian, I thought it inappropriate to have a full communion mass. He read the rites of burial and, by my request, the 23rd Psalm. I also told him that I would speak. Seeing as I was her only son, everyone at the church knew me and, really, who better to speak about my mother’s life, I felt it was my duty and, that by speaking, I’d do her proud. By the comments from those attending, I think I hit my mark.
Just before the service, I walked out across the altar, genuflected, and headed for my seat in the front pew. I glanced at the audience and mentally remarked that it looked like a good crowd – the church was pretty full. I sat down next to Dani and leaned into her for support. I gathered my thoughts and got myself together, preparing for my speech. I then glanced back behind me. The church was now completely full. Aside from the two rows in the front, which were occupied only by myself, my wife, my father and his girlfriend, the place was completely full. There were even people standing in the back. It was remarkable.
The priest began the rites, then passed it to me. When I write a speech, I rarely use notes. I typically write down my main points so I can glance at them if I need to, but mostly fly by the seat of my pants. I actually work better that way. In this case, I took no notes. I knew what I wanted to say. I just hoped I could get it out. Thus, what follows is not an exact transcript of my speech, but you’ll get the gist. I had to choke back tears in many places before I could on, but I feel I got it out.
Those of you who attended my wedding or heard about it know I probably won’t last long up here. [I said this through choked tears – I’d already lost]
Every great thing I have, every great thing I am and every great thing I’ll become is due to my mother. She sacrificed so much to ensure that I would be taken care of, that I would become the man you see today. Without her, I’d be nothing.
My mother was extremely tolerant and compassionate and understanding. She cared about people deeply. She cared about me deeply. She was strong and independent. She was a wonderful woman and an incredible mom.
To give you an idea of the kind of mom she was, I’ll tell you a little story. I told this story when I was in college and was an orientation counselor at Berkeley, part of CalSO. I told it to a room of parents.
When I was accepted into Cal, I was accepted as a Mechanical Engineer. It was a dream of mine since Seventh Grade, and Mom was very supportive. When we got the letter, we both jumped around excitedly. It was a big deal.
After my first couple of semesters, though, I was on academic probation. I had wanted to build things, but at Cal they teach you theoretical engineering. You don’t really get the opportunity to get your hands dirty. After three semesters on AP, they kick you out. I was already in my second semester and I knew I probably wouldn’t last my third. So I called mom up on the phone.
“Mom,” I said. “I don’t think this engineering thing is going to work out. I’ve been looking at my options. I took a couple of Classics courses, and I’m thinking of going into Greek and Latin as a major.”
“I’m also looking into Computer Science –”
“Oh, you love computers!” she said. “You’d love Computer Science, that would be great for you!”
I knew where she stood.
So, a couple of months pass and the dean calls me into his office and offer me a “Faustian Bargain.” He says he can get me in Cal Poly SLO as a Mechanical Engineer where it’s less theoretical and I’ll actually be able to get my hand dirty, but I’ll have to leave Cal. He said I could also stay at Cal, but he couldn’t guarantee that I’d be accepted into any other major. In addition, I would have to sign a form that said I would never try to take another engineering course during the entire time I was at Cal. Well, I felt it was better to be a Berkeley student than an engineer, so I signed the form.
That week, I called Mom.
“Well, it’s official. I’m no longer an engineer. I guess I’ll go sign up for Computer Science on Monday.”
“Uh… But I’m still thinking about Greek and Latin –”
“Oh, you loved Latin in High School! You should definitely do that, it would be so interesting…”
Whuh? Total 180.
It turns out she took the time to research what a person can do with a liberal arts major which is, essentially, anything they want if they have the skills. She actively researched this so that she could be supportive of my decisions, whatever they may be, and help me along with my future.
I graduated from Cal with a degree in Journalism in 1998. She couldn’t have been prouder.
Mom doesn’t want us to be here today to mourn her. She wants us to celebrate her life. She wants us to go out there and take her tolerance, her compassion and her love and show it to others. It’s extremely gratifying to see so many people here today. I’m shocked by it, but I’m not surprised. Her life sent ripples throughout that touched so many people. She’s such a humble woman, I don’t know if she would have expected this. It’s a shame we don’t do this for people while they’re still living and can appreciate it. There’s is a time in every person’s life, once a year, when we should gather like this and let them know how much we love them. It’s their birthday. Rather than shy away and say, “Oh, I don’t want a party,” we should all welcome this and celebrate our lives while we can still enjoy it and improve it. We should all show the same tolerance compassion that made my mother so important o all of us.
Every thing I have. Every thing I am. Every thing I shall become is thanks to my mother. Every accomplishment I have is her accomplishment. I am fortunate that she got to see so many of them. She got to see me graduate from college. She got see me get married. She got to see us buy a house. Those are all her accomplishments as well. I am very proud today to say that I am Michele Flaherty’s son. Thank you.
Even now I’m crying, choking on my tears. I say in silence. No one clapped – it was a funeral service, after all, but I heard tears and saw heads nod. I struck my chord. I was glad.
After all the rites were over, my father, Dani, the priest, Bernie and I formed a reception line at the church doors, with me at the end. I have never heard the words, “I’m so sorry for your loss” so many times. Many folks I’ve spoken with recently have found it hard to say anything to me, something I completely understand. What do you say to someone who has just lost someone so dear to them? Many of those who came by introduced themselves and shared stories with me. Most of them were State Farm folks, some from her very early days with the company. Her former bosses were there, co-workers she had risen through the company with, all sort of folks. Then there the folks I grew up with – Karen and Russell Gianni, Dave Hansen, Tom Grimm, Uncle John and Sarah, the whole Goerlitz clan, all sort of names and faces and moments from our past. It was touching and awe-inspiring. The pride I have in my mother, someone who clearly touched so many people, affected so many lives and left an enviable legacy is absolutely overwhelming. I’m not surprised, but I’m certainly in awe. I only hope I leave behind half as powerful a legacy.
The reception was a lot lower key than I expected as not everyone from the church showed up. This was nice, though, as it gave me a chance to spend some quality time catching up with people I haven’t spoken to in a long time. The Goerlitzes outdid themselves. I’m in debt to them.
On Sunday, Dani packed up many of Mom’s things and we cleaned up the condo a bit. That night, we decided to see a movie. I had been dying to see the new Harry Potter flick, and I wasn’t disappointed. But the weirdest thing happened during it. There’s a scene near the end where a student dies. His father leaps out of the audience and throws himself on his son’s body, crying out “My son! My son!” I could hear the other theater goers weeping behind me. It was an extremely moving, sad scene, one in which both Dani and I would usually be weeping. We looked at each other and sort of shrugged. It’s sad, sure, but not “My mom just dies in real life” sad. I’ve discovered this same feeling a few times while watching things that would otherwise move me to tears. I wonder how long it will be before I can cry at movies again.
We drove back home on Tuesday. Coming home was unusually difficult. Mom was supposed to be here this week, like I said, helping us prepare for our first Thanksgiving in our new home. Instead, we had Thanksgiving at my in-laws. When we got the mail, there were many sympathy cards waiting for us, plus two that I expected but was sad and glad to receive. One was a Thanksgiving card in which my mom said how much she was looking forward to seeing us. The other was a card congratulating Dani and I on our two-year anniversary (Nov. 15th) in which Mom expressed her joy over how happy Dani and I are and how we should try to never let that go. Good God, do I miss her.
Her remains are in a plastic baggie enclosed in a plastic box enclosed in a cardboard box sitting here on my desk. The box, ashes and all, is rather heavy. The plan is to scatter them somewhere around Monterey where she spent many of her years growing up and where we all enjoyed going back together.
The hardest part of all this for me is that, whenever something like this happens in my life, she’s the first person I call. The one time I need her most, to hear her voice, and she’s the one who’s gone. Of course, she’s not really gone. Like I tell everyone I talk to, her voice has always been inside my head. My sense of right and wrong, my sense of decency, tolerance, compassion, wisdom, understanding – everything – stems from her. Her voice remains in my head, telling me it will be OK, to look for the silver lining. Her life is deeply intertwined with mine that, for as long as I’m alive, she’ll be alive as well. The best way I can honor her is to not just go on, but to excel. All of my accomplishments are her accomplishments as well. I intend on ensuring that, together, we accomplish a great deal.
I love you mom, and I’ll miss you for every day of my life.