March 18th, 2008: "I Would Rather Be Ashes Than Dust"

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother and your mother, and now, I am sure, lives in you.”
–2 Timothy 1:5

“I believe every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine.”
–Neil Armstrong


THERESA WILLETT – In Other People’s Words

Two years ago today, my cell phone rang a little after 9 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday morning, and after that I was a girl without a mother.

My mom was a woman you don’t forget.  Everywhere she went people loved her.  She bore a debilitating, undignified illness with patience, humor and grace.  She was my hero and my best friend and the person I always wanted to be, and the passing of  730 days since her death hasn’t made it any easier for me to figure out how to be in the world without her yet.

Grief is a lot like losing your mind, very very slowly.  The rest of the world looks so sunshiney and normal and clear, and you’re living in this weird alternate universe where the edges don’t ever quite line up, but you have to pretend like they do and it takes all your effort to walk in a straight line, like a drunk person desperately trying to play sober.  Concentrate.   Keep it together.  Don’t look down. It’s so disorienting . . . Who do you ask now when you need to figure out how to cider-brine a pork loin or stand up for yourself, how to pick a hairstyle that flatters the shape of your face, how to have faith in a terrifying world, how to suffer with grace, how to put others first, how to win at Scrabble without cheating, how to decorate the Christmas tree correctly or be a kind person?  Maybe that’s what being an adult means – having to learn for yourself all the things that you wanted your mother to tell you.  It means getting out of bed and going to work, it means doing the dishes and sweeping the porch, it means going to church, loving your family, and speaking your mind without someone standing right there telling you to do it.  No matter how you feel, no matter how hard it is not to just stay in bed and pull the covers over your head and turn off the phone and stay there forever.   Because she would never, ever do that herself.  She never did that once.  We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep moving.  That’s who we are.

So today I am remembering my mother as she was all my life – not just at the end, when she was sick and in a wheelchair, when she could only communicate with the talking computer and just drinking water was a struggle – but the woman I grew up with . . . the tough, funny, no-nonsense, brave woman of faith that changed so many people’s lives simply by being who she was.

When she died, a vast community came together to grieve with us, support us and keep us from falling apart.  From the middle and high school students who hosted her funeral rosary, to the 15 priests and Archbishop who concelebrated her funeral and the 750+ people of all ages and backgrounds and beliefs who attended, to the neighbors and friends who kept us well-fed and stocked with groceries and fresh flowers, to the family who came together not five days after her death to celebrate Easter, we were surrounded by love and we were never alone.  For months, our family was swamped with emails, cards, notes, letters, texts, phone calls, and Facebook messages from people telling us what she had meant to them, and the impact she had had on their lives.  From her high school friends to my dad’s coworkers, from nuns and priests to gay rights activists, from New Yorkers to Portlanders, from Catholics to Buddhists . . . hundreds of people took time out of their day to share with us their memories and thoughts about my mom and the way she touched the world around her.  Here are some of the things they said.

“Your mom was an incredible woman. I count myself lucky to have done something right in life to have known her.”

“Our best tribute to her is to follow her example.”

“I’ll always remember your mom as a nice woman with a big heart and great sense of humor. She’d always make the extra effort to cross a busy Fred Meyer’s produce section to say hello, ask me what I’m up to and catch me up on all her kids. She was always easy for me to talk to—very down to earth and never the type to make others feel small or uncomfortable. Your mom is a great woman that no one will forget.”

“Theresa was a wonderful women with a great spirit for life!  I am sure that she will be missed by many in the All Saints community, notwithstanding how much she will be missed by you and your family.  A mother is very special and yours was special plus.  God be with her on her new journey, and we send all of our blessings.”

“We are grateful that we had a chance to meet your charming and warm mother.”

“I remember meeting your mom at Whitman, and being struck by what an amazing energy and spirit she had.”

“I stopped by this evening, but there was no answer at the door. The lights were on and Theresa’s chair was right there. It was so poignant and touching to see it all by itself with the house all lit up.  The lesson she and you all have taught us about love and faith is enormous. We hope with all our hearts that you are feeling that lesson learned coming right back to you. For in your grief we are holding you close.”

“You continue to be in every prayer we pray.”

“I am so sorry for your loss.  Your Mother was like a Sister to me . . . what a remarkable woman she was.   Knowing she is no longer suffering is helping me accept this.   Now I just keep thinking she is watching over all of us. Your Mother was so proud of you.”

“I’m just glad she had such an amazing family to live on her legacy.”

“I definitely have a richer life with knowing and loving Theresa and your family. I will continue to carry Theresa in my heart each and every day… as her smile and spirit will remind me to take in each day for its riches and pleasures… and to not take for granted what time we are provided here on earth.”

“Please know of our sincere sympathy and great sadness at the death of your beloved spouse and mother.  We consider it a great privilege to have called her “friend” and to have known and watched all the amazing things she accomplished with great grace.  You are her living legacies and her love will always be with you.  You are all to be commended for the beautiful care you gave her in her final heroic struggles.  Thank you for letting me visit with her and share some of the end times.”

“You mom is an amazing woman, and an inspiration to all whose lives she touched.”

“Your mother was one of the most amazing women I’ve ever known.”

“I’ve often struggled with my own faith (especially in the last few years) and several fairly casual conversations with Theresa on the subject convinced me that struggle was natural and sometimes even necessary.  Instead of guilt, then, I felt renewal — and I think that’s as fitting a tribute to Theresa as I can put into words at this moment: through struggle comes growth; through death, renewal; through love, faith and hope.  She lived her faith, and when her faith faltered, she turned to her love of family and friends to carry her through.  She certainly lives on in her continued inspiration in so many lives.”

“Theresa was a wonderful and amazing woman.  What she has given to this world will live on for a long long time!”

“My thoughts are with you and your family. As you move through these next days, weeks and months, I know you will find her spirit strong in the house, and her voice will be clear in your memory.”

“I will miss your dear mother, but I am happy that she is in Heaven now.”

“Heaven definitely has received another angel – Your Mom will always be with us.”

“I have been blessed and honored to be counted among Theresa’s friends.  Her legacy and spirit lives on in each of you and in those of us who knew her.  She may be gone from our presence, but I have been transformed by the grace with which she lived her life.  I will continue to be inspired over and over again by her faith, intellect, vision, and the spunk that made Theresa, Theresa.”

“It seems fitting, in so many ways, that your mom would pass during Holy Week.  We will be at the service next week to celebrate your mom’s life with all of you and remember an extraordinary human being.”

“She was a wonderful woman and I will never forget her.”

“Your mom was an awesome lady.”

“Your mother was such a wonderful, deep person and her absence will leave a void for an entire community.  People like her simply do not come along that often.  She had a major influence on so on many. She was graceful, strong and a role model all the way to the finish.”

“Her sense of humor is what I most remember . . . What a lady.”

“I will be interested to hear what this Triduum experience is like for you & your family.  I can only imagine the amazing congruence of your mom’s death and the experiences of Holy Week, and all the feelings and emotions it must stir up.  Suffering and death and resurrection are always powerful, but never more so, I imagine, than now.”

“She was such a loving woman of indomitable spirit and grace.”

“I loved and love her dearly.  She was such a special woman-thoughtful and vibrant!!  She took on the most difficult of tasks and always pulled it off to look easy.  A classy lady whether the hostess at her party or pulling weeds in her garden.  She always made everyone feel at ease.  Just remember, she will always be with you.  She has just stepped through the door we all will pass through to see the other side. She will be looking out for her family from above!”

“I remember your mother as a kind and gracious woman, a loving mother and wife, with a good sense of humor and a strong faith.  I give thanks for the way she touched this world, not least through her daughters.”

I Shall Use My Time
I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than it should be stifled by dry rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor,
every atom of me in magnificent glow,
than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

—Jack London


3 thoughts on “March 18th, 2008: "I Would Rather Be Ashes Than Dust"

  1. You continue to live with such grace and poise, even in the midst of your grief. I did not know your mother, except through your words and eyes but, I can only image how proud she continues to be of you.

    “Peace I leave with you my friends. Shalom, my peace in all you do”

  2. Claire, You have such a gift for words. This is an incredible tribute to your mom. It is easy to say great things about her (well.. maybe we know some who couldn’t, but that would be because she did not suffer fools and the fools knew it and were threatened by it) So, fools aside!!!! It is difficult to capture the enormity of accomplishment, the complexity of personality, the strength of conviction, the streak of naughtiness, the mischievous thoughts, the unique sense of humor, the exemplar of graciousness and of faith, but I’m thinking you’ve done it. It is such a a pleasure for me to see her spirit live on in her children. I see her in Cat and you and it makes me smile. Her children are a living tribute to her.
    Much love,

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