Today is my beloved mother’s funeral. In honor of this final memorial, may I share with you the eulogy I wrote for her. When my father was dying in 2006 from a brain tumor, I wrote his eulogy before he died and read it to him. It touched him deeply to hear how he touched me. I did the same thing for my mother, and I invite you to honor her memory here with the family, if you feel called to do so.
A daughter never thinks she will have to write words like this. Until a few years ago, I couldn’t even bear to imagine losing the beloved woman who brought me into this world. We were so enmeshed, so intensely connected at the hip, so much each other’s best friends, that I figured we would die together. Surely, her last breath would also be mine. Considering that I might out-breathe her was simply unbearable. Yet here I am, breathing, while she is not. I will breathe on, as so many daughters and sons have taken one brave breath at a time after losing mothers they couldn’t bear to outlive.
I was one of the lucky ones growing up. I always felt a sort of survivor’s guilt because of my idyllic childhood. Sure, I’ve been in therapy to peel away all the First World problems and conditioned patterns of growing up with the neuroses of the privileged. But unlike the people I tend to attract into my sphere, I did not grow up in a war zone and see dead bodies lying shattered around me. I was not abused or molested by my parents or anyone else. Neither of my parents abandoned me, put me up for adoption, or sent me to an orphanage. I wasn’t poverty-stricken, devastated by divorce, or deprived of the love, attention, nurturing, support, and approval that is a child’s birthright. I literally grew up at Walt Disney World, where many family members worked and baby-sat me when my parents needed help with childcare. There is perhaps no more fitting metaphor for my childhood than the make-believe dress up costumes of the Disney princesses, the safe thrill of Space Mountain, the laughable fear induced by the Haunted House, the cultivated beauty of the ever-changing perfection of the Disney gardens, and the fact that I knew all of the dark, dirty Disney secrets, the stuff nobody publicized in the marketing of the Most Magical Place on Earth.
My mother is responsible for much of this sepia-toned Disney-esque quality of my childhood. Trish Rankin was born to be a mother. She was little more than a child herself when she birthed me as her firstborn when she was the lonely young wife of my father, who was busy in the hospital as a medical student during the Vietnam War. She got a teaching certificate in college, but she only used it professionally for a matter of months before I was born. We survived the agony of medical school together, first me, my mother, and my father, then my brother Chris joined us when I was two, followed by my sister Keli seven years later. By the time Keli was born, the years of medical training were over and Dad was a full-fledged doctor, working in Orlando, Florida, while Mom stayed home, happily embodying the archetypal stay-home Mom.
My mother had grown up in the projects and my father was the son of missionaries, so neither of them had any money during Dad’s years of medical training, but I don’t remember any sense of lack as a child. We lived in San Diego, where it could get warm and we didn’t have air conditioning. But Mom took us to Toys ‘R’ Us, where we could keep cool and entertained with infinite toys she never had to buy. My young years are a blur of beach days in Coronado, church picnics, Easter sunrise services and egg hunts, art projects, and endless activities geared toward what children would love. By the time we were older, my parents were quite wealthy, but growing up in the sheltered bubble of Trishlandia, I didn’t know we were rich until I was much older. In spite of their wealth, my parents did their best to protect us from the excesses so many other doctor’s children grew to expect and demand with a sense of spoiled entitlement. Back in the days when preppy was fashionable, Mom even bought us Izod clothes and cut the alligators off our shirts, worried as she was that we would grow up status-obsessed. While we may not have known we were rich in money, we always knew we were rich in love, maternal attention, holiday spirit, playfulness, and celebration.
My mother was a born mother, the Demeter Mother Goddess of Greek mythology to my Persephone. As my father finished his medical education and became a full-fledged doctor, the resources that allowed my mother to indulge her Martha Stewart tendencies bountifully appeared. Birthdays were special days that began with birthday pancakes and one precious present before school started with many more arriving during our favorite dinners—after the school cupcake parties of course. Every other year was either a birthday party or a field trip with friends to one of Orlando’s many tourist adventures—Walt Disney World, Circus World, Sea World, Boardwalk & Baseball or Cape Canaveral.
Christmas was a month of advent calendars, cruising through the lavishly-decorated (and ecologically unsound) twinkle lighted suburban homes, a big party on Christmas Eve after the candlelit church service where we sang Silent Night lit only with a sea of tiny flames, a night of staying up late trying to hear Santa Claus with my little brother, and Christmas morning laden with gifts and cinnamon orange danishes. Easters were egg hunts, Easter hats, and special lacey dresses. Fourth of July was a picnic feast and a firework bonanza. The first day of school began with a new fall wardrobe and a special First Day of School outfit, complete with a photo shoot outside the red door of our first Winter Park home. This was back in the days when kids still walked to school, though Mom walked with us until we were old enough to know the way.
School was not a place to be separated from Mom for long though. The most devoted of school volunteers, Mom played the guitar, created elaborate art projects, and developed curriculum for many of the teachers at Brookshire elementary along the way. By the time Chris and I had moved on to junior high, my sister Keli, who is nine years younger than me, was born, so another round of music sing-alongs with her guitar were in order at the elementary school. Even long after her children were gone, Mom’s years of volunteering at Brookshire are legendary.
The magical years of childhood didn’t just happen on holidays and in elementary school. By this time, my father was a successful young doctor with a good ol’ boy heart, so my parents bought a 40 acre farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia, where they built a three-story log cabin on a river and started ranching cattle and growing a garden, which explains why my mother got a pregnant cow for one of 15th wedding anniversaries, only a small step up from the oil can Dad gifted her on the first anniversary of their marriage. (When she balked, he said, “Well, you said the door was squeaky.”) Our childhood in North Georgia meant flying in Dad’s four-seater Cessna airplane to a grassy landing in the small local airport, then hopping into the pick up truck we kept at the airport just for such occasions and cruising over to the property where we picked blackberries for pie, hiked the Appalachian trail, tubed down the Toccoa River, and giddyuped on horses.
The young years of childhood were my mother’s specialty, so much so that I often felt regretful about growing up, as if I somehow disappointed my mother for hitting puberty and outgrowing the neediness inherent in being small. I remember her pushing on my head and telling me I had to stop growing now, something she did to my own daughter just this summer. Young children bring out the best in my mother, so she found a way to continue the childhood utopia my brother, sister and I experienced as we grew up, birthing Nana Camp for our children—“The Grands”—Izayah, Malen, Nick, and Siena. Nana Camp was a glorious Kid Heaven for the four grandchildren, laden with watermelon slices, homemade ice cream, Slip ‘n’ Slide, tubing on the lake, kayaking down the river, roasting marshmallows and singing around the bonfire, Kid Olympics, fairy gardens, 4th of July fireworks, and fireflies. My mother’s generosity blossomed far outside the circle of our family as my mother adopted many other children as her own. My mother was a magnet for children whose parents struggled with the challenges of parenthood and didn’t have love on tap to shower on their children, the way my mother did. Children who weren’t getting the love they needed, children whose parents had died, children who grew up not knowing, as my mother knew, how beautiful, valuable, precious, talented, and bright they were found a new home in the arms of my mother. This generosity didn’t stop with children. Mom adopted adults too, including some of my boyfriends and roommates, who she took under her wing like an expert Mother Hen makes room for more eggs preparing to hatch.
Mom planned many weddings for people who weren’t her children. She and my father funded college tuition for her extended brood and gave or lent money freely to those who couldn’t enjoy the basic necessities—and the luxuries—that she was able to pour upon her own children and grandchildren. She didn’t stop there. She then went on to play Nana to the children of those children who grew up to become parents. When I asked her before she passed how many children that weren’t her own children or grandchildren she helped raise, she stopped to count and listed their names. Heidi. Jordan. Pete. The three Werden girls—Sarah, Julie, Kathy. Aaliyah and Austin. And an adopted set of grandchildren—Erin, Leslie, Megan, and Christine. And that doesn’t include the children of all those children, who Mom relishes as if they are her own.
For many years, Mom lent her smile, her hugs, her compassion, her healing presence, and her endless cheer to Camp Hope, a summer camp run by Hospice for children who were grieving the loss of their parents. Her service was rewarded with the honor of “Volunteer of the Year” by Hospice just before she left this Earth.
Her affection, generosity, playfulness, and loving attention didn’t stop with children. For 40 years, she was a devoted wife to my father, who died nearly 12 years ago. She was a loyal daughter to her mother Sara and a faithful sister to her three brothers and two sisters. Her friends all knew they could count on her. She served the church with the heart of her worship. It was her idea to start “Everything But Chess,” a group of friends who gathered to help their beloved Mary Helen die of cancer with laughter. And once she knew how lonely widowhood could be, her home became a sanctuary for those who had just lost their husbands. To serve other widows, she published a book—“Where’s The Veil” to help others navigate the loss of a spouse with grace and faith.
Mom sang with church groups her whole life, played the guitar, wrote in her journals, prepared glorious holiday feasts, threw lakeside Hawaiian luaus, hosted formal English teas, and whispered terms of endearment to the flowers in her carefully tended gardens. Many people, projects, and plants benefited from the size of my mother’s enormous heart, but even at the end, it all comes back to the children. Trish Rankin was born to love children.
As my daughter Siena put it, “Nana is the Child Whisperer! It’s like she just magically knows what children need and then she gives it to them.” Nothing could possibly describe her better. I have other gifts, but I was not born a Child Whisperer like my mother, so for a long time, I judged myself as some sort of substandard woman, someone lacking in the Quintessential Mommy Gene. I thought that if you weren’t willing to sacrifice your entire being in service to children, you probably shouldn’t have kids. I’m now the blessed mother of a little Buddha, and I realize she doesn’t need me to be that kind of mother. She has her Nana. And that is enough. It took me years to realize that the Divine Feminine wears many faces, and all of them are equally beautiful.
In her last months, I asked Mom if she had any regrets, and she was reluctant to admit that she had one. “If I hadn’t settled down to be a mother,” she said, “I would have been a missionary, bringing the word of Jesus to those in the mission field. But that wasn’t the way I wanted to bring up you children.” She looked a bit wistful as she imagined another possible life path, a bit sad at the Road Not Taken and the fruits she might have savored had she taken a left instead of a right at that life road fork. I found myself visioning what her life would have been like if she had pursued that calling. Would she have been digging wells in Africa, teaching English in Costa Rican schools, nursing the sick in Haiti, or preaching the gospel in Papua New Guinea? She must have seen me curiously musing because she quickly added, “But I wouldn’t have missed being a mother to you children for anything.”
My mother’s attachment to her role as mother made it hard for her children to grow up all the way. I didn’t actually grow up and individuate from my mother until I was 40. I think she saw my individuation as a break in our intimacy, as if by pulling away to become myself I were somehow rejecting the best mother a girl could have ever asked for. I sense that she somehow blamed herself or thought I was criticizing her as if I didn’t truly love her that perhaps I wasn’t grateful for all she sacrificed in order to give me everything she thought a mother ought to give a child. Nothing could be further from the truth. I hope she knew that the individuation that came from many initiations in my own maturation process demonstrated the strength she instilled in me—the fortitude to become my own woman, to stand up for what I believe in, to take risks, to try and fail, to keep loving even when it doesn’t always go well, to fight against injustice and be a voice for the voiceless, to choose my soul’s guidance over society’s dictates, and to trust and follow spiritual guidance, even when it guides me in directions my mother might not want me to go. When I told my mother I was quitting medicine, she thought I was crazy. She knew how much I had sacrificed through 12 years of medical education, and she was afraid to see me throw away my security, especially when I had a newborn baby and a mortgage to pay. But Mom steadfastly abided by the family rule she taught us before we could even talk. “The relationship is more important than being right.” From the very beginning, Mom and Dad both told all of us that they only wanted us to be happy, and if that meant we swam upstream, we would always be accepted in the family. Mom’s two daughters certainly tested her on this. Would she still love us if we broke the rules, divorced our husbands, left the church, chose freedom over financial stability, got in trouble, and rebelled against what society dictates about what constitutes a “good life?”
The answer has always been a clear YES.
I know others who weren’t as lucky as my brother, sister, and I was, who were rejected by their parents for the courageous steps they took to become their own authentic beings—ostracized from the tribe for breaking the chains of generational patterns and daring to blaze new trails. I count myself infinitely blessed that this never happened to me.
I would not have become this woman if Trish were not my mother. The seed of her in me grew in me the courage to become who I must. The confidence in my strength and the faith in the Divine that were gifts to me from my mother helped give me the gumption to push the edge of what is conventional and get curious about what else is possible. I hope my mother knows that all of her children are becoming who we must because we always knew we could dare to be ourselves without losing her love. Many children do not grow up believing it’s safe to express who we really are. They conform to what their parents expect of them, often to the diminishment of their soul’s true essence. I can’t speak for my brother or sister, but for myself, I can honestly say that every time I took a scary risk to move away from the values of my mother and toward the essence of my own soul, I was supported at the deepest level. When people ask me how I had the courage to leave my job as a doctor to pursue my true calling, I tell them, “I always knew I’d land butter side up.” That knowing was a gift from my mother. I also knew that if the very worst happened, my daughter, her father, and I could always move in with my mother, and we would always be sheltered, fed, and loved. Many children do not grow up on this planet with this kind of safety net. I consider it one of the greatest blessings of my life.
I have a new book coming out for Valentine’s Day—The Daily Flame: 365 Love Letters From Your Inner Pilot Light. The book is filled with messages from the Divine Spark in you to the awakening part of you, messages of hope, trust, faith, stillness, awareness, and courage, with the occasional kick in the pants we all need to wake up out of our slumber. The first page bears this inscription. “Dedicated to my beloved mother, Trish Rankin, the first teacher who reminded me of the Divine Spark that lives inside of me.” I sense that this gift she gave me is the reason I’ve always known that I would land butter side up, no matter what struggles life threw my way.
I hope Mom knew, at least at the end that the Divine Spark in her was always evident that God illuminated her from the inside out, and we could all feel it. I sense that sometimes she forgot this, as we all do. As I grew up and learned about such things, I got the sense that Mom struggled with low self-esteem that she never fully knew or accepted how wonderful she truly is that she mistakenly believed she had to give so much in order to earn her right to be. Perhaps all that Child Whispering was overcompensating for a critical voice in her head pushing her like a Drill Sergeant to be kinder, more generous, more giving, more perfect, more Christian, more loving, more forgiving, more saintly, more willing to sacrifice anything for those who were less fortunate than her. I hope the critical voice died before Mom did and that she left us knowing, as her family knows and as God knows that she was always loved exactly as she was in her beautiful, open-hearted, talented, loving, generous, perfectly imperfectly Divine humanness. If anyone ever wondered if they were “enough” in this life, surely the scores of people who arrived at the end to say “Thank you” for the gifts they received from my mother’s generosity of spirit helped her remember that she was always lovable, and she has always been enough, illuminated as she is by the spark of divinity that makes her inherently worthy, without having to do anything to earn it.
When I was young, I thought love in my family was conditional. Jeez, I thought love in all families was conditional! I thought my parents would love and approve of me if I got good grades, became the teacher’s pet, obeyed the rules, attended a prestigious college, faithfully went to church, married a good Christian man, honored my marriage vows, raised dutiful children, kept a spotless house, served society with a career that mattered, built up a steady nest egg, donated to charities, helped out the needy, and stayed away from bad things like drugs, alcohol, smoking, infidelity, and violence. My life hasn’t quite measured up that way, not because I didn’t have this kind of life modeled beautifully for me by both parents, but because the intense and often terrifying needs of my sometimes demanding soul life required me to break away from most of what I was led to believe defined a traditionally “successful” life.
And guess what? Mom loved me anyway. The last email I got from my mother said, “You know, I always did love you unconditionally.” I wrote her back. “I didn’t always know that. But I do now.”
What better gift can a mother give her children? What better legacy to leave behind you on earth than demonstrating to your children and their children and all the children you’ve adopted along the way what unconditional love actually feels like?
Sometimes I imagine that as souls, we meet with God before we incarnate into bodies, and God asks us, “What do you want to learn in this lifetime?” I like to think that I might have said, “I want to learn to give and receive unconditional love.” So God said, “Great. I have the perfect parents to help you complete your Divine assignment.” The giving of unconditional love was modeled for me beautifully by my mother. The receiving of such love . . . not so much. My mother has always been painfully uncomfortable with receiving the love, affection, gifts, and generosity of others. This has been one of the hidden gifts in cancer. We have all had the chance to witness my mother surrendering into the care of those who love her, bench pressing her receiving muscles for the first time in 72 years of living as her many loved ones shower her with gifts, food, money, attention, caregiving, music, flowers, and kisses. I am still learning to lean on my tribe and allow others to give to me, to lift me up in the midst of the unspeakable traumas, horrible injustices, and devastating losses that are the hallmark of this human experience. It took cancer for my mother to let others give to her, to give us the chance to show her that we WANT to give to her that we always would have, if only she slowed down enough to let us love her up. We finally got to show her that what she most feared—that she would wind up being a burden on her family—couldn’t have been further from the truth of how we feel.
Because they lived together, my sister Keli did the majority of the caregiving of my mother in the end. I watched my sister generously and humbly step up to the plate as my mother became more dependent on her care. Keli took her to doctor’s appointments, drove her to emergency rooms in the middle of the night, helped her get around when cancer was robbing her of her vitality, arranged all the visitors who wanted to come and pay their respects to my mother, cooked meals and cleaned the house, and took time off her job in order to make my mother her #1 priority. My brother also stepped up to the plate, taking on the role of the “man of the house,” as he’s often done since my father passed, helping my mother prepare for the end, handling all the details that arise when a soul gets ready to leave the body.
As far as I’m concerned, to care for your sick mother at the end of her life is as much of a spiritual calling as entering the priesthood, becoming a doctor, saving the rainforests, or serving the mission fields. If helping our elders die with respect, affection, tenderness, loving attention, and bountiful, bursting hearts isn’t part of the evolutionary society we are co-creating for our future, then I don’t want to live there. Thank you to my brother and sister Keli and Chris—and to Mom’s sisters Lin and Tina—for all you’ve done to make Mom’s transition as smooth as it’s been.
I love you Mom, and I will miss you forever, as I still miss Dad. But I now know how to find you on the other side, so get ready to keep our love alive in a whole new way. Even as it hurts to say goodbye to the arms that have held me for 48 years, I always carry you in my heart.
I’ll leave you with another poem by e. e. Cummings, which was introduced to me by Siena’s father Matt:
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)