Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Decade Doesn't Fly By

My Mother died 10 years ago today, December 10, 2001 after a terrible battle with Multiple Sclerosis (which she refused to acknowledge having even as it completely debilitated her) at the very young age of 56.

Though time has dulled my emotions surrounding her death I think about her every day and she's still a regular presence in my dreams (sometimes a protagonist, sometimes an antagonist).

Calling my Grandmother from the hospital in the middle of the night to tell her her daughter had died was the most awful thing I've had to do in my entire life. That was the first time (at 38) I knew I was an adult.

Following her death it seemed like time slowed down. I remember how intense my emotions were at the time (and how determined I was not to reveal them.)

Below is the eulogy I delivered at her funeral. Reading it now I'm reminded how angry I was when she died. In fact, what I've posted below was the second, toned-down version of the eulogy. I wrote a first draft, without filters, and let it sit in my computer overnight. The next day I deleted it and wrote this version which said what I wanted to say but in a more socially acceptable manner.


When you’re the eldest son of Joyce Carol Fliegner Green Redewill Carol it’s a little hard to decide what to say in a eulogy. I was around for 38 of my mother’s short 56 years of life and there’s certainly no shortage of material.

I’d like to cover three topics: 1) What was it like growing up with Joyce as my Mother; 2) What are the positive lessons to learn from Mom’s life and 3) my thoughts on judging Joyce.

In thinking back on my childhood and early adulthood with my Mother I realize now every day seemed like a new adventure. If you’ve ever seen the classic movie “Auntie Mame” starring Rosalind Russell you have an idea what my childhood was like. It wasn’t nearly as glamorous as the movie – but the spirit was exactly the same. When Auntie Mame is asked, “What is your philosophy on life?” and she answers, “It’s to live, live, live” that sums up my mother perfectly.

She spent the last thirty years struggling to run her own business – determined to be her own boss and to become a millionaire at the same time. I remember in the 5th grade when she opened her cosmetics store in Pacific Palisades, “The Glass Menagerie” and told me she would be a millionaire within a year. Of course I was very excited by what this meant for me and quickly announced my impending good fortune to all my little friends. This was also the unfortunate period when I earned the nickname around school of “The Avon Lady.” Of course, the store failed within a couple of years – one in a string of business failures. But my mother’s optimism and dogged determination never failed. For Joyce the “pot of gold” was always just around the corner.

She spent her life surrounded by some of the most colorful people you could imagine. Shortly after she and my father divorced she hooked up with Jim Godfrey. As was typical with Joyce, her business and personal affairs were all intertwined. I think my mother and Jim Godfrey’s time together reached it’s zenith in 1975 when they bought matching Ford Pinto’s – one mustard-colored and one painted white and orange. Their relationship fell apart when they fought over who would drive which Pinto. Godfrey left and my mother got stuck with the mustard Pinto.

I remember Dora-Lee and Barbara Killingsworth, the lesbian couple (one from Portugal and one from Taft) who lived with us for a while. Barbara was an artist and gave my mother a drawing she made in 1976 of a lonely desert road stretching for miles with a rainbow at the horizon. Joyce kept it all this time and I took it from her office last Tuesday and I’m going to put it up in mine.

There were the junior high years she encouraged me to sell tie-dyed t-shirts. She was so proud to see me as a little entrepreneur just like she was.

For a long time she was friends with a woman named “Sally” who cast all of Dino de Laurentis’ movies – or so she said. I begged her to cast me in one when I was about 12. But to no avail.

She and her second husband, Les, were great friends with Mimi Herbert, an up and coming restaurateur. I can remember some really great parties with really good food.

While I was living in DC she became friendly with a man who claimed he could levitate. If you’re here today, would you please raise yourself?

Joyce never felt the need to by hemmed in by the norms of society. I can prove it, one year we ate a Thanksgiving Turkey made completely of tofu. Trust me, it was a bad idea.

Things always came and went in Joyce’s life. Whether it was relationships, friends, homes or business ideas – nothing was ever too permanent. Some things ended on a happy note, but more often than not, I’d say they ended on a not so happy note.

But through it all, Joyce was a dreamer. I remember a couple of Christmases ago, she and Andrea and I were driving to Victorville to see Granny. The effects of Multiple Sclerosis were seriously affecting my mother at this point. She was losing the ability to walk, she was losing her rationality and basically, as I saw it, her world was closing in around her. Andrea and I tried to engage her in a discussion about her future. We asked her what she would do if she couldn’t run her business any longer. And she told us, in all seriousness, that she would “travel and lecture.” And the amazing thing is, despite the ugly reality of her situation, she absolutely believed the answer she gave us.

So what are we, the survivors of Hurricane Joyce, supposed to make of this life that ended last Monday night, December 10?

Here’s where I am on that question: More than anyone else I have ever known, Joyce lived her life on her own terms. When she had an idea or a goal absolutely nothing stopped her from trying to achieve it. Was that always for the best? Of course not, but that’s beside the point. My point is to recognize and admire Joyce’s inner strength.

You know for the past 30 years, from the house she and I moved into on Earlham Street in Pacific Palisades to some really beautiful homes in the Palisades, Brentwood and La Habra to the last six months she spent at the Healthview Terrace Nursing Home, Joyce could never afford where she actually lived. It’s easy to wag a finger and say, “that’s wrong” – instead I’m choosing to be impressed by the fact she pulled it off for 30 years.

Up until the last 10 days of her life she kept her business open and drove to work everyday. By the way, it’s now safe for the pedestrians of Lynwood to return to the sidewalks. And yes, in doing so she made some choices that I don’t expect anyone here to agree with – but you have to admit, faced with insurmountable odds, including the shut down of her own body – except for the last 10 days of her life she absolutely lived HER life on HER own terms.

She spent the last six months living at the Healthview Terrace Nursing Home. She wouldn’t tell me where she was living. I only found out because I happened to visit Joyce in Intensive Care at St. Francis Hospital at the same time her roommate from Healthview Terrace, Deborah, was visiting her. Deborah visited Mom every day. I hope you’ll all take a moment this afternoon and introduce yourself to Deborah and the others here from Healthview Terrace. They were mom’s last friends. And I’d like to publicly thank the staff and other residents at Healthview Terrace for any kindness they extended to Joyce. And if there were times when you weren’t kind, I understand – I lived with her too, you know.

Let me conclude by touching on one final note. I’ve spent the last two weeks talking to more people about my Mother than I probably have in the last five years. And I’ve noticed how quick people are to offer me their judgments about my mother. “If only Joyce had listened to me, if only Joyce had done this, if only Joyce had done that.” If sharing those judgments with me has made you feel better than I’m glad it did some good. And don’t get me wrong – I have my judgments about her as well.

But I don’t want to hear anymore until you’ve done one thing. Before you share your judgments on Joyce with me I want you to go and spend 3 minutes sitting in the lobby of the Healthview Terrace Nursing home – I’m serious about this, it’s at 3540 Martin Luther King Blvd., almost just around the corner from here, take Imperial Highway east and turn left on Martin Luther King and the nursing home is on the left hand side just beyond the Radio Shack – and you go spend 3 minutes sitting in the lobby.

And you take those three minutes and you think about all of my mother’s dreams and ambitions for herself and then you think about her checking herself into that place, alone, to live out her life;

and you think about her clipping coupons for Depends so that she could save a dollar when she drug herself into a store to buy some diapers because MS stole her ability to control her bodily functions;

and you think about her begging her roommate, Deborah, not to call an ambulance because she didn’t want to go to the hospital, even though she couldn’t get up off the floor.

And after you’ve done that for 3 minutes I’ll happily listen to whatever judgments about Joyce you want me to hear. Andrea went to Healthview Terrace on Tuesday, so she can say whatever she wants to me. But otherwise I don’t want to hear it.

I love my Mother unconditionally – I invite you to do the same.

Thank you.

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