Eulogy for Shirley Hocking
30 May 2018
As my mother slipped into her final illness, I realized I was one of the last people on Earth who knew her intimately. She was keenly aware of being the last of her circle of childhood friends, the last of my father’s circle, too; and the last of those who’d been part of neighborhood life when she and our father settled into their home. In celebrating her life today, many of us are also acknowledging the passage of a generation. And in doing so we’re celebrating both Shirley Hocking and the role she played in bridging us with parents who held us in love.
In her final months our mom experienced dementia. My friends ask if she remembered me, but the shape of her dementia never included forgetting those she loved. In fact she experienced a cascade of remembering, and it sometimes seemed as if her whole life were happening at once. On days, the various childhood adventures of the Bullard brothers became my childhood, and I was expected to remember it. Occasionally I gained a twin brother, alternatively Stan Bullard and Paul Cran, and the love she felt for them was lent to me. When I moved in with her, back in the winter, Joann and our father were always ‘in the other room,’ and her mother was ‘upstairs.’ A painting on the wall of the rehab was her grandmother’s farm. And there was no arguing about it. Her time at the beach with Pam & Deb, for her, happened simultaneously to stories I told about walking Cape Cod beaches last winter.
My mother and I both had what could be called ‘established personalities.’ We didn’t always fit together easily. When she visited the ramshackle carriage house I bought in my mid twenties, she looked around and said ‘You weren’t raised to live like this.’ Without missing a beat, I replied, ‘Apparently I was.’ We argued politics, disagreed about my career choices, and had very different opinions about ‘kids today.’ She loved the clarity of a rule; and I’ve rarely met a rule I don’t want to take apart. Because of our differences, we sometimes had a hard time seeing each other. But over the past few months we got to witness each other. Even though she was experiencing one of the worst times of her life, she brought her best self to the hospital and rehab. I sometimes was required to hold space for her frustrations, but she never complained to the people caring for her. And she had tremendous compassion for her fellow patients who were having a hard time. With Mary, who had short-term memory loss and was convinced she’d been abandoned by her family, my mother would reach over and grab her hand saying simply, ‘Holding hands will help.’ Understanding her limitations, she would implicated me in Mary’s problems, telling me to help her. The three of us would hold hands and talk until Mary was back to a place of smiles & laughter. It didn’t matter that five minutes later Mary would return to tears and forgetting, not even rememberng who we were. My mother wouldn’t leave her while she cried.
The nurses and her care team loved mom which — having gotten an earful from her on her crankier days — was something that came as a surprise. Similarly I could see her surprise when they sang my praises. Navigating institutions together forced us to witness the best in each other, and allowed us to resolve differences that increasingly became irrelevant. In a sense the past few months stripped us to bare essentials, and what was left was love.
I wrote this eulogy last weekend, walking in the dunes of Truro and Provincetown. These were places she first visited when she was twelve years old, and where she shared with my sister and me her wonder for the natural world. It’s Lady Slipper season and Provincetown’s woods are filled with the crazy delicate orchid. Seeing them reminded me of my first Lady Slipper, found with my mom at the back edge of the Fenn property. I was five and she warned me not to tell neighbors where we’d seen it, lest they try to transplant and inadvertently kill it. To this day, I think she may have tried to transplant it to her garden when I wasn’t looking.
Late this winter we watched her gardens for the first signs of spring. In February she supervised me as I cleaned flowerbeds and we looked for crocus and snowdrops. When a large patch of snowdrops came to life a few weeks later, she told me proudly how she’d rescued them from a trash heap at a construction site. As spring progressed, I brought her flowers from her garden, mostly lilacs, but some daffodils, early azaleas and dogwood too. Alas we didn’t quite make it to iris. But we did see iris on our walks around Elim Park, where some days every iris was a begonia, until maybe it was an azalea. Right or wrong, as always she took delight in looking and naming.
Mom taught me to love gardening, to always grow some of my food, and to appreciate the beauty of flowers and plants. She learned her gardening skills growing up on a farm in Milford with her grandmother, but she never romanticized farm life. ‘I lived that,’ she’d say. ‘It was hard work and the house was drafty.’ Nevertheless her hard work assured that, with only slight exaggeration, I can say I never ate a store bought vegetable until I left home.
Living in her house these past months, I’ve tried to attend to it as she would. I’ll admit her kitchen floor will never again be as clean as she kept it. But I’m proud to say I’ve mastered her clothesline. What she called discipline, I know as practice. And adopting her habits has ignited gratitude for all she taught and gave me.
My mother was an everyday philanthropist. She showed me how to speak comfortably with elderly people when she took me with her on visits to older neighbors, sometimes to simply check in, but quite often to share the fruits of her gardens. She cared for a number of family friends in their final years. And she taught me the virtues of volunteering which, whether she wanted to admit it or not, laid a cornerstone for my career.
Mom lived on her own terms for 93 years. That she only experienced real illness in her final months is remarkable. While part of me believes that she let go toward the end to avoid assisted living, which was decidedly not life on her terms, I know for a fact she worked hard in physical therapy everyday she was in rehab and that she fought for life until she no longer could. Her tenacity and strength should be an inspiration, and is, I know, one of the ways she’d want us to remember her.
I’ve spoken a lot of my time with mom over the past few months. She asked long ago that I be her healthcare proxy, so we spent every day together for the last few months. Joann was there for every day for the past six years. Caring for mom was a team effort. And for that, Joann, I love you.
For most of my life my mom expressed love through actions, not words. But that changed after our father died. She started to say ‘I love you’ at the end of phone calls and visits. So that’s where I’ll leave it: I love you, mom.