My best friend’s mother died. I was fortunate to know her and love her as if she were my own. Before she left us, Connie asked me, through her daughter Cass, to deliver her eulogy. I’ve had no greater honor in my life, and no honor I so fervently wished I wouldn’t have to accept. I share the eulogy here because everyone should have been as blessed as I was to know and love her.
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I’ve been considering this day for a while now. In some small way since Connie got sick and we learned it was terminal, although it was hard to imagine such an occasion a few days after her diagnosis, when Connie was sitting in my living room, drinking beer and eating food and futilely cheering on Manny Pacquiao in the latest fight of the century. I’ve considered it in bigger ways since her daughter Cass brought me to my knees by asking me to do this. And although in the days since we lost Connie my heart has occasionally been troubled and my memories are at a sometimes painful pitch, I can’t see my way clear to being entirely solemn about this. I’d like to talk today about Connie and about what she meant to us, and I’d like to do so in the manner she favored. Directly. Honestly. With love and humanity and realism, and maybe just a bit of cheekiness.
Because isn’t this just the way life plays both ends against the middle? Here we are, in loving congregation and shared sorrow, wondering what can possibly be fair about giving her back to the universe now, when so many of us have so much time left to miss her. It’s hard not to think that way, hard not to wonder how she could be so full of joy and life and energy and then be gone. That, of course, is vanity. Selfishness. And I believe Connie would tell us so. Still, we need not apologize for it. We’re here on this mortal coil, and that’s what we do with the human capacity we’ve been given. We look at the clock and take measure of what time it is, and we fixate on whether we’re getting our fair share of whatever it is we think we deserve. Our sweet Connie has been given release beyond time and want. May God bless her. And may God have mercy on us.
A handful of times in my life, I’ve met someone and known, in that very moment, that I’d walk the path ahead with her until one or both of us left it. It happened the first time I met Cass Sullivan, who was my BFF before I even knew what the hell a BFF is. I mean, WTF? And it happened again when I met Cass’ mama. In Connie, and in her husband, Pat, I found many of the reasons my friend Cass is such an extraordinary soul, and I found so much more than that. I came to love Connie in a way that feels very much like the love I hold for my own mother.
On Connie’s last big night on the town, I sat next to her at the Rex. Cass and Terri and Holly and Uncle Mick and Aunt Janna formed a cocoon around her, while Uncle Joe played the piano nearby. We drank beer, as would be expected of that particular crowd. Connie leaned in and said she had one thing she wanted me to convey when the time came. This, by the way, was something that came to mark her final days with us: list-making and instructions and thank-yous and ends neatly tied together. She didn’t want to leave anything undone.
So Connie leans over, and I lean over to meet her with my selfish wish that I’d never have to tell you about this. She says, “Be sure to let them know that one of the things I’m proudest of is being an activist in the Sixties.” She said that horrible spring and summer of 1968, when we lost Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK to assassins’ bullets, pointed her toward social justice. I suspect it’s no accident that this coincided with her meeting Pat and starting a family. Connie wasn’t a sloganeer or a billboard for her convictions. She just lived them, and she and Pat raised up a family marked by that same independence of thought and generosity of spirit. Connie was the kind to make a difference in her own time and in the decades to come.
Connie took another draw on her beer and then she added something. She didn’t want me to make this message overtly political and alienate anybody. (Full disclosure: As she said this, she used a very bad word to describe folks of a certain political persuasion—not yours, so relax—and then she laughed, and what could a guy do but laugh with her?) Alienation wasn’t her thing, anyway. She lived right and true, and she didn’t leave damage in her wake. To know her was to know where she stood, with no margin for misinterpretation, and to do so while having your own space to stand. That, my friends, is human dignity both exercised and conveyed.
In Connie’s final days, we all had to grapple with the idea of going on without her. On this, I’m going to speak only for myself, as I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else. In parting, she offered even more gifts from a life abundant in them. Whether it’s a failing of spirit or intellect, I’ve been around a long time without coming to peace with what I believe about what lies beyond this life. Connie, I think, pointed in a direction I can get behind. In her waning hours, she spoke of those who, I believe, gathered at the gate of the hereafter and beckoned her in. Her mother. Her son-in-law, Jimmy, whom she well loved. She spoke of flowers and light, and I believe she let the rest of us know that it was going to be OK, that she was headed somewhere filled with love and comfort. I believe that’s true. I believe it’s the only explanation that brings sense to the whisper of time we spend here. What I have now, and perhaps didn’t have before, is faith. So thank you, Connie, for that. The only way to know for sure is to take the trip, and we all bought our ticket when we arrived. May we all someday find it to be so, just as surely as we have faith that Connie has already alighted to such a place.
Here’s what I know for certain: We—that is, the physical us—are all the same things, moondust and a handful of ordinary elements. We share atoms with everything and everyone who has ever been. In that sense, there’s a certain comfort that Connie, and anyone we’ve ever known or loved, has never really left, and can never really leave. In the years to come, when I hug Delaney or Holly or shake hands with Pat or James or clink beers with Cass, Connie will be there. The part of her that belongs to the earth will be there.
But our atomic selves have that quality of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. We are dust, it’s true, but only until we open our mouths, or share our vulnerabilities, or offer our love. When we laugh. God, what I wouldn’t give to hear Connie cackle one more time, that volcanic joy that shook through you and any room she was in. When those things happen, our souls reveal themselves. That’s when we transcend our elemental building blocks. And when we miss Connie, that’s what we miss. Her soul. Her warmth and wisdom and beauty and laughter and strength and just enough crassness to keep things fun. May we take comfort in each other, and in our memories of this extraordinary woman and the dignity with which she lived every breath. May we be ever thankful for the time we had with her and the richness our lives gained because she was here.
Thank you for loving her. Congratulations on being loved by her. You’ve—we’ve—never been so fortunate.