Thursday, February 4, 2016

Be Not Afraid: A Eulogy for My Mother

Following is the text of the eulogy I delivered this morning at the funeral of my mother, Phyllis Franklin, who passed away a week ago Monday.

On the first Christmas an angel appeared to the shepherds and said, “Fear not.”   

On the first Easter the angel that greeted the two Marys at Jesus’ empty tomb said, “don’t be afraid.”

The Old Testament was full of promises and urgings to “Be Not Afraid, I go before you always.”

Phyllis Franklin knew for almost two years that her body was starting to fail her, and she knew for only two weeks that she was not going to get better from her latest illness, but she was never afraid of death.

So thank you for being here today to remember and celebrate Phyllis,  to whom I will henceforth be referring as “mom.”    

But this service is not for her.  If it was up to her, we wouldn’t even be here.   She always insisted she didn’t want anyone to bother over her; she just wanted to be put in a garbage bag and left by the side of the road.  Well, too bad.  This service is for us.   This is our chance to tell her, “You’re not the boss of me,” and to spend time with each other and remember her.  And it is for me, to use an opportunity to “bear witness” to my children and niece and nephews some thoughts on the message of mom’s life. 

Phyllis was born here in Hutsonville in the waning years of the Great Depression on May 29, 1937, the youngest of Milo and Alma Crouch’s seven children.     Three of her older brothers – Mike, Ernie, and Dick – joined the Navy to fight in either World War II or Korea, or both.    Her oldest sister Dot became a nurse and spent a lifelong career caring for our veterans in the VA system.    And some people would have you believe WE live in a harsh and dangerous world.   Give me a break.

By 1950, mom and her sister Pat were the last kids still at home, and they became lifelong best friends, just as her granddaughters Jessica and Grace have become.    Now, I only learned during this past year, on a long drive with Mom to see a specialist in Champaign, about some of the childhood shenanigans that Mom and Pat got up to.    I knew that Milo was an auto mechanic.   It seems that Pat and Mom used to go joy-riding in some of the cars that he had repaired that hadn’t been picked up yet.  (If one of those cars belonged to one of your parents or grandparents … sorry about that.)    And you know what they would do in those cars?    They would drive somewhere and park and sit in the front seat and have drawing contests to see who could sketch the best flower or horse.    And they would enjoy a treat of – hold on to your seats – slices of Wonder bread.    Kids!   What was the matter with kids those days …

Mom graduated from Hutsonville High School in 1955 and took off on an adventure to live for a few months in Amarillo Texas with her big sister Dot.   There, she got a job as a telephone operator, a job that she picked up again when she moved back to Illinois the next year.    Footloose and fancy free, she bought a convertible.    One day, a young man came into the building where she worked to tell her that the top was down, and it was starting to rain.   That was Bud Newlin, my father.

The world has changed a lot since 1957 when they got married.   Their first home in Annapolis didn’t have indoor plumbing.   Dad drove a truck for $1 an hour, and Mom set about being a homemaker and, soon, a mother, managing a household on a budget and preparing inexpensive meals with the amazing new processed foods like TV dinners and Chef-Boy-R-Dee, and reading, reading, reading to me.

As was the custom in those days, the family followed Dad’s recurring opportunities to move up in a company which moved him from Hutsonville to Huntingburg IN to Wesport IN to Indianola IA  to Maquoketa IA … and from truck driver to management.   Dad took Dale Carnegie courses in public speaking, and Mom learned to play golf.   Dave and I grew up with trips back to Hutsonville to see grandparents and cousins being our summer vacations.   We were baptized in the Baptist Church, when my parents had one car.  Then they got two cars and became Methodists, and eventually got three cars and became Presbyterians.    Now I’m an Episcopalian.   Sally and I only have two cars, but we make up for it by having six computers.

Her Christian faith, as you all know, has always been important to Mom, but along the way she read about and explored a wide variety of flavors of theology.    She was always participating in, or teaching, Sunday School classes or, more likely, home Bible studies.  

After Dave and I were raised, and the business that Dad had started with his brother moved back to Hutsonville, Mom began to provide nanny services to other families.    My parents’ marriage ended in the early 1980s, and Mom moved to Las Vegas and married John Franklin, who was originally from Palestine, and continued to be a nanny.    John died of cancer in 1994; a few years later, she moved back “home,” and in the last years of my dad’s life she maintained a friendship and caring relationship with him.   

In recent years she expressed regret for having left that first marriage, and I always tried to convince her she shouldn’t feel that way.   Her relationship with John was different from her relationship with Dad – a little less “comfortable routine,” a little more excitement and joy – but I always told her she deserved all of those things.    I wish she hadn’t spent the last few years having that regret.

Mom was a voracious reader, and that made her a very good writer, and she passed both of those passions down to me. 

She had a sharp sense of humor.   As recently as three weeks ago, within five minutes of learning she had cancer, the doctor explained the option of hospice care, and told her that the likely end-result would be renal failure, which would be like going to sleep.    She said, “Well, good.   I haven’t had a good night’s sleep for three weeks.”   The poor doctor had to wait to make sure that the rest of us were laughing before he could laugh, too.  

A sharp sense of humor combined with a mastery of words could be a two-edged sword.   I imagine most of you in this room got nicked with the sharper edge of that sword a few times. 

But I think what defined Mom more than anything else was her insatiable desire to know God; and to study the Bible until every verse of it made sense to her.    And I think this last desire may have done her as much harm as good.

As I said at the outset, Mom faced death unafraid, confident – assured – doubtless, that she would be in heaven in the afterlife.  

I like to imagine that she and Pat are sitting in the front seat of a “borrowed” DeSoto right now, eating white bread and seeing who can draw the best angel.   I like that image, but I have no “blessed assurance”, no “peace that passeth understanding,” that heaven looks like that, instead of like some other image of peace that we can’t comprehend.  But I'm not afraid.

Mom believed that heaven was real.   I’m not sure where she ended up on hell— she was at least aware of the idea of annihilationism, as opposed to eternal torment.  But she believed in heaven, and she believed that the path to heaven was a narrow one.    And this led to some conflict between us.   Not that she was ANGRY toward me for having some theological views that were different from hers; but that she was troubled, frightened, and deeply PAINED that my own faith was different from some of the texts that she read; that she feared that she would not see me, or Dave, in heaven.

And that grieves me.   I grieve that my mother’s final years and final days were inflicted with that fear.   I grieve, and resent that, to protect the mental well-being of this dying but smart and once-inquisitive woman, I felt that I couldn’t risk upsetting her by challenging the entirely man-made and utterly fallible theologies of exclusion that she had stumbled on in her quest for certainty.

I hate the thought that in her final days and hours, the one thing that kept Mom fighting (in some degree of pain), was her inability to let go because there was doubt in her mind if Dave and I would be okay in the long run.   For that, I resent all the misguided or outright malicious people who got rich writing books and making radio and TV shows about “their” one and only truth.

Now, I also know that her concern for David and my immortal souls was based on the fact that she loved us, and indeed, we were her proudest achievements.   And I do think, if I do say so myself, that based on the job she did of raising us, and the children that we are raising, she deserved to be proud.

So it’s my intention to continue to follow the same path I’ve been on.

And my message to you – to my family in particular but to everyone else Mom will continue to touch, through me, is this …

Be not afraid.

Face life with the same lack of fear with which mom faced death.

Seek knowledge and truth, and seek God, like she did.

Choose to believe in a God that is big enough to love and accept and welcome anyone God wants; and follow the commandment to love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

And as we Episcopalians say, go in peace … to love and serve the Lord.