It was a little after 4 am when I woke to my cell phone vibrating on the nightstand. Startled and staggered from an evening celebrating our four-year wedding anniversary, I nervously answered, never in my wildest dream — or most bone-chilling nightmare — expecting what I would hear from the trembling voice on the other end of the line.
Shuddering, I paced the room frantically attempting to compose myself enough to guide my 11-year-old son with his next action in an already-unimaginable series of devastating events. I clearly remember both the fear in his voice and my trembling hands.
I instructed him to keep the phone by his side and answer as soon as I called back. I immediately dialed 9-1-1. “M’am, you need to call 9-1-1 in the state where the emergency has occurred.” FUCK. CLICK.
It had probably only been two minutes since the initial call, but it seemed like an eternity. I frantically shook my husband from a deep sleep. I nervously explained as best I could from the little information I had, and he immediately sprung up from the bed, called our son and step-by-step explained how to contact the local New York 9-1-1 emergency line, and then contacted the local police precinct. I dialed our neighbor, a member of the fire department, waking my friend with shocking news.
Within moments, emergency personal were at my home, while I was helplessly 140 miles away in Pennsylvania. By this point, my father was at my house — completely shocked by what he walked into, just 58 steps away from the home he shared with the love of his life. (We lived right next door!)
My mother — the most amazing woman I would ever know — lay motionless after a tragic accident. I spoke with her just eight hours before as we headed to dinner. “Send me a picture,” she said. And I did. And then, we were off to celebrate. That was the last time I would ever speak with my mother — in human form, anyway.
We ate. We laughed. We drank. We laughed. We gambled. We laughed. We lost. We went to bed.
Then, we woke on September 26 — our actual wedding anniversary — a little after 4 am.
You couldn’t write this horror script if you tried.
After the phone calls, we threw everything in our bags — including the hotel bedding (oops!) — and raced to our car. We would travel directly from Pennsylvania to Long Island during horrific Monday morning rush hour traffic — made even worse by a Presidential debate being held just miles from the hospital that day — in a frantic effort to get to my mother. To get to the hospital “in time.”
We barely spoke. My husband tried to say, “Everything will be ok. She will be fine.” We both knew that wasn’t true.
I hurried to contact family members and close friends during the 5 am hour, summonsing them to the hospital to be with my father or quickly travel from Connecticut, New Jersey or Montauk. “Just get there…I don’t have all the details, but you need to get there.”
We got to the hospital a little after 8 am. We were greeted with tear-filled eyes and looks of disbelief as we arrived at the Trauma Unit.
That day in the hospital was the saddest nine hours of my life. I will never be able to erase the memories of that day and holding my mother’s motionless right hand as I sat by her side, oblivious to those around me. I remember how her hand felt. I remember the bend of her fingers. I remember her temperature and trying to warm it with mine. I remember her manicured nails. I remember it all. When I close my eyes, I can still feel her hand in mine
So many people were there. I don’t remember who.
I do remember holding hands and praying. But I don’t remember what we said.
I will always remember the kind doctors — who I irrationally hated at the time — and those who took the information they needed, despite my lack of eagerness and focus to offer it.
And then, as quickly as we all came together to surround one another and my mother, we all quietly dispersed. Just after 5:20 pm. It was a sad, sad day. The saddest day.
We drove to my aunt’s house to pick up the kids who had been with her since the early morning hours. We had to tell my sweet babies that grandma had gone to heaven. Ryan held on to grandma’s glasses all day and still keeps them on his nightstand to this day.
At my parent’s house, I lay facedown on my mother’s bed. I just wanted to be alone. Never one to let me go through any sort of pain on my own, Patti made her way up the stairs and lay facedown with me. I’m pretty sure she tried to make me laugh and I’m certain she did — somehow.
I do not remember going to sleep that night — to sleep in our bed that my mother had slept in just the night before at our home — but I guess I did because my swollen eyes closed until morning.
And then it was Tuesday.
I recall only a few things about that day — other than the obvious disbelief, utter shock and sadness. Such sadness.
We sat at my mother’s dining room table with the funeral director — a close family friend. We selected the prayer and photo for the memorial card. Songs and readings were chosen for the Mass. We proofed the obituary for the newspaper and choose “in lieu of flowers” donation suggestions. No one is prepared to make these type of decisions — decisions I would later question when trying to recall the details of that day.
I asked Ann to pick out something suitable for my mother to wear. It wasn’t until nine months later that I remembered she always said she wanted to be buried in her ice-blue mother-of-the-bride dress. How could I forget that? Then again, how could I have remembered? Sorry, mom. You looked beautiful — I promise.
I remember going shopping with my husband to make sure we both had enough appropriate clothing for the days that would follow. Cathy and Gina shopped to make sure Maggie, Joey and Ryan each had outfits for the next three days.
People dropped off food. Homemade meatballs and pizzas from neighbors. Deliveries from people who had once been a part of our loves but haven’t spoken with in years.
The only other thing I can recall is there were a bunch of friends and family in our home as I sat in front of the computer searching through years of photos so we could make poster boards for display during the wake service. Select. Add to cart. Repeat.
And though she never complained, I know Dorothy stayed up through the night to make amazing poster boards filled with memories of family, the beach house and laughs to be on display for all to see.
I don’t remember many conversations from that day and I could only name a handful of people who were there, though I know there were way more than I can recall. Understandable, I know.
Eventually, I would close my eyes and try to prepare for our first viewing at the funeral home.
The viewing was from 7 – 9:30 pm. I suppose we arrived a bit earlier to settle in, try to compose ourselves and prepare for the long, emotionally-draining night that lie ahead. There were five “immediate family” chairs in the front of the room, with rows upon rows of folding chairs behind for visitors. I sat in the chair on the end — closest to the long line of people who came to pay their respects.
“Jen is here from Georgia?” How did she know? I should have called her. Who did call her? How did she get here so quickly?
If I said it once, I said in a million times over the next three days: “Thank you for coming.” I tried to remember names and where I knew people from, but there were so many. So. Many. People. I hope my script-sounding responses didn’t seem too in-genuine and blank stares as people told me how they knew my family weren’t too obvious. On my best day, it’s difficult for me to remember names. On my worst day, it was nearly impossible.
When we returned home it should have been time to sleep. But instead, I tried to relay my thoughts to the computer as I began to write a eulogy for my mother — one that I would deliver to a standing-room only packed church just two days later. No one knew my mother better than I did. No one had the relationship we shared. I was going to write this eulogy and deliver it — no matter how difficult it would be.
The hours morphed into Thursday.
There would be two viewings — afternoon and evening.
“Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for coming.”
In between the day and night viewing, my husband made the executive decision that I had to go home and sleep for an hour. I listened. And then, I collapsed in my bed. Too quickly, I woke to him saying that we needed to go back the funeral home.
Two-and-a-half more hours. I could do this.
When we left the funeral home for the night, we went home where I would sit at my computer trying to find the right words to complete the eulogy. Always ready to help, Sheri and Patti came back to the house and sat there until I typed the last words. Oh, and Sheri came equipped with a cooler of wine…just in case I wanted to try and numb the pain. I only recently remembered that SHE. BROUGHT. A. COOLER. OF. WINE. My friends are THE BEST!
Changes made. Document saved. Print. Power down. Both the computer and me.
And, finally Friday.
When I woke Friday morning, it would be the day that I would say goodbye to my mother — her body, at least — forever.
Immediate family would meet in the morning at the funeral home. I kissed my mother’s cheek and took the chain from her chest, immediately clasping it around my neck.
I sat in the back of the room, tapping my foot on the floor for what seemed like an eternity — but was probably more like 20 minutes. After everyone else’s final goodbyes, we entered the limos and drove a few blocks to St. Kilian’s — the church where we had gathered as a family during happier times — celebrations of love, communions and christenings.
We lined up in the vestibule, looking into the church that was packed tighter than a Christmas morning.
And then…the first bars of “On Eagle’s Wings” cued the tears of nearly everyone. I remember clutching onto my sobbing step-daughter — trying so hard to console her. We processed up the aisle and took our seats in the first few pews. After a few welcoming words from the priest, he announced that David would be offering my eulogy. At some point I must have questioned if I would be able to keep my composure and asked David to read for me. But in that moment, I knew it had to be me. I needed to do it for my father, for my sister, for my children and for myself. And, most importantly, for my mother.
With David by my side, lightly holding my arm in fear I might collapse, I began:
Today, I say goodbye to my mother. My rock. My best friend. My Louise. My lobster.
Today my father says goodbye to the love of his life.
Today my sister Kristin, says goodbye to the woman who gave her strength and unconditional love.
Today, her grandchildren say goodbye, and although they will not understand, they will be our greatest support.
Today, we all say goodbye to a woman who was a caregiver to countless.
As a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a daughter-in-law to sweet Gorney, a godmother, a sister, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a friend, a pioneer for her HEC family, a faith-filled Catholic and pure Good Samaritan.
Today, we say goodbye, but we will never say farewell.
My mother will live on in my memories — in all our memories — through her countless acts of kindness, selfless good deeds and Christ-like way of life that came through in every move she made, every single day of her life and in a million more silent good deeds and gestures that we will never actually know — because that is what she did. She did for others — not for show or recognition — but because she was a selfless, giving, good woman.
My mother was an amazing woman who taught me so much. But the most important lessons were not verbal; they were in her actions. She never complained and was always there when you needed her. In her day-to-day life, she demonstrated respect and sound moral values. And most importantly to me, she taught me how to be a loving mother.
My mother was a living saint. On Monday evening, she joined hands with the Lord. Today, and for the rest of time, she lives on in heaven surrounded by so many others who she loved so dearly including Eileen, Janet, Poppy, her parents, and of course, John Denver. While her physical presence is no longer among us, her spirit and life will be celebrated every moment, every single day.
It’s the little things that are going to be toughest — seeing a dark chocolate Hershey bar, a package of her favorite pretzels or looking up in the evening and saying: “now THAT is a “‘Go God’ sky.”
I will pick up the phone and sadly realize I can’t call her 10 times a day just to see what’s going on or what we should do for dinner. We won’t sit in the beach chairs in Hampton Bays watching the kids and the sunset. My dad won’t be able to bring home flowers “just because” anymore. We won’t enjoy Sunday family dinners. And Target will most definitely notice her absence without our weekly visits. Our “Thelma and Louise” trips to Colorado have sadly ended and no one can even imagine how much we laughed and marveled in the beauty of John Denver land.
She embodied all of the attributes of a perfect mother. She was caring, thoughtful, compassionate, loving and so much more. It is impossible to find the words that described my mother as a person and how much she meant to me. My mother was my idol and I looked up to her all of my life. I always will.
There are no true words to describe my relationship with my mother. And after unsuccessfully starting and restarting writing this several times over the last few days, I realized that there really are no words.
There are only feelings, indescribable feelings. Feelings that make my heart burst and my whole being melt. My mother was — and always will be — my confidence, my bravery and my strength. She is my sensitivity, my compassion, my loyalty and my laughter.
My mother had a wonderful sense of humor, which endeared her to everyone she came in contact with, and it is a great testament to her nature that she formed so many long-lasting friendships over the years. So many of you here today. And on behalf of the Barone’s, the Cassano’s and the Hoffmann’s, we thank you.
We were always close. But as an adult, we became best friends. She was my advisor and confidante. On the most difficult days of my life, she was the only person I wanted to be with and she let me collapse in her arms. And, on the best days of my life, she was the first person I wanted to call and share my news and hear her excitement and happiness for me.
I miss you already, Mom. I love you more than infinity. It is because of you, that I am the woman I am today. And I am proud — so proud — to be a small reflection of you.
She will be missed by all, but her memory will live on in us all forever.
I love you so much, Mom, and will miss you more than words can say. We all do.
Other than my dear friend Amanda taking Maggie to the back of the church because it was too overwhelming for her [Maggie] to take-in, the rest of the Mass was a blur….but I will never forget EVERY. SINGLE. MOMENT. of the cemetery.
The rain came down in buckets. Mud everywhere. The scene couldn’t have been more grim.
It was an outer body experience of sorts — there was so much going on. Cathy knows “the look” — the “look” that got me through. Thank you for that, my friend.
Following the cemetery — after everyone gently placed a rose on my mother’s new resting place — we went to the VFW Hall to visit with family and friends who traveled from near and far to be with us; to support us; to carry us.
The week was over. But our new life just began.
A life that would be lived without her smile.
The weeks that followed were packed with trying to make sense of addresses of those who payed their respects. Some people received multiple thank you cards. Some people never received one. On behalf of our entire family, I apologize. I know you understand.
That’s it. That’s all I want — all that I am able — to write about at this point. I am finally able to remember bits and pieces of that week. There were so many people helping our family through such a tragic event. I could never remember — or have enough energy — to type all of your names. But thank you. From the bottom of my soul and the depth of my heart, thank you. You will never know how much every call…every card…every meal…every offered mass…every flower…everything…meant to all of us — meant to mom, too!
Michele Rita Barone
June 17, 1946 – September 26, 2016