My Mother Jackie Henry's Eulogy
Jacqueline Ann Henry (nee Lebbert)
November 11, 1938--August 30, 2008
from the eulogy I wrote:
A long time ago—though not long ago enough--years before Calgary was so full of people and cars, when the city was still a small town with its nature intact, there was a little girl who lived in a small neighbourhood called Sunnyside, on the north bank of the Bow River, not too far from Centre Street Bridge with its big lions. She was a pixie of a child, bright-eyed and lively, as healthy children are, and she loved to run. In the summers she was out of the house with her brown hair braided by six o’clock in the morning, and one of her favourite places to play was the riverbank.
She wasn’t a swimmer, but her mother Nellie loved to swim, in that very river, and up on the banks of Sunnyside Boulevard—the long road that was later renamed Memorial Drive—there were long rows of cottonwood trees planted as a living memorial to the boys from Calgary who were lost in the Great War. Her grandfather Harry had been in the war and had survived that terrible, violent time. He and her grandma had a daughter who gave birth to her and her sisters, which was a kind of miracle to Jackie, because what if Grandpa had died and become a tree instead?
Sometimes she met her grandpa on the riverbank, my great grandfather Harry Whitfield, and sometimes she went with friends from the neighbourhood, and sometimes she went alone, to walk beside the blue and green river and smell the tall grass and purple vetch and wolf willow.
It was one of those mornings when she had an experience, an encounter, that she told me about many years later, when we were having a conversation about the meaning of life and the mysterious and sometimes exasperating origins of her optimism. That little girl, of course, was my mother, our dear mother, Jackie (Connelly) Henry. As an adult, whenever things got rough, whenever she or her children encountered problems that looked and felt insurmountable, she always fell back on a phrase that was very easy to utter, but very hard for us to believe in. Everything will work out in the end, she used to say, maddeningly, right in the bloody middle of a disaster.
The plane was missed, the divorce was imminent, the heart was broken, smashed, the good works ruined---but my mother, always small in stature, always bright-eyed, would look at us and say those words in perfect faith. The amazing thing is, she wasn’t faking it. Or if she was, we never knew—and neither did she. Everything will work out in the end. Sometimes these words infuriated me because such a calm piece of wisdom hardly did justice to the drama of the moment. An earthquake could be in progress, the walls crashing in, and my mother would just take a deep breath, stand with us under a doorframe, and say, Don’t worry my dears. Everything will be fine. It will all work out in the end.
So when I asked her how she remained optimistic in the midst of serious difficulty—even in the face of larger problems, like how humans are abusing the planet and how harsh and violent life is for many people in different parts of the world--she talked about her own childhood and youth, which were happy, she said, but not always so easy. Her parents separated when she was still fairly small, and she and her three younger sisters remained with their mother. Her mother worked hard but the family sometimes experienced great poverty. Jackie did well in school, and had aspirations and encouragement from her teachers to become a journalist, but in fact she quit school after Grade 10 and went to work to help support her younger sisters, a sacrifice she spoke of only rarely, and then with pride and affection, never with resentment. It was apparent that even in her teens, she already subscribed to the doctrine of Everything will work out in the end.
So where did this perpetual hopefulness originate? Why was she so sure of life? In answer she recalled her early childhood, and one brilliant summer morning in particular, when she stopped and stood still beside the Bow River, close to the trees and the stones and the water, under the high blue Albertan sky. She told me that she was transfixed, held by the beauty and the peace of the moment, by her own small self experiencing, knowing, in her skin and her bones, in her heart, that she was part of the place where she was standing, part of the fresh bright air, the living trees, the cold blue-green river that she loved, and that she belonged here, to this earth and the people who loved her, and more: that she knew she could trust in that feeling of wholeness and rightness, that sense of belonging that seemed to be part of the morning air, part of the soil under her feet. “It was as though God was standing beside me,” she said. “God was standing everywhere.”
It is that memory of my mother’s that came to me often while my siblings Ken, David, Mara, Jennifer and I sat vigil with her during the last two weeks of her life, in Rosedale Hospice, overlooking the neighbourhood where she had grown up and gone to school. Not too far below the hospice are the riverbanks where she walked as a little girl and knew herself to be part of the great Whole, part of the flow of life that is as holy and mysterious as it is familiar, and funny, and tiresome, and full of change and tumult and laughter.
Jackie was very good at laughing. She was blessed with a happy disposition, a readiness to feel joy at the simple things of life. I will never forget the time she came to visit me in Bangkok, a big, dirty, noisy city which I negotiated with cunning and as much speed as possible, trying to cut through the mad traffic jams and rush to our various destinations. But for the five days we were there together, Jackie set a new pace, forcing me to slow down and see the place I’d become so accustomed to. She said, repeatedly, “Oh, how beautiful!” of the long rows of tropical flowers in the boulevards—flowers I had ceased to notice—“Oh, how wonderful they are!” of the three-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks, with their deafening two-stroke engines and clouds of diesel smoke. “Oh, they are prettiest girls I’ve ever seen,” she said, of some flashy women we saw near our table in the redlight district of Patpong.
“Mom, those are drag queens,” I explained.
“Really?” she replied, and squinted in their direction. One of them noticed Jackie looking over and squinted back in an exaggerated fashion. Jackie opened her eyes, smiled her great smile and waved enthusiastically; the drag queens waved, too, and all of us started to laugh. Mom said to me, “They’re not only pretty, they have good senses of humour, too. And such perfect teeth.”
She knew that laughter is a tonic, not a way to hide the gravity of life but an important way to alleviate and celebrate it. From her years working for the Calgary Police Service, taking calls through long days and longer nights, she came to understand that while people sometimes suffered greatly and needed emergency help, they could also be uniquely ridiculous and absurd. She used to come home with the most hilarious stories about what she had seen and heard at the Cop Shop, including the one time that she was outside the building, taking her break, and was approached by a man who’d just hopped out of a police van. He politely asked her if she could spare a cigarette; Jackie generously complied. When she went back into her building, she heard her co-worker policemen shouting that someone had just escaped from the police vehicle sitting outside. She raised her eyebrows and wisely refrained from mentioning that she’d witnessed the great escape without knowing it, and furnished the criminal with a little smoky comfort. But she thought the whole episode was extremely funny, and certainly didn’t regret her friendliness.
Even in grave illness, she found plenty of ways to laugh. One of her oncologists was Dr. Scot Dowden, an extremely handsome man with penetrating blue eyes, a finely sculpted jaw, and thick dark hair. Sadly, I never saw this glorious specimen of manhood myself, but various women in the family told me—and told me, and told me-- how handsome he is. Jackie also mentioned it several times—and my sister recounted what our mother said after a recent visit. They were both musing about Dr. Dowden’s good looks, and his ringless ring finger, when my mother exclaimed, “Oh, Mara, if I were just a few years younger and still had my teeth!”
One of things I admire most about Jackie was willingness to grow and change. Whether that manifested in leaving relationships that were no longer working, or in travelling with delight and enthusiasm to visit her children in their various places of abode, my mother faced all the adventures of life with openness and love. It is a testament to her deep and abiding affection for Denis Connelly and for Norm Henry that she became close friends with both of them after her important marriages with them ended. She recognized that love itself has many forms; she also came to understood that sometimes love can assume an unhealthy form and need to change shape. She saw—and she taught us, her children, to see—that there was no sin in doing things differently or in failing.
Indeed, she let us know that failure is an important part of life because it helps us to grow and change, it keeps us supple as well as humble. Jackie recognized that we learn all our lives, and that we don’t have to learn with a book and a calculator. She was proud when her kids did well in school, but more proud of us still when we made decisions for ourselves and struck out on our own.
I would like to share with you excerpts from a letter that Jackie wrote to me on May 10, 2000. I had written to her about my plans to leave the West Coast and to go live abroad again, and I was feeling guilty and sad that I was once again leaving her behind. I wanted her to know how much I loved her even though I was going far away.
This is what she wrote back to me:
Your letter was a gift to me. You needn’t fear, I know of your love for me and I have never felt deserted in any way. Each person must lead her life as she deems it necessary—just as all of you have done. I’m proud that each of you has chosen what fulfills you and therefore makes you complete in yourselves. If I have ever done anything for my children, I hope it is to give them encouragement to be what they want to be and to live their lives thinking of others as they think of themselves. You have all been an inspiration to me from the time you were very small.
So there is no need for you to worry about me; I, too, walk my own path, even if it is a bit rocky at times. But as I’ve said so often, Things seem to work out in the end.
Think how boring it would be if we had all been like sausages—two kids, two jobs, two cars, and everyone without an original thought in their heads!
The other night as I was having a smoke in the back alley (our “smoking lounge”), a street person came to snag butts out of the ashtray. He had a buddy with him who hovered in the distance. Cops surrounding a place tend to do that to these people, especially if they have no ID. Anyway I said to him, “This is for you and your buddy,” and gave him two smokes. He looked at me and said, “Lady, you will have wings!” Imagine that! He believes in angels. I guess that sums up how I feel. “Someone” watches over me at all times.
I hope you have a wonderful trip, they don’t lose your luggage, and you have great adventures.
I’m so glad you have humming birds. I loved to see them at Willow West. They are fascinating creatures. I read somewhere they actually ride on the backs of geese to rest on their long journey south.
You won’t believe this, but it is once again snowing! This is absolutely ridiculous. My garden is in but at this rate will probably sprout in time for the first frost. What a nutty climate.”
She goes on at length talking about Jenny and her welding. Jenny weighs about a hundred pounds with her boots her on but has pursued a career as a journeyman welder, something Jackie was very proud of. Then she continues,
“That is all I've ever wanted for each of you. That you be fulfilled and happy. However, as we both know, life is not all happiness. Only our deep inner strength gives us the courage to move on despite setbacks that seem insurmountable.
But at the moment, I am very well. Getting sleep, resting, reading, talking to the cat, and gardening. Honey, I have so much, my heart overflows. So many people have nothing. I am rich beyond measure with my wonderful children.
I only pray that when you reach my age, you will feel as great as I do, and looking back will be able to say, “Damn her, she was right all along!” Lots of love and kisses, from your mom.
And, bless her, so she was.
Jackie taught us not to be afraid of life. That is perhaps the most rightful and beautiful gift a parent can give to a child. When I was in my late teens, I received a significant scholarship to go to university—a scholarship that would have seen me through a bachelors and a masters degree. The problem was, I didn’t want to go to university. I was living in Spain, teaching English, writing my first book. I almost went out of my mind trying to decide what to do—go back to Canada, and to school, or stay in Spain and keep writing in my garret. (I was literally living in a garret.) It’s hard when you’re poor and nineteen to turn down a guarantee of years of money. When I wrote to Jackie about it, though, she wrote back immediately. “Honey, life is long and always full of opportunities. And there’s lots of the money in the world—don’t worry about money. You are having a grand adventure. If you don’t want to go to university, don’t go. You are already living your dream and writing your books. Keep going.”
It is only now that I have a child of my own—a child for whom we’ve already started an education fund—that I realize how unique and brave Jackie was as a parent.
That bravery was part of her. She remained courageous and forthright up to the end of her life. She used her illness as an opportunity to get closer to the people who had grown distant and to deepen her spiritual life, to come into closer communion with God and with her beloved sisters. She faced and planned for her death with great integrity, calmness, and grace. Showing us how to die was her final gift to us.
But I believe there is no final gift. That is the nature of the gift itself. It is passed on. It moves. We give it away, to our friends, to our children, to the strangers we meet, in kindness, and walk away from. Jackie gave that gift to people all her life, and always had more to give. The gift is here, in this room, among us, in the love we have for Jackie, in our memories of her and of her basic human goodness. Even in our more painful feelings, in our sense of loss, in our mourning, in our bereftness, there is a chance to appreciate how precious and transitory life is, how vulnerable all living creatures are. That vulnerability can bring us closer to each other; can make us kinder and more gentle. Perhaps there are people in our lives, near or far, who still need our kindness, or our forgiveness. In Jackie’s memory, let us be kind, let us forgive, let us embrace joy. Jackie’s death brought her peace after a difficult illness; let us also embrace that peace and recognize this time of communion as an opportunity for growth. Jackie’s life was an embodiment of that opportunity.
How resilient and strong she was! And, like each of us, how fragile and flawed, in need of care and love. We are all of us children of God, whatever form God or the Great Spirit takes for us. Even if we do not believe in God, we are all children of this great Mother, Earth, something that Jackie knew from the time she was a small girl, in the light on the riverbank, surrounded by the green trees, close to the blue-green water. More than sixty years ago, that child felt God standing beside her. He stood beside her all her life. He is standing beside her still.