I never imagined writing this. I thought Peggy, my ex-wife and mother to my older son Matt, had the Buckley gene. I always believed she’d long outlast me since her mother lived to around 100.
I was wrong. Diagnosed right after this past Christmas with lung cancer that had metastasized to her bones, Peggy died hours after Easter. During the intervening months she suffered a heart attack and strokes that partially paralyzed her and robbed her of speech. But I was able to visit her in the hospital before all of these additional insults. We had the opportunity to come to terms with the many experiences of our relationship, including a long, difficult divorce. We both acknowledged that whatever had occurred between us, however mistaken we had been to get married, we, at the time, honestly loved each other. And it was that love’s spirit tempered by mature understanding and affection that was the dominant emotion both of us felt during this final physical farewell.
We hadn’t been estranged over the past thirty-odd years, of course. We both lived in the same Boston neighborhood and we actively raised our son together. But we didn’t hang. And after Sue and I set up housekeeping, it often felt easier for them to conduct business and compare parental notes–mom to step-mom.
But there was some tension. Sometimes between Peg and me, sometimes between our tribes. During Matt’s college graduation, Peggy, her sister, her mother, Sue, my father, his partner and I found ourselves cramped shoulder to shoulder in the hotel elevator. What little conversation there was stopped immediately when the elevator doors opened on another floor. In walked the great attorney William Kunstler, whose granddaughter was in Matt’s class. He took one look around and said, “I’m available for mediation.” Peggy and I both laughed out loud the rest of the way to the lobby.
But once Matt was launched and gone, we were only occasionally brought together by one of his events or when my younger son grew older and helped Peggy with computer issues. To Jake, who had recently spent a weekend in New York with her to watch Matt run in the marathon, Peggy was just family-or his “reverse stepmom,” as he occasionally liked to say.
Despite our longtime separate lives, after she fell ill, I fell into a slump. Much had to do with concern about Matthew and his partner Alyssa who bore the brunt of Peggy’s caretaking, Peggy’s imminent death, my mortality, and my own internal review of history in which I found much of my behavior wanting. My weeks were filled with lethargy, sleep, and an often futile attempt to plug along with my day-to-day activities.
This past Thursday night at Peggy’s wake/shiva, an entirely new set of feelings began to emerge. People from every aspect of Matthew’s life-Peggy’s, mine, his own-were gathered together and old feelings of friendship, past connections, new connections with people I had heard about from Matthew but never met, generated a joy of being together along with the hurt of loss. I saw people I hadn’t seen in over thirty years and it was as if the affection we’d had back then had somehow remained unbroken. I felt a deep appreciation for all those who, out of my line of sight, had contributed not only to Peggy’s life but to the life of my son. I saw the outpouring of love toward Matt by his friends, some of whom came from out of town just for the night, some of whom left a trip in Hawaii, stopped off in the LA airport to hand off their kids to a grandparent, and just kept coming East to be with Matt. Some who had been Peg’s college roommates, some of whom were her everyday friends. And many, like me, the other side of his family.
There were tears Thursday night, but they were outweighed by laughter. We collectively rejoiced in the breadth of Peggy’s life as much as the pain and injustice of her untimely death.
This wake/shiva turned out to only be the appetizer, the next day’s service and reception was the main course. What stays with me from the service was the eulogy given by Chris, one of Peggy’s best friends. His talk about their travels together revived memories of our own vacations and his love for her was moving.
But the real kicker was Matthew’s talk. Never one to be particularly comfortable sharing his emotional life, it was as if he opened his chest and exposed his heart for all to see. The love he expressed to Alyssa, to all those who were there, but especially toward his mother brought tears. His talk was the epitome of intimacy that I can only aspire to. This was truly a case where the child had outgrown the parent and I could not have been more proud or felt more love.
The reception gave her friends, his friends, my friends, the opportunity to reminisce out loud about Peg’s life, hopes, dreams. As I stood there listening I couldn’t help thinking that the greatness of humanity has to do with our ability to love, and the greatness of love is the ability to turn individuals into communities, and that it’s only through those loving communities that the earth continues to spin.
Thank you, Peg. Thank you, Son.
Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. ~Howard Zinn