The cars lined up for the funeral procession at half past noon, a chill in the air made worse by a steady breeze. The entire cemetery was covered in a thick blanket of Massachusetts snow – acres and acres of it. As we slowly drove to the burial site, I could see a patch of green in the distance sheltered by an open-sided tent.
My mom’s casket was waiting just off the road, a group of grave diggers waiting for us to arrive.
We got out of our cars, around 25 of us total. All of our immediate family was there – my wife and kids, my brother’s family, my dad, my aunt and her family. A number of cousins on my dad’s side also joined us; they had graciously made arrangements for all the catering after the funeral. My mom originally had 50 first cousins, and over the years we’d seen the number in attendance at family events whittle down due to the inexorable passage of time and the tyranny of distance. One cousin and her husband joined us.
I had never met the rabbi before, but she was very kind, offering us condolences individually then discussing with us the order in which we planned to talk. The funeral director pinned a black ribbon on my overcoat, just over my heart. As is custom in some branches of Judaism, I immediately rended it, ripping it down the middle.
There was one row of chairs in front of the casket. I sat down with my dad, brother, aunt and uncle. Wasting little time, the rabbi began the ceremony by asking us to repeat the traditional blessing for the newly departed:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, dayan ha-emet.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, the true judge.
After saying a few more words and acknowledging the immediate family that was present, I was invited to give the first eulogy. I had struggled to come up with the right words – in our family, eulogies have always been a delicate balance of humility and humor, and I knew this was the only chance I’d ever get to eulogize Mom. So I decided to focus on something she said to me not long ago:
When Mom and I first talked last month about her reaching the final stages of ovarian cancer, I commented on how she had beaten the odds of what was initially a very grave diagnosis, and had survived for 19 more years, well beyond any length of time we could have dreamed of.
“Not 19,” she corrected me. “It’s been 18 years and change. So much for 18 supposedly being good luck.” In Hebrew, the number 18 also spells out the word chai, which means “life” – as in the traditional toast, l’chaim.
“But it was good luck,” I replied without hesitation. “18 good years that your doctors never expected you’d ever have.”
And she took full advantage of those 18 years, whenever and however she could.
First, if any of you have gone out to dinner with my mom, you’d probably experienced one family tradition: those innumerable plates of food she asked to have sent back to the kitchen. Too cold, too undercooked, too overcooked, not what she thought she ordered, not the way they used to make it before the new owner changed the menu. If it wasn’t what she had expected, she’d flat-out reject it.
Could it be embarrassing? Sure – though even I am known to do the same thing every now and then. But Mom knew she didn’t have that much time left on earth, so she wasted none of it. Why have a bad meal when you don’t know how many good meals you had in front of you? Besides, there were those innumerable glasses of white wine expecting to wash down something or another.
She lived her life to the fullest. There were the two dozen cruises she’d taken over the last 18 years with my dad, my aunt and my uncle. And countless countries visited, too: Panama, Columbia, Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Sweden, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Japan and China. And those are just the ones that come to mind.
Over those 18 years, there were more than 35,000 sweepstakes entries she’d sent out – give or take – a few of which actually paid dividends.
There were the five final seasons of Seinfeld, some of which were pretty good. The 94 episodes and two god-awful movie versions of Sex and the City. And at last count, 224 episodes of NCIS, not including the LA spin-off.
And then there were the things that really counted:
Eric and I each getting married, bringing Kim and Susanne – the two daughters she’d never had, she often said of them – into her life.
The three grandchildren – Kayleigh, Sean and Sophie – three grandchildren she never thought she’d live long enough to meet.
The close friendship she developed with my mother-in-law, Mary.
The countless evenings she spent with her friends over a bottle of wine at home.
The three cats and the 130-pound dog who tried to sit in her lap whenever she visited my house.
The 15 more years she cherished with her mom, my grandmother Theresa, before she passed away six months shy of her 95th birthday.
The 18 more years with her sister Brenda and her family, including the birth of six grand nieces and nephews.
The 18 additional hours she and I had to visit one last time, after Delta abruptly canceled my flight home to DC due to mechanical difficulties two weeks ago.
The 18 precious, wonderful, additional years she spent with my dad.
18 good years. 18 years of good luck.
So Mom, as you sit down for your first of many heavenly meals with Grandma and Grandpa, I have no doubt you’ll still exercise your right to send the food back. After fighting the good fight for 18 years, you’ve earned it.
The obituary for my mom that ran in the Boston Globe, February 13, 2013:
Nancy Ellen Carvin, 69, of Indian Harbour Beach, FL, passed away at home on February 11, 2013 after a long battle with cancer.
Nancy was born in Cambridge, MA on December 21, 1943 and grew up in nearby Chelsea with her parents, Simon and Theresa Kaplan, and her sister Brenda. The family later moved to Worcester, MA, where she attended Classical High School. Nancy enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she studied art history and social work.
Returning to Boston after graduation, she married Robert Carvin of Brookline, MA. After having two sons, Andy and Eric, the family moved to Indialantic, FL, where she worked first as a travel agent for the Burdines department store and later as a configuration manager at Harris Corporation. In 1994, at the age of 50, Nancy was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer but was determined to fight the disease.
Over the next 18 years, she proudly saw both of her sons, Andy and Eric, marry and have children of their own: Kayleigh, Sean and Sophie. She also traveled the world with her husband, visiting places as diverse as Colombia, Croatia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel and China. Nancy is survived by her sister, husband, sons, grandchildren and daughters-in-law Susanne Carvin and Kim Noble, along with countless nieces, nephews and friends.
Her funeral will take place on Friday, February 15 at 12:45 pm at Sharon Memorial Park, 120 Canton Street, Sharon, MA. Family and friends will gather nearby after the funeral at the home of Donald and Sandra Carvin; maps will be distributed at the service.
In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations in Nancy’s memory to The Women’s Center In Brevard County, FL, or a favorite cancer charity.