This is a collection of stories I read at my mom’s memorial service. Much of it is pulled from my upcoming book “Joyride: A beginning in every end.” Although it was written for a funeral, I believe it is quite uplifting and joyful.
Barbara Annette Phillips was born in 1941 when the world was at war. She was four-years old when atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, events she was completely oblivious to from her little house by the cornfield in Edinburg Illinois. She was close to her mother and adored by her grandmother but hardly knew her father. For most of her life, she lived within a few miles of the neighborhood she grew up in and talked to her mother every day.
I think my mom was raised believing she was a princess. I have the impression she got whatever she wanted and pretty much ran the house like a stormy little tyrant. Nonetheless, when she recalled her childhood she told it as a series of personal disappointments such as getting a brother instead of a sister for a sibling and then refusing to be kind to him for years. She recounts this with pride, as if we should be impressed by her stubbornness. One day she was frustrated her cat would not stay on a particular chair so she fastened it to the cushion with pins.
She was known for having a beautiful voice and sang in the school choir. She was naturally musical and hummed improvised songs to herself at all times and in all places. She once told me when she stops humming she hears classical music play in her head so she hums to drown it out. I have wondered if listening to her when I was a child helped develop my sense of music and melody.
When I was a child she told me she had been a roller derby contender named The Dragon Lady. I believed her as she sat on her couch perch, breathing smoke and laughing with her friends. To me, she was bigger than life and I never for a moment suspected that she was anything like the other invisible mothers in our neighborhood.
I grew up thinking my mom was a pretty awesome cook. She prepared a meal every night for a small army of hungry, growing boys. Nearly every meal included five pounds of mashed potatoes, gravy, and a pot of pork and beans—filler to supplement whatever was actually for dinner that night. Many meals were accomplished by pouring cream of mushroom soup over a large quantity of meat and baking until delicious. We’d also have a large pot of canned vegetables and often a cake-pan filled with some manner of cheesy casserole. We were no strangers to hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, pulled pork, sloppy-joes and spaghetti with meatballs.
The meal was served as a buffet, which means we served ourselves from the cooking pots on the stove. Each night we filled our plates as if it was the first time we had eaten in a week and the last time we would taste food for a month. We always sat in the same places and hovered over our plates like we were afraid something might swoop in and take our food away.
I grew up as one of five boys slapped together like an all-brother, “other side of the tracks” version of the Brady Bunch. Since we didn’t have a laugh track, we didn’t always know what was supposed to be funny and seldom did our parents sit down with us and explain the lessons we were supposed to learn from the adventures in our real-life situation comedy.
For example, one winter morning I woke up and got ready for school. As I walked past my mom to the front door I noticed that she was not sitting in her usual spot on the couch. I didn’t think much of it and said “See you later,” before I went outside. As soon as my feet hit the slick wet ice on the porch I slipped and tumbled violently down the concrete steps onto the sidewalk. I looked up to see her through the window covering her mouth and laughing hysterically.
Dad had gotten up earlier to go to work and when he discovered the dangerous porch he woke mom so she could warn us before we slipped on our way out the door. Instead, she positioned herself to have a front row seat to the action.
When I was fourteen years old the craziest thing happened. I was trying really hard to be an atheist. I thought belief in God was an illusion created by group hypnosis. My family didn’t go to church. I had about as much experience with God as I did with the Easter Bunny. Actually, I had a lot more experience with the Easter Bunny. At Easter, my mom used our cat to make us believe in the Easter Bunny by dipping his foot in green ink and stamping paw-prints on the sidewalk leading us to the hard-boiled eggs she had colored and hidden in the yard. I figured out the hoax when I noticed the cat’s paws were stained green. This is when I started suspecting God was an invention of people. I thought He was also a made-up fantasy creature.
But one night I looked up at the stars and suddenly could no longer sustain the belief God wasn’t there. I was fourteen years old and felt so small standing in my backyard. I could feel the grass, soft as velvet, under my feet, the dirt under the grass and the air between myself and the expanse of space. I could sense the microscopic universes making up each atom which in turn make up everything that is. It all seemed too interconnected to be random. I couldn’t convince myself, given enough time and space, a godless universe could end up generating me staring at the stars trying to not believe in a God who wasn’t there. How would we ever suspect that the universe was without meaning if it was actually without meaning?
I went back inside the house. My family was sitting around the TV watching HBO, a new and amazing thing in our world. Watching movies without commercials on our television set in the privacy of our living room was our new favorite thing to do. I sat down and joined them for a few minutes.
I was still thinking about God so I got up and walked over to our bookcase. There was a set of Encyclopedias, a dictionary, a copy of “I’m Ok, You’re Ok,” and the Bible. I picked up the big, white Bible with a padded cover and gold trim, carried it back to the couch and sat down. I don’t know why my family had this Bible or where it had come from but we’d had it as long as I could remember. I cracked it open. If you open a big Bible to the center you could end up in a number of places but I landed in Psalms. What I found was amazing in light of what had just happened in the backyard:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech, and night-to-night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
I said, “Hey, listen to this…” and read the first part out loud to them. “Have you ever read the Bible?”
“Of course!” My mom said this as though the question was an insult. “Of course I’ve read the Bible.”
But she hadn’t read the Bible, not much of it anyway. No one in our house had. I took the big book upstairs to my bedroom and started in the beginning. I was going to get to know this God who wouldn’t allow me to not believe in Him. I started in the beginning: Genesis, the creation, Adam, Eve, one fascinating story after another about God and man. I got lost somewhere in Numbers or Leviticus and skipped ahead to the New Testament and its stories about Jesus.
I’d loved superheroes and comic books already and at a very early age learned I was related to Batgirl. BATGIRL! Yvonne Craig was a first cousin to my mom and they played together as children. Yvonne moved to Hollywood and landed the role of Batgirl on the 1960’s TV show. I never met her but being related to her gave me a special connection to super heroes. I was personally related to Batgirl. That will mess with you as a young boy.
The affection I had for superheroes made the Gospels instantly thrilling to me. Jesus was an awe-inspiring character, from his amazing birth to the way he spoke. He healed the blind and deaf, the crippled and those tormented by demons. He fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two small fish. He told stories that opened people’s imaginations and eyes to apprehend the very kingdom of Heaven. He read people’s minds, walked on water and passed through walls. I saw Jesus as the ultimate superhero, a true superhero.
I told my mom I was going to start going to church. She was a little surprised to hear this and said, “Just don’t go to the Assembly of God church because those people are out of their minds.”
Perfect. Now I knew where to start.
I started going to church and writing songs about Jesus. One night after church I played one of my songs for the pastor, he asked if I would sing the song in church the next week.
I ran home and told my mom and dad. “They want me to sing one of my songs at church Sunday night!”
“Wow, that’s great! One of YOUR songs? ” My mom asked, more than a little surprised—because she had heard my terrible songs. “What time is the service?”
“Six. Why? Are you going to come?” I said.
“Of course we’ll be there.” she replied.
This is how I started performing in front of people and how my parents started going to church. They showed up whenever I sang so I talked to my pastor and he let me play a song every week as a special and I started leading some of the congregational singing, too. After a few months, my mom and dad were in the habit of going to church. They made new friends and never looked back. They have continued going to church and following Jesus ever since.
If you have ever seen the TV show Roseanne you have a fairly accurate picture of my childhood. Especially of my mom. She was funny, loud, the center of attention, and opinionated but very supportive of her family. She was protective and quick to square off with anyone who stood in our way. My dad was a lot like John Goodman, too–good-natured, likeable and usually found tinkering in the garage to get away from the chaos of a small house bursting at the seams with five boys.
I had a complicated relationship with my mom. We could talk about anything and we were close, but in my twenties I got pretty full of myself and tried to fix her. She worried too much, was given to panic attacks, had a quick temper and could fall into depression. I forgot how to simply delight in her.
When our baby girl was born in 2000, though, it all came rushing back. How mom had protected me from my abusive biological father, how she supported me in every interest, hobby, sport, musical endeavor, Cub Scout outing, school function or any other interest that caught my attention. Her love for me, and her generosity came flooding back in my memory like a tsunami.
In 2011 my mom and dad moved into our house in Texas. Since moving in with us she broke both hips, her foot, and had major back surgery. The anesthesia from all these repairs left her mind clouded and she was only able to get around with the help of a walker—which she decorated for the seasons like no one had ever done before—ever. Dementia set in rapidly. Bob Hart loved her and often says that she was his best friend. He fed her, bathed her, helped her sit up, lay down and took care of her every need. He was as patient as any man who has ever lived. She loved him and tried to be kind but was tortured by pain and confusion. This is not the tender ending anyone would expect from two desperate thirty-somethings who met in a tavern all those years ago.
In Texas they made new friends, some of the best friends they have known. They got together multiple times a week and hung out like teenagers. They played games, went to movies, went to church, and laughed like children—mom joined in, right up to the end.
I moved out of my parent’s home when I was eighteen but traveled back to Illinois twice a year for thirty years. When mom was sixty-nine she moved into my house. She got to know her Texas grandchildren over the past four years and they got to know her. She has been incredibly sweet to us, and amazingly thankful for inviting her to live with us.
The other day she was in the hospital and I was trying to understand what she was saying to me. “I want this to all be over” I repeated what I thought she said. “Is that what you’re trying to say, mom?” She nodded and said “yes.”
“Mom, are you saying you are wanting to die?” She laughed and said, “No!” Then she said something that none of us could figure out.
It was a rapid decline from there. Her mind was shutting down. She forgot how to talk, how to swallow, and eventually how to breathe.
She’s with Jesus now. I am so thankful for that, because it didn’t look like she was heading in that direction for a lot of her story. The most remarkable thing that ever happened in my life is that God used me and my terrible songs to introduce Himself to her.
May her life be a testimony to the love of a God who pursues His people and finds them where they are, not where they should have been. No matter how stubborn they are. No matter how many bad choices they make. And may it be a reminder that it is never too late for a new direction, a new hope, a new dream. I love my mom and I look forward to seeing her again, walking, laughing, and speaking her mind. I look forward to finding out what she was trying to say.