Monday, July 5, 2010

Sandra Baker (1948-2009)

My mom (above, with me in 2002) died of lung cancer last October. We never got around to a service in the chaos, so instead we threw her a birthday party yesterday -- what would have been her 62nd birthday -- at my sister's house. I gave the following speech:

Thank you all for coming.

I realize it’s been a while since my mom passed, and as time grew long since that day in October, I began to feel guilty that we hadn’t yet given her a proper send off. But then I realized that she was not one who wanted a fuss made over her. Even as she grew sicker, she downplayed her needs in favor of making sure everyone else had what they needed.

And that was Mom in a nutshell. Until the last, she was as nurturing as one could possibly be. In effect, it was what defined her life. Look at all the young people here who called her “Grandma” (or some derivation), despite not being related by blood or the law. My mom’s love and desire to care, especially for children, made her stand head and shoulders above the crowd.

I found the following note in her handwriting while going through her things last fall. I don't know if she wrote it or just found it on the Internet, but it symbolizes a lot of my feelings for her: "Love is what dreams are made of ... Wealth is not what we have but what we are ... The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."*

To some people, being successful in life might mean advancing to being in charge of an organization, making a lot of money or earning a position of power. Unfortunately, my mom never really accomplished any of those endeavors. In fact, the last few years of her life were a financial and career struggle. But I’d like to argue that Mom was in fact one of the most-successful people I’ll ever know.

You see, as I’ve grown older I’ve seen many of my own early expectations for myself fall by the wayside. I’ll probably never be an astronaut, world-trotting journalist or President. And I guarantee you that there’s not one other person in this room — those under 15 excepted — who’s lived up to the wildest dreams of their youth either. But, thanks to my mom, I have learned it’s just as important to be there for others.

And Mom was there for me. When I was in kindergarten, she ran interference for me with the pre-school when I broke a cot during naptime. In the seventh grade, she wrote my English paper on the outer planets when I failed to do so (an approach I do not advocate for those of us with children, but I appreciated nonetheless). In high school, she clandestinely bankrolled my senior prom when the other half of my parenting unit refused to help me cash in the savings bonds I wanted to use to do so. When I had first moved to the Bay Area, without my asking, she sent me leftover travelers checks from a trip she and my father took because she knew I needed the cash.

She was there for my sister, Elizabeth, as well, in many ways. I hope I’m not betraying any confidences, Liz, when I say that if not for Mom’s help over the past decade that you wouldn’t be half as well adjusted as you are. She was there for Bill as well. For Josh … Mikey … Jeremy … Ian … for just about everyone here in one way or another.

That’s why I can say she was a success. You see, I believe that humankind makes it as a species only as one part of society does everything it can for another part of society. Mom’s love and care made my life — and the lives of many others both here and elsewhere — a bit more fulfilling. I’ve tried to use her as a role model while dealing with my own son, as an example. Maybe Ian will grow up to be president, maybe he’ll grow up to be a painter. But any way you slice it, I think his life will be a little more pleasant because of my mom’s influence on me, and his future family will also indirectly benefit as a result.

That’s my mom’s legacy. She won’t have an entry in the encyclopedia as a historical figure. But she will live on in a small way as a part of everything I, Liz, Ian and Mikey do for the rest of our lives. In fact, one of the last things she did, one of the last things that gave her happiness in life, was to hold her namesake over there, Baby Sandy. I know some part of my mom lives on in that little one, even if Cassandra won’t ever have a solid memory of my mom.

I don’t know many of you all that well. But seeing you here makes me happy — both that you got to know my mom and that she knew you. Memories may fade, but you all knew Sandra Lee Brooks or Baker and I’m sure you all appreciated her in one way or another. In that sense, in the back of your minds, my mom will live forever and her life will be felt for centuries.

I’ll conclude with one minor bit of preaching here. Tobacco took my mother from me. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, please stop.

Again, thank you all for being here. Thank you for the support you’ve given my family in what’s been a difficult time and thank you for being a part of my mom’s life.

* I've since found out the last section ("beauty of their dreams") is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.