(The day after my dad died in 2015, our family was visiting with my mom and I mentioned that I was surprised dad hadn’t asked me to give his eulogy. Mom spoke up immediately and said she wanted me to give the eulogy at her funeral. I began writing it almost immediately. I delivered it today. Mom died last Wednesday, October 11, with all three of her kids bedside. We’re all hurting, but we know she was ready to go. She wanted to be back with her husband, and now she is.
In honor of my mom, here’s the full text of the eulogy I gave today. I hope she would’ve approved and enjoyed it.)
I asked on Twitter a couple days ago, “How long is too long for a eulogy?” The most common reply was “10 minutes,” which is crazy talk! As if a son could eulogize his mom in just 10 minutes. Those replies must’ve been from people who never heard the great WD Howells quote:
“A man never sees all that his mother has been to him until it’s too late to let her know that he sees it.”
Ain’t that the truth?!? Anyway, I have no idea how long this is gonna go, but I can promise you it’ll be more than 10 minutes. So I hope you’re comfortable. I’m gonna try to hold it together through the whole thing, but no promises — mom taught me that it’s okay for guys to be sensitive. So, here goes…..
I’m going to start with a confession: I didn’t think my mom would live this long. I always thought that mom and dad would be one of those couples where, as soon as one dies, the other one follows pretty quickly. Death by broken heart. That’s what I thought would happen to mom after my dad died in 2015.
Her heart was certainly broken when he died. They were the most in-love couple I ever saw — and ever will see. About five years ago, my wife, Cari, and I were taking a marriage class at our church with friends. There was a lot of group discussion, answering questions together, sharing stories … stuff like that. One night, the discussion began with this question: “Who has the most successful marriage you know?” It was the easiest question ever for Cari and me — not ours, but Joan and Charlie McGee. I remember telling our group how much mom and dad loved and respected each other — the two keys to a wonderful marriage.
Anyway, I sat right next to my mom during dad’s funeral mass, right there in the front row. Saw her tears, heard her sobbing, felt her pain. She actually held it together much better than I expected her to. I was kinda surprised at the time, but in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been.
We all sold mom short her whole life.
Dad was bigger than life, this really successful real estate guy that everyone knew and loved. And mom? Oh, she was just along for the ride. I know that’s how it looked to a lot of people — me included, sometimes. But that wasn’t the reality. Mom was a lot more complicated than that. She wasn’t along for any ride; she was doing the driving more often than not.
So let me tell you about the Joan McGee I knew.
Mom was strong — she had no choice but to be strong in order to put up with my dad some days. And my sister, Maureen. (Love you, sis!) Alright, and to put up with me, too, every once in a while.
Little known fact: Mom was the disciplinarian in the family. I bet you thought that would’ve been Charlie, but nope. Mom had this thing where, whenever something went wrong in the house, whomever was involved would have to write out an explanation of what happened. And an apology. And a promise not to do it again. When we were going through her papers last week, there they were — dozens of letters from all three kids detailing our transgressions. She saved them all this time.
Mom is the one who kept order at home, and she was really great at it. But she knew you didn’t keep order just by being strong — you had to be smart, too.
There was a period of time in the 1980s when my dad and I argued a lot. Mom usually stayed out of it, but she was always there when it was over — not with strength but with wisdom, making sure I understood dad’s side and respected him no matter how much we disagreed. And even if she disagreed with him, too. This was the Pisces in her — empathy at all times. It’s funny how you don’t realize how smart your parents are until you become a parent yourself.
But as smart as she was, Mom didn’t mind letting you think you were smarter. It’s weird — I was pretty much a straight-A student throughout grade school, but I hated taking tests. Don’t know why, I just hated them. At least 10 times during every school year, on a day that I had a test to take, I “tricked” mom into thinking I was too sick to go to school. I’d rub my forehead on the pillow really fast to make it warm so that it felt like I had a fever when she came in to wake me up. Or I’d take the thermometer and hold it tightly in my fist to warm it up. Sure enough, mom would tell me I needed to stay home from school. I got to miss the test and take it some other day. I always thought I was pulling the wool over her eyes. But now that I’m a parent, I know I wasn’t. She knew what I was doing all along.
Mom had high standards for all of us — herself, dad, my sisters and me. She expected dad to treat her like a queen, and he did. She was royalty in our house. My wife wrote about mom’s death on Facebook last week and one of the words she used to describe mom was “regal.” That she was. Dad made sure we all knew early on: Do not mess with your mother. She’s queen around here.
Whenever I did something that didn’t meet mom’s standards — and it happened more than once when I was young — she’d remind me that the McGees are patricians, not plebeians. And thank God we had one of those huge, 40-pound dictionaries in the house, otherwise I would’ve had no idea what she was talking about. She really liked to use a lot of big words in everyday speech and forced us all to look up anything we didn’t know. If those words are new to you, too, she was basically telling me that we’re not commoners and common behavior will not be tolerated. The “but all my friends are doing it” argument never worked with mom because she never wanted us doing anything that everyone else was doing. She wanted us to do better.
Expectations? Oh yeah. There was a day when I was in Little League and mom was in the stands with all the other parents. It was my turn to come up to bat, and just as I’m walking from the dugout to the batter’s box, when the crowd is quiet, mom stands up and yells out, “HIT A HOME RUN FOR YOUR MOTHER!!!” Oh man … talk about embarrassing. I wanted to keep walking right through the batter’s box, out the side fence and all the way home, two miles away. But I stepped in the batter’s box and got ready to hit.
Now, understand that when I was 10 years old, I was as wide as I was tall. Speed was not my gift, but if I got my weight behind a swing, I could sometimes hit the ball kinda far. Well, on this at bat I did hit the ball kinda far, but it didn’t go over the fence, it just rolled and rolled and rolled. So I started rolling around the bases and didn’t stop until I got to 3rd base. The fat kid — one of my nicknames at the time was “meatball” — actually hit a triple, which is way more rare than a home run. I was on top of the world! And then when the clapping and cheering stopped, mom stood up again and shouted, “I SAID I WANTED A HOME RUN!!!”
Yep, she could be demanding. She expected a certain type and level of behavior from all of us and never hesitated to let us know when we weren’t meeting those lofty expectations. When I got to my teen years — AKA, the time when you think it’s okay to talk back to your mom — I once told her during an argument that she was a snob, and I thought “Bam, you got her good with that.” Well, she quickly fired back with this: “Nothing wrong with being a snob. We set the standards for everyone else.” I think that quote should go on her gravestone.
Speaking of quotes, wow did mom love words! She loved to read. If you ever visited our house in Levittown, you probably remember that our bathroom had wallpaper that was covered in Shakespearean quotes. Take my word: That was mom’s home decor sense, not dad’s. (He would’ve had the Pabst Blue Ribbon logo all over or something like that.) Whenever I’d come home from school with some issue or complaint, or something that was bothering me, she’d fire off a Shakespearean quote that somehow could be related to my situation. She had a quote for everything; you couldn’t stump her. When I had girl trouble in high school, she’d tell me, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Thanks, mom. Sympathy via Shakespeare.
As business-like and logical as dad was, mom was every bit the opposite — feelings, emotions, the arts. She could quote poems and poets old and new. She loved books. Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” was a favorite of hers. As was a book by Richard Bach called “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” Those two weren’t relegated to the bookshelf with hundreds of others; they lived on our living room table for decades.
Now, I’ve done pretty well for myself in online marketing, I’ve made a good name and all that stuff. But it wasn’t until my U2 book was published in 2008 that I figured mom felt that I had a successful career. I was a published author — she liked that. She also kept my book on the living room table and I’ll just apologize now to everyone who visited her since 2008 because I know she told you all about that book and how proud she was of me. Trust me, I tried to get her to stop and put the book away, but nope.
Mom liked music, too. And that’s saying something because my sisters and I certainly made her listen to some dodgy music at home in the ’70s and ’80s. But mom went along with it and never complained, even when Maureen and Chris went through their disco phase in the ’70s and I went through a “I love hair bands!” phase in the ’80s — Bon Jovi, Quiet Riot, The Scorpions. You remember them, I’m sure.
Mom liked Billy Joel, Janis Ian and Simon & Garfunkel, especially. It wasn’t so much the music that she loved, but the words. U2 was always my band — still is — and mom eventually came to like them, too. She had a favorite U2 song called “Running To Stand Still,” and her favorite verse went like this:
You gotta cry without weeping
Talk without speaking
And scream without raising your voice
She loved the poetry of it. I’ll forever think of her when I hear that line and that song. One of the great joys of growing up for me was getting to teach her about U2 and their music and what they stood for.
But of course, it normally went the other way. She was the one teaching me — teaching us — day in and day out. There are a million things I learned from her, but a couple that I still find myself living by today, as I approach 50 years old.
One was not to micromanage your kids. She loved us enough not to smother us. She let us be ourselves. She let us make our own mistakes, because she knew that’s how we learned. She let us find our way, when maybe other parents might’ve tightened the reins.
In my high school years, I lost interest in going to Mass. (Sorry, Father.) On Sundays, I’d drive to the 11 AM Mass, walk in and get the church bulletin as proof I was there, then turn around and go to lunch at Wendy’s or McDonald’s or someplace like that. Then I’d drive home, show mom and dad the church bulletin and all was good.
But mom — again, smarter than she got credit for — knew what I was doing. I remember her sitting me down one day and explaining how I could never let on to dad what I was doing because he’d erupt. But she was okay with it because she understood that I needed to find my own way. We talked about God and faith and I specifically remember her saying that it’s natural to question and doubt and, as long as I was always looking for answers to those questions, everything would be fine. It’s a lesson that I’ve applied with my own kids, both in their teens, and both dealing with their own questions and doubts about faith. I’ve told them the same thing: keep searching, keep asking the important questions. That’s mom talking through me. Her wisdom lives on.
Another huge lesson I learned from mom was that learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom and from textbooks. There was a day … I think it was 1979 or so … I was 11 years old, so that would be 6th grade. Mom came to me and said she was keeping me home from school the next day. Why? Because some politicians named Ronald Reagan and Jim Coyne were going to be speaking at Oxford Valley Mall and she wanted me to be there. “It’ll be a good experience for you,” she said. And she was right, of course. I was amazed by the whole scene — the pomp and pageantry of the politicians, the music playing, the speeches about improving the world — or improving Bucks County, in Jim Coyne’s case — the huge crowd of people cheering and clapping and waving flags. It was fascinating. And look, here we are almost 40 years later and I remember it in way more detail than anything I would’ve learned that day in 6th grade.
She felt the same way when the Pope came to visit Philadelphia that same year. I should be there because it would be a good experience. There were huge crowds — like 1.2 or 1.5 million people — and we sat in traffic for hours, but to this day I remember running across a green lawn along the Pope’s route and getting up to the barricade and watching him go by. I got to tell all my friends in school that I had stood within 25 feet of the Pope. It was incredible, another experience I’ll never forget. Another experience mom wanted me to have.
For all her love of books, mom knew that life and learning is also about experiences. And so Cari and I take that lesson and apply it to our kids, too. I took my son to his first U2 concert when he was seven years old because I knew it would be a good experience for him. It was. And he’s been to about 10 more U2 concerts since then.
Experiences. It’s why my wife and I loaded up the car in 2006 and, for our summer vacation, drove from Washington state down through Oregon, through northern California to southern California and eventually all the way to San Diego. We saw amazing sights — what a beautiful country we live in. We visited with family and friends. We spent wonderful time together. Our daughter was only four years old but even she remembers that trip today, and I’m sure she always will. She says it’s her earliest memory.
Experiences. Mom knew that’s what life is all about.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about books and baseball, learning experiences, arguments and stuff like that, but I want to make this clear: The thing we should remember the most is how much mom loved her husband and kids. Problem is … I don’t really know how to explain that, to put it into words.
I’ll try by saying that she was always there for us no matter the situation, no matter the day or time or anything. She always wanted to take care of us. For the past 20+ years, I’ve lived on the west coast and I’d come home to visit a couple times a year. Without fail, every time I walked into her house to visit, the first thing I got was a hug and kiss and the first thing she said was, “Are you hungry?” She never stopped being our mom; it was her full-time job, and she loved it. She loved us.
Mom and dad never had kids of their own. I always thought we were the strangest family. Five people, but all three kids were adopted. Maureen and Chris were the only blood relatives in our house.
Me? The first time I ever saw a blood relative was when my son was born in 1997. But I’ll tell you this: I never once felt like I wasn’t my mom and dad’s son. They may not have conceived me, but they sure as hell raised me — especially my mom, running things at home while dad was out doing real estate deals left and right.
As I was growing up, my friends and the other kids at school were always fascinated to learn that I was adopted. Maybe they’d never met an adopted kid before. As we talked, it was inevitable that they’d ask me this question: Don’t you want to know who your mom is? And I’d tell them, I know who my mom is.
She was without question the most real and honest person I’ve ever known. No pretense. No faking things. No one was ever as comfortable in their own skin as she was. She never put on masks. She knew who she was and, if you didn’t like it, too bad for you. Your loss. She wasn’t gonna change who she was to make you happy.
I’m not sure what I’m gonna do on Sundays now that I can’t call mom before or after the Seahawks game. I’m not sure what I’m gonna do when I have questions about parenting, or need a good potato salad recipe. (Hers was the best). Don’t know who I’m going to ask when I need someone to remind me about something I did or said when I was young. There’s a void in my life and all of our lives going forward.
Since mom loved books so much, it seems best to end with a quote from a children’s book that came out last year. It’s called “The Girl Who Saved Christmas” and the author is a guy named Matt Haig. I haven’t read the book, but this quote spread online a few months ago and I loved it. It’s a man talking to a little girl named Amelia, whose mother is ill. Might be her dad talking, might be Santa … I don’t know. But it goes like this:
“The love of a person never disappears,” he said softly. “Even if they might. We have memories, you see, Amelia. Love never dies. We love someone and they love us back and that love is stored and it protects us. It is bigger than life and it doesn’t end with life. It stays inside us. THEY stay inside us. Inside our hearts.”
God bless you, mom. We miss you already. We love you forever.