Betty Lundegaard (1930-2019)
“She loved horses more than she loved most people,” my sister wrote in the obit, “but she liked people enough that she coveted the middle seat on an airplane.”
My mother died two weeks ago, August 8, 2019, at Jones-Harrison nursing home in Minneapolis. I was on my way to see her. I was waiting in the security line at SeaTac airport when I got word.
After my sister Karen told me the news I asked if should delay coming out. “Are you kidding???” she said. “You know how much there is to do???” Truer words. There should be a book on it. “So You‘re Going to Die...” or “So A Loved One Is About to Die...” or “1,001 Questions to Answer Before You or a Loved One Dies.” I’m not talking existential questions, although those, too. I'm talking the mundane:
- Open casket?
- Which casket?
- Which vault?
- What's a vault?
- Makeup? Hairdo?
- Flower arrangements?
- Minister? Pastor?
- Funeral procession?
- From where?
- Chapel service?
- Deceased's father's name?
- Deceased's mother's maiden name?
On some of the bigger questions, I knew where Mom stood. Considering that she'd had a stroke in Sept. 2016 and couldn't speak afterwards, just nod or shake her head, we actually had some fairly deep conversations. This year, for example, on a Saturday morning in May, I found her crying in bed. She'd been crying a lot since the seizures began in December and they'd put her on anti-seizure meds. We were never sure if it was the meds, the seizures, or what, and we'd tried different meds, and different doses, and some seemed to work better than others, but not completely. Mostly we were in the dark.
When I found her that day, crying like she no doubt found me crying at the age of 7, or 3, or 3 months, we had the following conversation.
- Are you in pain? Physical pain? (No.)
- Is someone here hurting you? (No.)
- Being mean to you? (No.)
- Do you feel like it's the anti-seizure meds? Chemistry? (Confused. No.)
- Are you scared? (Yes.)
- Are you scared of dying? (Yes.)
- Are you scared of being judged after you die? (Yes.)
I did my best with that. I told her that if we‘re judged on our actions in this life, and she, of all people, is judged wanting, then heaven wouldn’t be a very populated place. It certainly wouldn't be a place I'd want to be.
I confirmed she didn't want to be cremated; she wanted to be buried. Two weeks ago, it was up to my sister and I to figure out the rest.
Some of our answers to the 1,001 questions helped answer the other ones. My sister wanted a closed casket (open caskets creep her out), so we didn't have to worry about hairdo and makeup, and since burial was within six days of death, we didn't have to embalm, either, thank god. My wife's advice was to avoid the ornate and go simple, and we tried, even though the impulse is to spend, spend, spend. What—don't you care? We chose a finished pinewood box which promised that for every such casket purchased, 100 trees would be planted in Wisconsin. We eschewed the gaudy floral arrangements for flowers from the Farmers Market—a place Mom loved. We did the photos ourselves. The chaplain at Jones-Harrison was away on vacation but my sister had a friend who was a minister who agreed to do the service. Initially it was a graveside service. But after visiting cemeteries in the Twin Cities, and deciding on Lakewood Cemetery near Lake Calhoun/Bde Make Ska, we found out they had a chapel there we could use for free, and which was gorgeous. So that's where we did it. Lakewood is where Hubert H. Humphrey is buried (Mom would‘ve loved that), and it’s only a little more expensive and you get so much for that: Not just the chapel, and the beautiful grounds, but a sense of space in figuring out what you want. I felt rushed and pressured at the other place but none of that from Lakewood. The rep there gave us space; and she was so helpful. If you want a name to contact, let me know; I can't recommend her, and Lakewood, highly enough.
There was also an obituary to write, and a eulogy (below), and a service to put on. Thankfully Karen married into a talented family and had talented kids. Here's Jordan singing one of the songs we went with, “Anytime (I Am There),” from the musical “Elegies,” by William Finn. He played it for Karen and I in the basement, and reprised it for me here after the ceremony. As impressive as the singing is, it's equally impressive that he suggested it—that he plucked this perfect song for the occasion, and it dovetailed so nicely with what I was writing in the eulogy, and with what I was thinking and feeling. We'd Googled “funeral songs” but that wasn't among them, and it's much better than the others. Apologies for the hand-held camera.
And now I'm back in Seattle, and there's nothing else to do for her now; there's just a bone-deep sadness.
Here's the eulogy.
Shortly after Mom’s obituary went up on the Star Tribune website, and was shared on my sister Karen’s Facebook page, and then mine, I got a text message from my sister-in-law, Jayne. Over the past 10 years Jayne has lost several family members to cancer, including her mother and sister, so she knows her away around this. She knows what to say. She sent her sympathies, of course. She also added this thought:
We only get one mother and no matter how many years we get with her, it’s somehow never enough.
It was the perfect sentiment for that imperfect time.
It certainly resonated with me. Thursday morning, just five days ago now, I was working at home in Seattle when I got the call from Karen. Jones-Harrison, where Mom has been living since the stroke in Sept. 2016, called and said Mom wasn’t good and we’d all better gather soon. As I made my plane reservations, I was already thinking of what I wanted to say to her. I wanted to say that because of her, I was able to move through life knowing there was someone, somewhere, who loved me unconditionally. There’s a lot of strength in knowing that. You always have a base somewhere; and she’d given me that base.
I remember when I first moved to Seattle, I arrived abruptly, unprepared, and without much money. I felt like a failure and didn’t want people to know where I was. She was the first person I told, the first person I reached out to for help. Because I knew she would give it without judgment. And she did. She sent me money, even though she didn’t have much of her own, and helped right me again.
The Seattle story I tell more often, though, because it’s funnier, is one from a few months earlier, when I was simply visiting Seattle for the first time. My sister was living there then, and Mom had come out a week earlier and so she knew the lay of the land. She got to show me around. I think she liked that—showing me the ropes. On my first full day there, we walked down Queen Anne hill to take the bus downtown. When the bus arrived—I don’t know why, maybe because she's my mom, maybe because I thought she had a bus pass for both of us—I assumed she would pay. So I just walked in and down the aisle until the bus driver called me back. “Hey, hey, didn’t pay!” I walked back, digging into my pockets for coins. Mom was still standing next to the coin box. “You have to pay,” she said. I did; I dropped the coins in. “Now ask the man for a transfer.” I didn’t have to. The bus driver, suppressing a laugh, just handed it to me. And when I turned to go back down the aisle, I saw an entire busload of people smiling with suppressed laughter. But she was happy. She was showing me the ropes.
We all have such stories. One of Mom’s best, oldest friends, JoAnna Vail, a nurse like mom, who actually introduced Dad and Mom, and so is the reason we’re all here—certainly Chris, Karen, and myself—she called these stories “Bettyisms.” One time, for example, they were cooking dinner and Dave Vail, her husband, tasted the sauce and said, “Needs a certain je ne sais quoi." Mom said, “You mean salt and pepper?”
Mom had a tendency to collapse hierarchies. She was the farm girl who liked working people and the British royal family. When my father was a young reporter, he introduced her to the owner of the Minneapolis Tribune and she responded, “Oh, you work for the paper, too!” In the late ’60s, a party was thrown for John Berryman, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, who had recently returned from Ireland on a Guggenheim fellowship. It was thrown by the mayor of Minneapolis, Art Naftalin, and was full of the movers and shakers of the Twin Cities. Plus Mom and Dad. At one point in the evening, John Berryman gave a poetry reading, which he dedicated to three women in the room: Fran Naftalin, the wife of the mayor and hostess; Maris Thomes, the wife of his friend and physician, Boyd Thomes; and Betty Lundegaard. At the mention of the third name, all of these people, the movers and shakers, turned wondering, “Betty Lundegaard?” And there was mom, sitting on the floor, almost preening, as proud as could be.
She didn’t have much formal education. There’s a movie that reminds me of mom and me: “Philomena,” with Steve Coogan and Judi Dench: His college smarts learning her wisdom. Mom was just so kind and genuine. She liked people. She loved animals and they loved her. Everyone here knows about the horses. She was all about the horses. I can’t have a eulogy for Mom without mentioning Jody’s Nifty Bee, her favorite.
She loved being a nurse. That’s why she kept doing it until she was 80: open-heart surgery, eye surgery. If any of us were sick in the middle of the night, she would be ready in the bathroom with a cold washcloth for our forehead. Me especially. I was a sickly kid. Mom was a nurse for 50 years but 60 if you count my childhood. She had a nurse’s instinct. She knew Karen was pregnant just by talking to her on the phone, long before Karen told anyone.
She loved doctors. She would quote her favorite, Dr. Segal, as if her words had come down from Mt. Sinai. Her time nursing also made her somewhat blunt about medical matters. I once came home and found the following on my answering machine. It was her stern voice, meaning something serious had happened: “Erik. This is your mother. Uncle Roger is in the hospital. He’s bleeding from his rectum.”
But my sister-in-law Jayne is right. We get so many years but it’s somehow never enough. I was waiting in the security line at Sea-Tac airport when Karen called again with the news that mom had passed on. At the Minneapolis airport, my brother-in-law Eric picked me up, and we drove out to Jones-Harrison. It was past midnight. My sister made sure they didn’t move the body until I arrived, so I had time with her. So I could say the things I wanted to say. And I did. I told her that because of her, I was able to move through life knowing someone, somewhere, loved me unconditionally, and what a gift that was. But it wasn’t the same. Of course not. There’s a blunt finality to death. When I was talking to her, she didn’t react, as Mom always reacted; Mom lit up when you talked to her. And when I kissed her goodbye, her forehead was the one thing mom never was: cold.
But I’m glad I had that moment. And the truth is I’d been saying these things to her as soon as I’d heard the news in the security line at SeaTac airport. Ever since, I’d been talking to her and telling her things. Going through security, waiting at the gate, on the plane. It’s like in the beautiful song that my nephew Jordan just sang. “I am there each morning/I am there each fall/ I am present without warning/ And I am watching it all.” My wife’s mother died six years ago and she says she talks to her every day. I imagine I’ll be the same. I’m already talking to her about all this: Mom, look at this chapel. And free. What a deal Karen got! And did you hear the songs your grandsons sang? Thank god they have Eric’s voice. And look at all the nice people who showed up. What a time, Mom. What a time.