what follows is the eulogy i wrote for and read at the funeral service for my mother, Nyla Kern (Rutman) DeArmitt.
THE THINGS THAT MATTER
by troy dearmitt
my mom believed in two things: things that mattered and things that were right. she didn't have hobbies. she never bothered with small talk. she didn't concern herself with trifle matters. she was a woman in waiting for the next moment she was needed for something that was right and something that mattered. if you ever called and implied outright or subtly that you needed help, her first words were always the same, "what can i do?" so with this in mind allow me share a few examples of things my mom did for others during her life.
-- PERFECT STRANGERS --
the first time mom visited marty and i in our saint louis apartment, i was sitting on the back fire escape, three floors up, watching for her. not because i thought she couldn't find it but because the neighborhood wasn't very safe. i saw her car pull up, i saw her get out, and before she could even wave to me, a tall, frayed man emerged out of a nearby hedge and approached her quickly. he towered over her small frame, talking and gesturing wildly in the air. i stood to run down but before i hit the first step my mom was the one doing the talking. i saw her motion for him to turn around and when he did she brushed off his back and shoulders, and tousled his long hair. he then turned, shook her hand and moved along. when i asked what happened she said the man was high on something and hallucinating that he had spiders crawling on him so she told him to turn around and she'd knock them off. the striking part of this episode is not what happened but the nonchalant way she recounted it, acting as though she did nothing more unusual than flip a quarter to a panhandler.
-- ACQUAINTANCES --
i remember a woman, a near stranger really, who mom tried to help escape from a physically and emotionally abusive marriage. we would go to this woman's house and my mom would sit at the kitchen table with this weeping, frightened woman and reason with her and plead with her to leave this horrible man. and this woman had a son. and when we would go there my mom would ask me to go and talk and interact with this boy. and one of the times we were going there i said i didn't want to go. and when she asked why not, i said the boy's room stank, which it did because this boy of thirteen still wet his bed every night out of fear and out of brokenness. my mom told me it was because that boy's room stank that i had to go and sit with him. it was something that just had to be done.
-- HER EMPLOYERS --
the profession my mom wound up dedicating herself to, fighting the spread of sexually transmitted disease and the improvement of reproductive health, could not seem more unlikely for a woman of her background and lifestyle. during her tenure in this career, she saw things that she couldn't understand. she sometimes saw things she couldn't believe. but as her knowledge about this foreign world grew, she did not recoil, she did not retreat, she did not wilt. she dug in. she worked harder. she implored others to work harder. for my mom, it was a job that needed done and it mattered that it was done right. in the last week, i've received a flood of sentiments from mom's past colleagues. they said what you'd expect them to say about her but one man, ed powers of harrisburg pennsylvania, described her in a most poignant way. he said, "Your Mom was a tremendously hard worker in a sea of men - even in the mid to late 90's, when you'd think the good ole' boy networks should have been gone, they weren't - but Nyla persevered and found a niche. It wasn't easy for her. Nyla was honest, not always the first to speak, but direct. Smart. She was the right person for the right job in Pittsburgh ... I liked your mom." ed went on to say that he and nyla also shared a mutual distaste for cleaning toilets, a sign that ed did know my mom if not quite well, well enough.
-- HER GRANDCHILDREN --
when my first child was born, my mom's first grandchild, she and my father were on the road before the umbilical cord was cut. they at the time lived in pittsburgh and my family lived in saint louis. my mom was in her most senior job to date with the federal government and had just a few years to complete before she would be eligible for retirement, but the notion of waiting those few years was unfathomable to my mother. during her weeklong stay with us, the only time she left the house was to investigate her saint louis options for employment and by the time she was headed back home, her transfer to saint louis was well in motion. my mother WOULD KNOW her grandchildren and more importantly her grandchildren WOULD KNOW her. and they do. she is known as grandma in the woods and they know, intimately, where every toy and treat in her home resides which is just the sort of warm and familiar environment she hoped for.
-- HER HUSBAND --
from a son's perspective i was always proud of my parents marriage. i was proud that they stayed together. i was proud they worked on their problems in a manner that was mature and respectful. i was proud they viewed each other as equals. for their generation, this was not always an assumed outcome. recently my family stayed with them. i slept on the living room couch and woke when my mom and dad came into the kitchen to begin their day. without stirring or opening my eyes, i overheard their early-morning conversation. they spoke easily and comfortably with one another. they spoke in a manner that could only be described as tender and familiar. i am now infinitely thankful for that small and intimate glimpse into my parents friendship.
even as recently as last week, i wouldn't have been able to speak to this point as well as i can today. for i had no comprehension of the intensity of my father's love for his wife of forty-five years. what i can say of her in this regard is i know her commitment and support to this man was fierce and unwavering. she would have endured any trial for him and now i know with absolute certainty, the same could be said of him towards her.
-- HER ADOPTED SON --
i always knew i was adopted. handling that knowledge in any other way but with sheer honesty was outside my mother's ability, just as feigning there was an easter bunny or any other marketable figureheads would have not been acceptable. when i was old enough to understand what it was to be adopted, mom had an annual ritual with me. she would sit us down knee to knee, she would look into my eyes and after a bit of preamble say, "even though i didn't give birth to you troy it is not humanly possible for me to love you any more than i do. it's important to me that you know that." every time, at the end of that statement her eyes would flood with tears, she would tremble and cry with the power of this truth. as i got older i thought our ritual, then known to me by heart, was silly. i had always assumed all children received this treatment and it wasn't until later in my life that i learned otherwise.
when i was in my late twenties while home celebrating christmas with my folks, my mom handed me an unmarked envelope. i looked at it and asked what it was. she said it was the name and phone number of my birth mother. some adopted children spend their whole life and droves of resources in search of this information and my mother handed it to me as though it were a common grocery coupon. i glanced at the envelope before handing it back to her unopened. i leaned in, kissed her on the cheek and told her i only had one mother ... and i already knew her phone number.
-- HER FRIEND --
mom kept few friends. but the few she had were close, close like family. after all the words and emotions that have been flying about this week, the most concise of them were said by my mom's dearest and longest-held friend, barbara brown. when she and i first talked this week, she said to me through a choked voice, "i feel as though i've lost my right arm troy." and it was not only the words she chose but the heartfelt way she said them that i could have a sense for the depth of her hurt. my mom was a quick and phenomenal judge of character and that she called barbara brown the greatest friend she ever had through her life, i take as no small matter. if there's any consolation her best friend and the rest of us have it is this; nyla is no longer in pain. she is no longer suffering. for this we can all be glad and thankful.
-- THE GRAND CANYON --
the last conversation i ever had with my mom was on the phone. she and my father were driving back from the grand canyon. the grand canyon was something she had always wanted to see and never had until last week. aside from 'say hi to marty and the kids', 'goodbye', and a parting 'i love you', the very last sentiment my mom was to ever express to me was how spectacular the grand canyon was. she said it just couldn't be described. she said it had to be witnessed first-hand to believe it, to conceive that something this amazing, this breathtaking was even possible.
then last weekend, while my father and i made the fifteen hour car ride home, the ride to begin our new lives, my father commented on how long they say it took for the grand canyon to form. i forget the specific number but it was something dramatic and hard to fathom, the point being that it happened in microscopically slow and subtle steps. this was how mom worked. her methods were also slow and subtle, so much so that to the naked eye it appeared there was no motion happening, nothing forming, nothing taking shape. but to make great things takes patience and passion and in her work and in her methods she created the deepest impressions on those closest to her and those who had the fortune of knowing her and being the benefactors of her gifts.
i feel about my mom as she felt about the grand canyon. you just can't describe her. you had to witness her first-hand to believe someone so fiercely devoted, so endlessly giving, so full of genuine and take-your-breath-away love was even possible.
read october 7, 2010