A Year On

It’s been a year since Mom passed away. A whole year. I can hardly believe it. There are a thousand stories I could tell you about her. Some serious. Some funny. Some disturbing. Some all three. . 

Here’s one…

When I was a kid, she convinced me to be a part of the church Christmas play by saying to me one day, “Joey. Would you like some ice cream?” 

“Yes!” I said, because I loved ice cream. I still love ice cream. 

“Great! Get in the car. Let’s go.” 

She drove me to Forrest Park Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio – our church at the time – and told me to get out of the car. 

“Mom? I thought we were getting ice cream!” 

“We are. Just as soon as you’re finished with play practice. You meet twice a week until Christmas, and don’t think about backing out, now that you’ve committed.”

“But I…”

“Have fun!” 

And she drove off. We ended up getting ice cream that day, but I was wary of her invitations from then on out. Sometimes, they came with thick strings attached. 

Here’s another one … 

When I was about ten years old, Mom took my sister and me to the Greenhills pool one summer afternoon. We put our towels down on the hill overlooking the concourse because all the chairs were taken, and we spent a few hours swimming. 

Normally, my friends and I would play dodgeball in the grass next to the pool during adult swim when us kids weren’t allowed in the water. But on this day, none of my friends were there. One of the kids in our group – Jack was his name – had a birthday party, and everyone was invited but me. 

So I sat moping on the beach towels on the hill overlooking the pool, and refused to talk to anyone. Mom sat next to me. 

“I just thought of a story,” she said. 

I didn’t respond, so she continued. “This friend of yours…”

“He’s not my friend.” 

“Okay. This kid. He wakes up the morning after his birthday to find that he’s got big, donkey ears.” 


“Donkey ears and a tail. And every time he speaks, he brays like a mule. And he smells like a sewage plant.”

“And people stop calling him Jack. Instead, they call him Jackass.” 

Instead of scolding me for the dirty word, she laughed.

“Right. Jackass. He’s the biggest Jackass in greater Cincinnati.” 

“Everywhere he goes, people say to him, they say ‘Watch out, everyone. There goes that gigantic jackass again!” 

We laughed hard at that for a while, I felt better about missing that Jackass’s birthday party, and from there on out, every time someone made me angry, I would invent stories in my head about them being part of the Jackass family.

That family is pretty big now.

Then there was the time we ran out of money and mom had to sell her piano to make ends meet. I was very young at this point; four or five maybe. She loved that piano. She had all kinds of sheet music, and she would play from her big book of songs in the summer afternoons when it was too hot to do anything else. It would somehow make things cooler.

The guys in the moving truck came, and took her piano away. She stood at the screen door, crying, for a good long time after that. At the time, I remember thinking she must have liked that piano more than I thought. I understood that more as I got older. 

Still more. 

When I was in high school, my friends and I loved to play frisbee golf. We’d go play the courses in Cincinnati and, if we returned to my house, Mom would loudly proclaim: “Don’t get your jizz on the carpet, guys!” 

“Yeah, Joe,” my friends said. “Stop jizzing on the carpet.”

We told her what it meant, but she didn’t believe us. She had to ask her friends at work the next day, which just made things all the more awesome. We laughed at that for a good, long time. We never stopped laughing at that.

When I was in middle school and my sister was in high school, our one landline – remember landlines? – our one landline was almost always tied up by my sister, talking on the phone with her then boyfriend. 

That’s probably not exactly true. It might have only been a few minutes a day, but to me, it seemed like always. 

Anyway, whenever my sister was on the phone, Mom would sneak into the bathroom with one of the other phones, plug it in, and then spy on my sister’s phone call. As if neither of us knew what she was doing. Caryn and I made up all sorts of fake stories with our friends and respective love interests just to drive mom into wild fits. 

Mom had a hard time when Caryn left for college. Part of her light seemed to grow dim for a while. I left two years later, and I have to imagine the same thing happened then, too, although I never saw it up close like I did when Caryn left. 

My oldest son will be in eighth grade next year. Blink, and he’ll be in college like we were, and I can imagine some of my light dissipating for a while, too. I’m starting to figure that out. 

One of my favorite things Mom did was to wake us up for church on Sundays. She’d sneak into my room, and gently prod me awake. I’d pretend to be asleep. Or annoyed, Or asleep and annoyed. But, eventually, I’d get up and we’d get going. She never forced us to go, but she laid a good foundation for my sister and me. She always spoke openly about God in a way that showed her deep faith and love for the Lord, but was not overbearing. If you disagreed, that was okay. She still loved you. Loving you was more important that you believing what she thought was right. 

I struggle with that sometimes. 

Mom tried to get me to go to the hospital to see my Grandpa Shaw when he was nearing the end of his life. I didn’t. I kept telling myself that he was just getting something fixed, that there would be more time, that this wasn’t the end. But it was. And when I went to his funeral, I couldn’t believe I had missed my last opportunity to say goodbye. 

When Grandma Shaw died a few years later, I was there to say goodbye. Mom was right there with me, holding my hand. She told Grandma I was there to say hi, and Grandma turned her head slightly and tried to smile. I had to leave the room. I had never been that close to someone who was dying before. It was hard to see. 

When my Grandma Amrein was killed in a car accident, Mom asked if I would read Grandma’s favorite scripture at her funeral. Psalm 121. I will lift up mine eyes to the hills. From whence commeth my strength. 

I made it halfway through before the lump in my throat took over and I couldn’t make the words come out anymore. The pastor had to finish for me. 

A few months later, the girl who killed my Grandma spoke at one of the local schools. Mom went. Afterward, she approached the girl and said that she forgave her. It was a touching moment (you may have heard me speak about it before). That girl went on to marry into a family that’s famous in Cincinnati for a certain brand of cookies. As far as I know, Mom never bought those cookies again the rest of her life, despite her having forgiven the young woman. 

Which just goes to show that forgiveness is an easy thing to say, but a hard thing to do. 

Mom was over the moon excited as we prepared for the birth of our first kid. Jen was in labor for a good, long while and mom, having grown suspicious that we had neglected to let her know when he was born, called all my friends and the hospital multiple times, asking what was happening. 

Many years later, knowing that we had been trying to have a girl, Mom settled into the idea that Shaw Kid #5 – SK5 – was going to be a boy. That’s what the Doctors said, after all. They had been back and forth for a while, but the final ultrasounds all said Boy, so that’s what it was going to be. 

We called her after everything calmed down. Mom asked “So … what’s his name.” 

“Phoebe,” I said. 

“Phoebe? That’s an odd name for a …. Wait?” 

“It’s a girl,” I said, and she cried open tears of joy in celebration. 

There are so many stories. So very many stories. I could sit here for hours recounting them. If you knew her, you know. If you didn’t … well, you really would have liked to know her. The light dimmed sometimes, but it was always there, and she was always willing to share it. 

A few years ago, mom started having health problems. It got worse and worse. I remember I was driving through a wetlands park here in Florida, when I spoke with Mom after she had come home from yet another trip to the hospital. 

“The doctors say things are looking better,” she said. 

“Mom. I think you need to get some new doctors. I don’t think these guys know what they’re doing.” 

“I’m fine where I am,” she said, and that was that, although I think that’s when she knew things weren’t going to get better. 

We spent many evenings from there on, talking late into the night: her on her back porch in Greenhills, Ohio and me on the front porch, sweating through another summer in Orlando. We talked about old friends. We talked about the kids. We talked about politics and faith. We told stories. 

Exactly one year ago today, we stayed up late, chatting. I was preoccupied with my latest attempt at changing the world through a TEDx talk, and she just listened. She said the doctors wanted her to go into the hospital again for a simple procedure to help fix the swelling in her legs. 

“It’s only an hour or so,” She said, “It’s nothing.” 

Mom and Dad called the next night from the hospital to let me know when the surgery was planned. They had been looking at new places to live. Making plans for the future. She told me she loved me. I told her I loved her, too. She seemed happy. Hopeful. 

This was the last time I would speak with her on this side of the veil. 

The following morning, she had her surgery. She came through, but crashed shortly afterward. I flew up. By the time I got there, she was mostly out of it. Dad was there. Caryn was there. My cousins Sandy and Michelle were there. I held her hand for a while. Then the doctors said it was time to remove the medicine keeping her alive. They gave her morphine, and what little bit of her presence that had hung on long enough for me to get there, melted away a few minutes later. 

We sat with her in the hospital room, late into the night as her breathing slowed, rasped, and then eventually stopped. There didn’t seem to be much pain. She was there one moment, and the next she had just slipped away, almost without us noticing, even though we were all quietly watching and waiting. 

I stopped by the field that used to be our house where I grew up. They tore it down a few years back. I walked into what would have been our living room and I remembered the stories. I could still see us laughing about my friend, the Jackass. I could still see the piano being loaded up and carried away. I was hoping maybe to feel something Big and Important. But I didn’t. All I felt was numb. All I felt was the hole in my life she once filled. 

There have been many times in the last year, where I’ve caught myself wanting to tell mom another story. Something the kids did. Something that happened at work. Some struggle I’m having. Another Jackass who’s entered the fray. 

Then, I remember. She’s not there to answer. She’s with God now and I will see her again one day, and that’s all well and good. But right now, she’s out there somewhere and I can’t share with her these things I am so used to sharing. It’s been a year, and that part still hasn’t gotten any easier. 

Mom didn’t want a funeral. She wanted everyone who loved her to gather in my aunt Nancy’s backyard and have a party. She wanted us to laugh and tell stories. She wanted us to enjoy ourselves, to not mourn too much. We did that, more or less. Family and friends flew in from all over. We grilled some food, drank some adult sodas, laughed, and told stories. The little kids ran around screaming. Exasperated parents chased after them, knocking over plates of food and various, assortments of toys and sporting equipment. Mass chaos. Just like every family gathering I can remember. Shortly thereafter, we all went back to our daily grinds and life just kinda … moved on. 

But we haven’t moved on. When you lose someone you love, there is no moving on. You just move forward. That part of your heart that was ripped out, that piece of your light that dimmed; it will always be that way. The wounds remain. You just learn to work around them.

That’s a hard thing. It’s good, because it means there was a lot of love there, but that doesn’t stop it from being hard. 

Some friends have asked what I would have said at Mom’s funeral had I delivered the eulogy. My first response is usually, “I probably wouldn’t have done it. My family still hasn’t forgiven me for screwing up Grandma’s.” 

If I had done the eulogy, though, it might have gone something like this … 

The last things I said to you, Mom, right as you passed were “I love you” and “Thank you.” Thank you for the stories. Thank you for the inappropriate jokes. Thank you for the mad attempts to get me involved in things I didn’t want to be involved in. Thank you for steering me away from the things I needed to avoid.. Thank you for always being excited about the Next Big Thing happening in my life. Thank you for teaching me to be a responsible human being, despite my limitless capacity for irresponsibility. Thank you for always pointing the way back to God in all things you do. That’s been a stronger compass in my life than nearly everything else. Thank you for giving me the freedom to fail at so many things, and the joy to share when I succeed at one or two of them. Thank you for showing me strength in failure and humility in success. Thank you for showing me what it’s like to be a servant, to continue loving people even as your life wound down. Thank you for so much wild, reckless love for me, my wife, my kids, my friends, our family, everyone. So much so that it’s almost embarrassing, and I don’t get embarrassed. 

Thank you for everything. I love you and I miss you, and I can’t wait to see you again. There are SO MANY Jackasses I need to tell you about. You have no idea. 

Also: don’t get jizz on the carpet. I hear God doesn’t like that.