This is the eulogy I gave for my mother last weekend — we were finally able to lay her to rest on August 22nd after she passed away from COVID-19 on May 2nd. May it be as inspirational for you as my mother’s life was for me.
[From Travels with Harley — Journeys in Search of Personal & National Identity…]
“My mother is the most courageous person I know. She had a miserable childhood in wartime and postwar England, living in poverty and abandonment. Even though she had plenty of reasons to be, she was never mean-spirited toward us. She conscientiously broke her own cycle of negativity, and her children — and their children — are the better for it. It’s the hardest thing for each and every one of us. Yet the power that enables us to say yes to the world, with all the good and bad, is the greatest of gifts.”
My mother was not only the most morally courageous person I’ve known — she was, as such, a greater warrior than I or many others I’ve served with. She fought for her place in her own family, her marriage, her children, and her grandchildren. She fought cancer. Twice. And then she fought Alzheimer’s.
But her greatest battle was her last. On April 9th, she tested positive for COVID-19. Having no immune system to speak of, she kept the invader at bay, eventually beating back the pneumonia that went with it. Think about that for a second — she lasted nearly a full month, longer than some younger and healthier who have died from the virus, including half of her unit at Valley View Nursing Home that went before her.
My sisters (Sheree and Susan) and I couldn’t figure out how she was doing it — especially with little food or water the last week or so. Yet, like a prizefighter, on sheer will, she kept getting back up, and getting back up, and getting back up — our hopes rising and falling with her. With a signature British stiff upper lip, her message to the virus — and to us — was simple: “I’m not going down without a fight.” And what a fight is was.
Her other message: “you may take my body, but you’re not taking my spirit.”
Sheree was with Mom her last night, administering the morphine. As you know, Sheree has been a nurse at Valley View for three decades. And a damn good one. In addition to many others, she saw our grandmother out, as she did Mom, letting them know they were not alone in their final struggles, that someone was there who loved and cared for them. I could never do what she does — I’d rather go back to the combat zone.
I’m awe of you, Sheree — you’re a hero to me, an angel of grace and mercy.
As resilient as Sheree is, Mom outlasted her and everyone there that night (including me on the phone, singing her favorite songs, telling her it was OK to go home, and to just follow the light). Having given everything she had, and then some, she found her peace. But on her terms.
While we were all sleeping in, at 8:07 on Saturday, May the 2nd — the first and most beautiful spring morning after weeks of miserable weather — when Mom’s final act of courage was to set her indominable spirit free. In the light, and not the darkness.
It was all a good omen. As I told my sisters when we said goodbye to her then, there was a much higher wisdom at work — as awful as it was those last days and hours, fighting for each breath, a far more merciful fate than the Alzheimer’s that would have robbed her of more than her life.
We’re at peace with it now. My friend Father Gregory, with whom I served in the Army, once told me that the purpose of prayer is not to tell God what we want, but to discover God’s will — that higher wisdom at work.
I had the privilege of being Mom’s caregiver her last few years — Mom helped me on the way in; I helped her on the way out. It didn’t seem like a privilege then, because I got to see, first-hand, some of the darker things that she kept from us all these years, as the Alzheimer’s took off all the filters. My sisters and I weren’t aware of how tough a youth Mom had had until we were young adults — how, for example, her bipolar father took his own life not long after she was married and had come to her new country and family, and before he met me and (my younger sister) Susan.
Yet, in all that time, my sisters and I rarely had view any of her own suffering. She spared us that so we could have a happy childhood.
It seems fitting, in retrospect, that she went to work at a private psychiatric center, Falkirk Hospital, in Central Valley — to help other troubled souls in their own struggles for peace. And, as she did later at Scibelli Associates realty, she was an island of calm in a sea of human turmoil.
It also explains her affinity for children and how it hurt her to see them in pain. St. Jude’s Hospital was among her favorite charities. She loved her grandchildren and great-grandchildren effusively and was their greatest advocate, wanting them to have an opportunity to have the happy childhood that had escaped her. Mom was rarely dealt good hands in life, but she played them well. And often with class and dignity. There was little pretense to her — she just was who she was.
Mom was not a very religious person, but there’s no doubt she’s with God now. Mom lived the Golden Rule of treating others as you wish to be treated, with a gentle manner of kindness. She did not call attention to herself — she was definitely not a Facebook person. If she prayed, it was in private — except when she was driving my sisters and I home one night in a snowstorm, and has us reciting the Hail Mary and Our Father, over and over again.
She quietly reached out to others, on a personal level, throughout her life — in embodiment of Aesop’s advice that “no act of kindness, more matter how small, is ever wasted.” I’m astonished to have been learning over these past months how many people she somehow provided comfort.
The world would be a much better place if people just did what they said they believed in, as Mom did.
Mom was the closest thing to Julie Andrews in a Disney film I ever saw — but she wasn’t always Mary Poppins (except when it came to housecleaning). Especially when she was being, well, you know, Mom. Maria may remember the time when I was getting ready to go to Bosnia at my place in Monroe and Mom was hitting me with the usual barrage of “don’t forgets.” “Don’t forget about this, don’t forget about that.” Until Maria finally turned to her and said: “Audrey, you’re a pain in the ass!”
Later on, witnessing the fullness of Mom’s quiet suffering, when she knew but never admitted to what the Alzheimer’s was doing and where it was leading her to, I came to realize that by seeing her darkness — her vulnerability — I was also seeing Mom’s humanity. She was paying me a back-handed compliment. It was then I came to fully appreciate the scope of her personal sacrifices.
My parents taught us the importance of self-responsibility and to hold ourselves accountable for who we are and what we say and do. But it was my mother who taught me how character matters, the best way anyone could — by her own example. It prepared me well for my own life journey. Character, indeed, is destiny. But it is so much more.
Character is standing by your principles, staying true to yourself and your moral compass, and maintaining poise and dignity in the worst of moments — staying high when others try to bring you down.
Character is walking the walk and not just talking the talk, actions always speaking louder and longer than words.
Character is kindness, empathy, and compassion, walking besides others in times of trouble, even if you don’t understand their journey.
Character is the humility that comes from self-confidence while seeing the dignity and value of others.
Character is never giving up, even when you give in.
Above all, character is having the courage to do the harder right over the easier wrong — especially when no one else is looking, or what someone else thinks about you.
I think that was Mom’s most important lesson for us, and the advice she’s left behind for all of us, but especially to those who call her “Nanny:”
“Don’t ever be too afraid to do the right thing.”
While at the front end of my own life journey, not long after I left home for the Army after high school, my mother gave me small placard you get in a gift shop, with a snippet of wisdom — the kind of thing she was so fond of collecting and giving to people.
This one read: “Success comes to those who believe in themselves and good that life can bring.”
Living well, they say, is the best revenge. It is also the best way to honor those we care about who’ve gone before us — to take responsibility for your destiny, answer the call to your own journey to live a meaningful life, and grab and pass the baton to run the human relay race we all must run, if only to enable others to do the same, as people like my mother did for us.
Do her a favor, if you would. Every once in a while, when you perform and act of kindness for others, think of her.
Thank you, Mom, for everything you’ve done for us.
The author, Colonel, U.S. Army Civil Affairs (Ret.) is a Senior Civil-Military Advisor at Narrative Strategies, LLC and the NATO ResilientCivilians project. He is also founder of the National Service Ride project and author of Travels with Harley — Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity.