Six years ago today, I gave the eulogy at my mom's funeral. I wanted to share with you the condensed version of my mom's battle with pancreatic cancer, her final days with us, and my mom's death, and her funeral. I wanted to share with you my story of losing a parent.
On December 5, 2007, my dad said four words that would forever change my life – "Mom has pancreatic cancer."
We were hopeful at first, but each test, scan, and doctor's appointment seemed to bring more bad news. When I found out that my mom's tumor couldn't be removed I wondered just how much time I had left with her. I knew that no amount of radiation and chemotherapy could save my mom from a disease that has often been referred to as a death sentence. I prayed a lot, and at one point offered 5 years of my life to give my mom 5 more years with us. I was desperate and scared. I wasn't ready to lose my mom, and watching the cancer slowly and painfully steal bits and pieces of my mom's life is something I will never forget.
If hope and strength could have saved my mom she would still be here today. I've always said that throughout my mom's battle with pancreatic cancer she was the strongest of us all. My mom didn't stop fighting until pancreatic cancer turned her into a walking skeleton and then took her life.
She Was Waiting
As my grandmother had waited for my brother to come home before taking her last breath at age 92, my mom also was waiting for her grandson. On November 15, 2008, my son tested for his black belt in TaeKwonDo. It was something he had worked hard for, and my mom had never missed a testing or belt ceremony until this day. She was just too sick to come. My dad talked to the nurse throughout the day as my son tested for his black belt. We learned that my mom was fading quickly now. She had not eaten, drank, moved from her chair, or spoken all day, until my son said to her "Grandmom, I passed my testing." And with those words my mom responded, saying "that's wonderful" over and over again. We placed an extra black belt in my mom's hand, which had been given to us by the master instructor for my mom. My mom believed so much in her grandson that she fought through the pain of pancreatic cancer to hang on until my son passed his testing.
That Last Night
We all went home after seeing my mom and giving her the black belt, but then my dad called and asked me to come back to spend the night. When I got to my parents' house, my mom was sitting on the edge of the bed. I said her name and she said mine and smiled. She knew I was there with her and that gave me some comfort. My mom ended up spending the night in the stuffed chair next to the bed, the chair she had been sitting in all day, because laying flat was just too painful. I covered my mom up with blankets and laid down in my parents' bed. My dad slept down the hall in my old bedroom.
I remember the biting coldness of that night, the hardness of the mattress beneath me, and how scared I felt. I couldn't sleep. I didn't want to sleep. I was petrified my mom would die during the night. So I just laid there, listening to her breathing. My mom's hands and arms would twitch and jump, like she had no control over them. And with each movement, the blankets would slip off of her. I was worried my mom would be cold, so I would get up and reposition her blankets, one time giving her an extra dose of morphine from her pump in hopes of calming her restless arms. I had no idea how my mom was feeling or what she was thinking. Was she asleep or awake?
My parents had a clock that projected the time in red numbers onto the ceiling above the bed. I watched as the minutes and hours ticked by. At some point I fell asleep because I awoke with a start, feeling panicked as I listened for the sound of my mom's breathing. Relieved to hear it, I got up again to cover my mom with the blankets. It was 4:35 am. I eventually fell asleep again, because the next time I woke up was when my dad came into the room around 7:30 am. I left the house about an hour later, wondering what the day would bring. On my drive back to my house, I prayed to God to take my mom home. As much as I didn't want to lose her, no one should have to live like she was at that point. She was merely existing, and she was in pain.
Her Final Breaths
My dad called my cell around 10:30 am to tell me my mom was taking her final breaths. I grabbed my coat and keys, told my husband I was leaving, and raced back to my parents' house. My dad held the phone to my mom's ear so I could talk to her. I told her how much I loved her and that it was ok to let go. When I got to my parents' house less than 15 minutes later, my mom was gone. I walked into the bedroom. My dad was sitting on the bed and my mom was in the chair. I could tell just by glancing at her that she was gone. I had always said that I wanted to be with my mom when she died. But truth be told, I was really scared that my mom would die in my presence. I believe my mom knew that, since she died about 2 hours after I left the house that morning.
As a doctor my dad was used to death, and being around dead bodies didn't faze him. I couldn't look at my mom's lifeless body. I couldn't even be in the same room with her. It freaked me out. After talking with my dad for a few minutes, I wandered down to my childhood bedroom, laid on the bed, and started making phone calls. After a while I told my dad that he should call the funeral home. The visiting nurse my dad had hired came to "officially" confirm my mom's death and soon after she left the funeral director came. He knew my dad, as I believe he or one of his family members was a patient of my father's, so he was expecting this call. After offering his condolences, he told my dad and I that we should decide what clothes we wanted my mom to be buried in. My parents had never discussed this detail, so my dad and I picked out a suit my mom had loved and I added the necklace I had given my mom less than 2 months earlier as a birthday gift.
All I Heard Was Silence
The funeral director suggested that my dad and I go downstairs, so that my mom's body could be removed. My dad and I sat at the kitchen table. The same table I had sat at with my mom just 2 days before. We didn't say much to each other, both of us lost in our own thoughts. I waited to hear the sounds of my mom's body being taken from her home. The clank of the gurney wheels on the steps. Anything. But all I heard was silence. After a little bit, the funeral director came into the kitchen to talk to my dad.
I felt a sense of peace and relief that my mom was no longer in pain. But nothing seemed real. I couldn't believe my mom was really gone. My mom was gone from my life, but life kept on moving forward around me. I left my dad after a while to go be with my family, especially my kids. The death of my mom hit my son pretty hard. My husband was the first person I called when my mom died, and my son knew that that phone call so shortly after I left only meant one thing – Grandmom had died. I asked him if he wanted to talk, but he didn't, so I left him be. I knew my son would come to me if he needed anything. Even 6 years later, my son rarely talks about my mom. I know that he loves her and he misses her, and every once in a while he and I will share a memory.
Making Final Arrangements
The days after my mom's death were a blur. First we met with the pastor who would be performing my mom's funeral. The next day my dad and I went to the funeral home to pick out my mom's casket, help with the details of her obituary, pick out flowers and music, decide on what the "In Memory" cards should say, and on and on. There were so many details to go over. I wanted to be there, to support my father and to be part of the final decisions made for my mom. But honestly I was numb with disbelief and exhaustion. My mind kept saying "is this really happening."
I also had to contact my son's teacher and make daycare arrangements for my daughter, since Thursday wasn't her usual day to be there. My husband and I decided that our daughter would be at the family only viewing, and then would go home with her father. She would not come to the funeral the next day. At two and a half, she was just too young to understand.
Friends called and I started receiving cards, flower arrangements, and other "gifts" of condolence. I purchased my son's first suit because he insisted on wearing one for the funeral. Then I dug through my closet for my black suit and shoes, making sure everyone had something appropriate to wear for the viewing and funeral. I gathered items that I wanted to place in my mom's casket and each of the kids chose something too. Then I began on the most difficult of tasks – writing my mom's eulogy.
The days between my mom's death and her funeral were busy and hectic. There wasn't time to think, let alone grieve. The full reality of my mom's death had yet to set in.
The Viewings and Funeral
I have been taught not to show public displays of emotion. This is something I grew up with, something that became ingrained within me. Although I have "slipped up" during the years, I did not cry at the viewings or the funeral. But my eyes did fill with tears during the family viewing. My husband and daughter were getting ready to leave. My husband was holding her and I said to my daughter "say goodbye to Grandmom." My daughter looked toward the open casket, waving as she said "bye, bye Grandmom." My heart broke hearing her say these words and realizing that my sweet daughter would never fully know her wonderful, kind, and loving grandmother.
The day of the funeral was cold, like it is today. My husband, son, and I were the first ones to arrive at the funeral home. Alone in the room with just my son, I asked him if he wanted to say hi to Grandmom. He would not go near the casket at the viewing the night before, but he said yes and we walked over and said hi to my mom. She was beautiful. I looked at each of the items we had placed in the casket. Family pictures surrounded my mom, along with a little stuffed bear from my son, which my mom had kept in her car, and a I believe a doll from daughter. I honestly don't remember what I put in my mom's casket, but I know it was something she had given me as a child. Along her left side lay the black belt my son had given her less than a week ago. As friends began to arrive, more items were placed in the casket.
My mom was loved by many, and I was touched by number of people – friends of my parents, coworkers of my mom and dad, even some of my dad's patients – who came to pay their last respects to my mom. Some of my friends came and I was very touched that three of my coworkers came up from Maryland to NJ for the funeral.
Time for Me to Speak
Along with the pastor, both my dad and I spoke at my mom's funeral. I went first, actually coming up to the front earlier than I should. One that day, I couldn't remember the details of the funeral. I had forgotten most of what we had discussed with the pastor. As I stood at the podium, the pastor came over to me and asked if I still wanted Ave Marie, my mom's favorite song, played. I realized the mistake I had made and told him to please play the music. As the song filled the chapel of the funeral home and I waited to speak, I looked over at my mom lying in her casket. My heart felt heavy with sadness, as I realize now that I would never see my mom again. Tears began to well in my eyes, but I didn't want to break down. I had a eulogy to give and I wanted to do it with grace, just as my mom had done less than 3 years before for her mother. When the music stopped, I turned toward everyone, took a deep breath, and began to speak. My words were shaky at first. I don't like speaking in front of people. But I didn't cry, and with each word my voice got stronger. I spoke with love.
A friend told me that there wasn't a dry eye in the room after I gave my eulogy. I hoped in some way my mom had heard me. I hugged my dad before sitting down in between my husband and son, and then my dad gave his eulogy. He spoke of family love, of the times we all spent together, of my mom's strength, and his love for his wife of 43 years. After the funeral, people began walking up to me to give their condolences and say goodbye, as the burial was private. There were so many people hugging me, taking my hand, crying as they spoke about how much my mom meant to them.
I made sure I was the last person to see my mom before the casket was closed. I stood alone in the room, looked down at my mom, and told her how much I loved her. I told her I would keep the promise I had made to her. I let her know that she would be missed. But I didn't say goodbye.
Our family plot is on a hill in a cemetery outside of Philadelphia. My mom is now buried with her parents and grandparents, and dad will take the last spot in the plot. It's a beautiful setting when the sun is shining, but it can be very cold on a windy November day. A few words were said by the pastor, along with a prayer, and then it was time to leave. We all laid roses on top of the casket and then made our way back to the cars.
The funeral was done. My mom was being buried. And for the first time her loss set in. I didn't know what to do. The last few weeks had been spent taking care of my mom, and worrying about her and my dad. Then we got everything together for the funeral. But now there was nothing left to do. I felt lost and empty, feelings that stayed with me for a very long time.
I decided to share my story with my readers in hopes that maybe someone could relate and to let you know that you are not alone in the way you feel. Although it's been 6 years, this was not an easy post to write. If you would like to share your story with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For anyone who is interested, here is the eulogy I gave for my mom on November 20, 2006:
On November 16, 2008, the gates of Heaven opened to welcome home a beautiful woman, one with dignity and grace, someone who always put others before herself. My mom fought valiantly against pancreatic cancer for almost a year and for awhile there was winning the battle. She never complained and during the entire time she was sick, I knew of only one time that she cried. I always thought that she was the strongest of all of us, especially since I cried all the time. The outpouring of love and support my mom received from friends and people she’d met during her lifetime touched my heart. It made me realize even more what a special person she was.
My mom deeply loved her grandchildren, and they loved her as well. She expressed to me several times that one of the things that troubled her most about dying was leaving Matt and Nikki. My mom showed her love for the kids right up to the very end. She would brighten when they came over, no matter how her day had been. And she waited for her grandson to get his black belt before finally letting go. Last Saturday she had hardly spoken a word all day. When Matt told his grandmom that he had passed testing and gotten his black belt, she said over and over again “that’s wonderful.” Less than a day later she passed away.
Psalm 34:18 says “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” My mom’s death has saddened many people and for me, watching how the cancer took her life broke my heart. But she is now at peace and we should be too. The Lord called her home to be one of His angels. My mom’s memory will be kept alive in our hearts and she will always be with us. Thomas Campbell said “to live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” Although we are saddened by my mom’s passing, this is a time for us to remember the special things about Marcia Harman, the happy times, and the lasting impact she made on the lives of everyone in this room.
Both of my mom’s parents lived into their 90s, so I always assumed I had many more years with her, until she was diagnosed with cancer. I believe that everything happens for a reason and my mom’s diagnosis showed me the importance of family and letting someone know how you feel. I opened my heart to my mom, something I had never done before. At some point a few years ago, I ran across a quote that stuck with me and is very fitting right now. With all the love in my heart, I say this to you, Mom – “I dropped a tear in the ocean. The day you find it is the day I will stop missing you.” I love you, Mom.