Three months ago, I did perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, give a eulogy for my mom, who passed away in November after a courageous year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. I thought I’d share it here, as I know there were some people who had hoped to make it but couldn’t and I thought they might like to read it. The picture above is of her performing at Quizzo Bowl.
There was only one celebrity that my mom ever tried to get to speak at a school graduation. Fred Rogers. This was after he retired, and he was no longer traveling to do speeches, so he begged off with a sweet note he wrote back. But she was a huge fan of his compassion, and there is a quote of his that makes me think of my relationship with my mom:
“From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who smiled you into smiling. People who have talked you into talking. Sung you into singing. Loved you into loving. No matter where they are, deep down, you know they’ve always wanted what was best for you. They’ve always cared about you beyond measure and have always encouraged you to be true to be the best within you.”
That was my mom. That was my #1 fan. The one who came to nearly all of my sporting events, even though she didn’t know a point guard from Point Break. The one who, until the day she died, was still angry at the judges who didn’t put me in the top-3 at the 5th grade oratory contest. The one who sent me little notes whenever I wrote an article or a blog post, telling me how much she enjoyed it…and also making sure to point out any grammatical errors I had made.
The only thing more important than grammar was basic decency, and the height of decency was being kind to people who could do nothing for you in return. She was a champion for the underdog. That probably came from her childhood, which was not an easy one. It was through sheer force of will that she was able to emerge from it successfully. Some people who overcome such difficulties to lead a successful life, say “I did it, why can’t you?” Others say, “I did it, and you can too!” And then there are the rare few like my mom, who say, “I did it, now how can I help you do it?”
In her obituary, we wrote, “upon entering a room she had a 6th sense for finding the person there who was least comfortable and made it a point to walk over and chat warmly with them.” There was a comment below from an old high school friend: “As an awkward, shy, insecure high schooler, I benefited from her 6th sense, and I am forever grateful that she noticed me as one in need of gracious kindness, warmth, and friendship. My high school life was so much better because of her.”
I saw her do this time and time again: enter a room, look for the person who looked most alone, walk over and say hello. And to be perfectly honest, I never thought too much of it. It’s crazy to say now, but for many years I thought it was normal. But in recent years, as bullying and casual cruelty became not just tolerated but publicly celebrated by so many, I came to realize how remarkable and how unique my mom was. Mr Rogers once said, “There are three ways to ultimate success. #1 Be kind #2 Be Kind and #3 Be kind.” My mother was an ultimate success.
That is not to say that she didn’t have her moments. If you were unkind in return or if she thought you did wrong by one of her children, WHOA BOY! LOOK OUT. When my mom flashed her top row of teeth, you got to witness one of the most beautiful smiles on planet earth. But if she flashed that bottom row of teeth, well God Bless ya. Best of luck. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the judges in the 5th grade oratory contest.
To my sister and dad, I want to publicly say thank you. Your courage when faced with this awful scenario was surpassed only by your compassion. I have always loved both of you, but seeing the way you both took care of mom this past year left me in awe. To the many of you who cooked, who cared for, and who checked in, I want to say thank you as well. There is only one thing that prevents this kind of heartbreak from becoming all-consuming, and that is love. And one of the only silver linings of this awful year was to have had so much of it shown to us. Thank you.
I have a mentor in Philadelphia, a man named Ike who runs the basketball program I’ve coached in for many years. And I told him a few weeks ago that my mom had passed. He expressed his condolences, and said that he had lost his mom a few years ago and thought of her every day. And then he said, “I’ve heard it expressed that people don’t really die. Yes, sure, they die physically. But as long as there is someone to carry forward the light they brought into the world, their spirit never dies.”
With that thought in mind, I close with a request, particularly for her grandchildren and for the other young people here today. When you enter a room, look around, and find the underdog. The person in that room who could most use some kindness, some warmth, and some friendship. Walk over and say hello. 50 years from now they will still remember it. And my mother’s spirit will continue to live.