Family and friends gathered yesterday in Huntsville to honour a wonderful friend, partner, sister, mother and grandmother. It was a beautiful, bright and cold sunny day--perfect Ontario winter weather. The numbers were impressive--at least 100 people came to share their stories and express their gratitude at having known a woman who handled life and death with grace and courage.
I got the short straw and therefore had to speak first. This is the speech I gave on Saturday at my Mom's memorial:
"I was worried about the weather being bad today, but I should have known better--there’s no way Mom would have allowed that to happen on “her day.” I joke, but when I was a kid I was firmly convinced my Mom controlled the universe. She knew things--I could get away with nothing. Now of course I know that’s because whatever my imagination could come up with she’d already thought of herself because she was diabolical. But at the time it was like she was this all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful being.
Maybe it’s because of that perception of her that I didn’t really take her first breast cancer scare back in 1993 all that seriously--to me, she was bullet-proof. That, and the fact that I was so busy in my first year of university experiencing my first taste of life as an adult and the all freedoms and adventures that come with that and didn‘t have time to worry about something that there was no way she could actually die of. Did I mention I was a selfish, self-absorbed brat who took for granted that life would always turn out the way I thought it should? The universe reinforced that perception when she did in fact successfully beat her cancer and life returned to normal.
It would take a long time for the realization that I almost lost her to fully sink in. I really became an adult in that moment--when I realized my Mom was a mere mortal with faults and guilts; that the laws of physics did apply to her and that she wouldn’t be around for ever. The idea of living without her was crippling--I realized how special and important she was and that realization changed our relationship. We never talked about it, but I knew she recognized something had changed between us--what had changed was I now realized her full worth and value while at the same time I no longer put her on a pedestal, holding her and, by extension myself, to a standard neither one of us could ever have achieved.
When her cancer came back, we were all shocked. This wasn’t supposed to happen--she was cured. She’d patiently journeyed though that 10 year window and had made it to the other side where the chances of a reoccurrence were supposed to be smaller than chances of being killed in a car accident. Why was this happening? Surely she would beat this again. It didn’t take long for me to realize this time, things were different. Very early on I accepted that she was going to die. She tricked us there for a while--she spent an entire year looking healthier than anyone I’d ever known!
I am so thankful for those 72 weeks of successful treatment--she got to enjoy a relationship with my two nieces, Hayden and my Mom’s namesake Rylie Glorianna, who was conceived after she was diagnosed! She crammed so much life into those 72 weeks. And I soaked up her presence in my life up like a sponge. I got a voicemail from her on her 62nd birthday thanking me for my gift to her. She sounded so healthy, so vibrant, so like my Mom. I saved that message--I still have it. I listen to it every week when the time comes for me to save it again.
I’m very glad I chose to take 3 months off work to be with her on the final leg of her journey. We talked about things that we never would have talked about under a different set of circumstances. I can’t overstate how important that time was for me--it helped me to come to terms with her death and it ensured I had no regrets over things left unspoken. So few people have that opportunity to let someone know much they matter, how much they will be missed. The day before she died she told me she loved me and was proud of me, and I told her I loved her and I was proud of her. We never meant it more than we did right then.
Our mother lived life on her own terms and she died on her own terms. Make no mistake--the day she died was no accident: she didn’t want to die at Christmas, she didn’t die at Christmas; she didn’t want to die alone, she didn’t die alone; she didn’t want to die in pain, suffering the indignities that accompany long term illness, she died peacefully, with her dignity and her faculties intact.
I’ve been reading this web comic recently--it’s called “Something Positive.“ In it, one of the characters said something that really stuck with me. He said, “it’s not what happens to you that people will remember you for, it’s what you did with it.” Our Mom will be remembered not for having had cancer, but for how she lived with it--how she never lost her positivity, her courage or her strength. It may be what ended her life, but she beat cancer. She never defined herself by it. It took her body but not her spirit."
Thanks to everyone who came out and to those who were there in thought and spirit. It was the perfect day and the perfect send-off.