Ode to Leah

My 89-year-old mother passed away on Friday 13 January, 2023. We held her funeral service and buried her on Friday 20 January. As the last remaining coherent member of her immediate family, I was asked to speak at her funeral.

Here is my speech, in its entirety:

Thank you, Pastor Murphy, and thank you to all of you for being here, from near and far, in person or in spirit, to celebrate Leah.

I want to share with you a little about my mom’s life, but I also want to describe her final moments, as I had the blessed opportunity to be with her at that time.

First, though, allow me to explain why my father is not here.  He is suffering from advanced dementia, and, try as I might, I’ve been unable to tell him what has happened to his wife of 69 years.  Some of us plan to visit him at his retirement home later this afternoon, but, in fact, it was my mother’s wish that he not be told of her passing.

My mother had many wise sayings, and one is certainly pertinent as we fight back tears.  I have here a handkerchief, but also a tissue.  Or as my mom would say: “One for show, and one for blow.”

Leah was born in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, and her experiences during childhood shaped her – through tragedy and poverty.  Two of her siblings died young in tragic accidents, and her father suffered a stroke and died when Leah was just 2 years old – allegedly after laughing at something young Leah did.  She carried this weight for the rest of her life, and regretted never knowing much about her own father.

Leah took care of her widowed mother, Marianthe, who lived to be 96.  Their family grew up in poverty, which instilled a strong will, a commitment to hard work and selflessness, and, above all, a stubborn self-reliance.  My mom hated, more than anything, to be a burden to anyone else.  In fact, as she laid in her hospital bed last week, she kept telling me she was sorry for burdening me with her care.

These formative years also taught Leah to do things right or else suffer the ridicule of others.  Often, she would cite the Greek phrase “Tee tha pee o kosmos,” which, loosely translated, means “What would people say?”  You did things the right way, treated others kindly, never sought the limelight, but always maintained your pride and dignity.  That’s how she lived her life.

My mom and dad married in 1953, and my sister Harriet was born a year later with a serious heart defect.  Over the course of her 61 years, Harriet was in and out of hospitals with several open heart surgeries. Throughout, my mom cared for her daughter and worried about her.  When Harriet passed away in 2015, she asked to be cremated – but also that she be buried with her mother.  That’s what my mom is holding in her casket.

My mom never went to college – her family was too poor for that.  She worked several jobs during her adulthood, but her primary job was taking care of her home and family.  She was an exceptional cook, skilled repairman, and accomplished seamstress. She even made my sister’s wedding dress.  

Indeed, family was of paramount importance to her.  I believe she was very proud of the adults Harriet and I became, thanks to her unwavering love and devotion.  As she often said: “Friends come and go, but you’re stuck with your relatives.”

In her later years, Leah loved caring for her five grandchildren.  They brought her great joy and entertainment, but I feel grateful for the many life lessons she shared with them.

Leah suffered a serious injury in 2016 – a tear in her aorta – and, although it was miraculously repaired, it confined her to a wheelchair.  Her frustration grew as she lacked the mobility to do simple things for herself, and, for the past several years, she lived in considerable pain – although, typical Leah, she would never complain or call attention to her misery.

I want to close by describing Leah’s final moments, because they were beautiful and I hope they bring you comfort.

Two weeks ago, my mom fell in her nursing home.  Then, last Monday, January 9, she fell again.  The medical squad took her to the hospital, where doctors discovered a broken vertebrae in her upper back… and a small tear in her aorta.  They offered her surgery for both injuries, but she refused.  She had grown weary of her failing body, and didn’t want to suffer any more.

As the week progressed, the doctors tried to keep her comfortable, reduce the fluid buildup in her body, and, most of all, increase her blood oxygen level.  For you and me, our blood oxygen level should be close to 100% – hers was dipping into the 60s.  Sadly, no amount of additional oxygen was helping.

Early on Friday morning, a week ago today, around 3:30 a.m., the doctor called me to say that Leah had refused any further interventions, and that I should come immediately to the hospital.  After I arrived, the nurses removed her oxygen mask and we were able to talk.  Again, my mom apologized for being a burden to me.  I explained that I probably still owed her for all the things she did for me, and she smiled.  My wife offered her a cup of coffee, and she drank it all – she said it was the best cup of coffee she ever had.

The nurses gave her some medication to help her relax, and she slowly drifted off to sleep.  I sat beside her, holding her hand.  Around 7:00 a.m., I told her I loved her, and those were the last words she heard.  She died peacefully at 7:06 a.m.

At this point, I want to thank the doctors and, especially, the nurses of Riverside Methodist Hospital who took care of Leah during her final days.  As her and I spoke that week, she was grateful for their care.  Our family has a special bond with that hospital.  My sister and wife both worked there.  My father volunteered there.  All 5 of my children were born there.  And both my mother and sister died there.

My mom leaves a legacy of five incredible grandchildren, and she’ll take comfort in knowing that they will carry on her values and traditions.  She also was able to exit on her terms, without relying on others – consistent with the way she lived her entire life.  May her memory be eternal.

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Solving problems

My 89-year-old father has begun a rapid cognitive decline.

Affected, no doubt, by the quarantine imposed on his retirement community in response to the pandemic, he has been afflicted recently by hallucinations.  He sees random strangers in his apartment, and several different versions of my mother.

One evening, he called me to explain he was being held hostage by a stranger in a strange room, and needed to get back to his own room and his wife.  When I calmly directed him to walk to his desk, and asked him what he saw there, he recognized the photograph of his own father and realized that his mind was playing tricks on him.  He began to cry.

This week, we met with a social worker to consider treatment plans.  During the visit, my father described his 43-year corporate career, all with the same Fortune 500 company, and how he was the vice president of engineering.  He spent his career solving problems, he told the social worker — but he can’t seem to solve this particular problem that affects his brain, and it frustrates him.

He concluded his remarks by expressing, with great sadness: “I am now a problem to be solved.”

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First class

For the final nine weeks of the school year, I served as a long-term substitute teacher at my neighborhood middle school — filling in for a teacher who left on maternity leave.  I taught 8th grade mathematics and Algebra 1 to 78 students.

This was my first experience teaching in a public school.  Earlier in my corporate career, I taught adults how to use computers, and even taught our top executives how to use e-mail for the first time, but that was long ago.

I wasn’t sure if I would like teaching 8th-graders… but it didn’t take long for me to develop a deep affection for these young ladies and gentlemen.

When the school year ended, several of the students handed me thank-you notes.  Here are excerpts from a few of them:

(1) “I really for once in my life genuinely enjoyed math class for a quarter.  Before you came to teach, [my table-mate] and I would complain about math, but now it’s the highlight of our days.  Thanks for being an awesome person!  I will always remember you.”

(2) “You did a wonderful job taking over for [the previous teacher], and you’re a great teacher… I admire you for being so confident, and I think you’re very fun.  Congratulations on becoming a teacher!  I hope all your [future] students will be as great as us!  Have fun and smile every day!  Find the hypotenuse in every puppet!”

(3) “Thank you for being our long-term sub, and for being so good to us.  I appreciate you, and everyone appreciates you.”

(4) “I want to thank you so much for a great end of the year.  It was so much fun and I never knew so much kindness could exist in one man!”

I was most touched by a parent’s comment.  She approached me while I was watching one of my daughter’s softball games, and told me: “You changed my daughter’s life.”  Confused, I asked: “For the better, I hope?”  She replied affirmatively, adding: “In just a few weeks, you became her favorite teacher of all time.”

I have since completed all the requirements for my full-time teaching license, and look forward to my next assignment.

But I will never forget the wonderful young ladies and gentlemen in my first class.

 

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Father’s Day letter

When my 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte, asked me what I wanted her to buy me for Father’s Day, I told her to save her money — but I would gladly accept something that she made for me.

So she made me a painting, and wrote me the following letter:

Thanks dad for always being at my games whether it be soccer or softball (my last year I think) and cheering me on.  I love it when you play catch with us on the beach, and throw the ball for us in the water that we have to catch (“Charlotte never misses”).

It’s memories like these that will be forever in my mind!

I also like it when you are down for playing games with us, like yahtzee (spell check!) or others.

You and mom both taught me how it felt to be loved.  Thanks for molding me into the person I am today.

And I know you know it but I love you sooooo much.

And I am forever grateful that you are my dad.

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Birthday letter

From my 12-year-old son on my 60th birthday:

To dad:

This year has been awesome with you.  I can’t think of a time in which I have not looked up to you as a great role model.  You teach me things every day — maybe without you even knowing.

I love the fact that every day I get to see you during school and give you a hug.

In my opinion I think there are no dads that meet all of these points except you.

I want to say thanks for taking your own time to come to all of my sport events and being my baseball coach.  I also want to say thanks because I love it that you like to check over my written work and help me on math problems that I do not get.

Love,
Louis

p.s. — Love the millennial outfit.

To clarify a couple of points in this letter:

(1) I was serving as a long-term substitute teacher in my son’s school (but not in his grade) during the final 9 weeks of the school year.  That’s why he was able to see me every day.

(2) My son saw me wearing a suit with tennis shoes and labeled it my “millennial outfit.”

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To my children

To Lily (age 18), Emma (16), Sam (14), Louis (11), and Charlotte (11):

As you know, today I am undergoing surgery for prostate cancer.

Although my prognosis is good, and the surgeon is confident, any surgery carries risk.

I’ve never had surgery before, except for having my tonsils removed more than 50 years ago, when I was five years old. My memory of that surgery isn’t very crisp, but I vaguely recall a sparse hospital room and some ice cream.

I’m not completely sure what to expect during my surgery today, and I will confess that I am a bit frightened. In fact, I feel as though I am still just a little boy, scared and lonely.

I am told that I will be given a general anesthesia — I know, that sounds like a military leader — and will sleep through the entire operation. As I await sleep, I want you to know that I’ll be thinking only about the five of you (and, of course, your mom).

Since receiving my cancer diagnosis on April 5, I’ve thought a lot about my life. I’ve tried to live a good and honorable life, but, in many respects, my life has been neither noteworthy nor remarkable. Humanity could get along quite well without me.

But what makes my life truly remarkable, incredibly #blessed, and worthy of continuation is: you.

I’d like to stick around so I can continue to instill the proper values, offer life lessons, and see you grow to become successful adults. (Plus, I want to take you back to Kauai, the place where your mother and I were wed and began this wonderful family.)

You have already proven, time and time again, that you are better than me in so many ways. You are smarter, more attractive, and better athletes. You are kind to others, and have many good friends.

I take great pride in this. In a sense, your mother and I have improved humanity by creating you.

I’ve chosen a song to play in my head during surgery and put me in the proper state of mind: “Strength to Endure” by the Ramones. It’s not a great song, but the lyrics include:

I have the strength to endure /
And all the love that’s pure

My love for you and your mother is pure, strong, and everlasting — and it gives me the strength to fight through my fears, endure my operation, and make a complete recovery.

Being a father, and a husband, is what makes my life noble and worthwhile. It’s the best job I could ever have.

You’ve given me the will to live, and the strength to endure — and I am forever grateful.

Love,
Your dad

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My toughest speech

My sister passed away, suddenly, on June 18.  Hundreds of people — relatives, friends, co-workers, even former patients — attended her memorial service.

On behalf of the family, I was asked to deliver the eulogy.

Although I speak at conferences around the world, this was my toughest speech ever — and I barely made it through without breaking down.

Here is the speech, below, in its entirety… that little souvenir of a terrible year.

“A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

— The Wizard of Oz

Thank you to all who have come here, in person and in spirit, from places near and far. And thank you for your words of comfort and appreciation. They mean a lot.

I am William, Harriet’s little brother, and I’d like to say a few words on behalf of her immediate family — her mother, Leah, her father, Tony, and me.

I’m joined here by my wife, Andrea, who has agreed to complete my speech if I become too choked up.

Yes, her real name is Harriet, and that’s what we always called her. She was named after her paternal grandmother, as is the tradition in a Greek family.

Harriet was three years older than me. She was my first playmate, teacher, mentor, and hero — and still is, and always will be.

I’d like to share a couple of stories about her. Keep in mind, though, that my memory is not as crisp as hers. Harriet had a legendary memory. She even claims to remember when one of our relatives once visited from Greece — which occurred when Harriet was a newborn, or maybe even still in the womb. I don’t remember, exactly. But I bet she does.

First, a funny story. When we were young children, our mother would often make us hot breakfast cereal — farina and oatmeal. One morning — we may have been 3 and 6 years old — we woke up before our mother, and I told Harriet I was hungry for oatmeal. Now, Harriet did not yet know how to cook oatmeal. But, those of you who know Harriet know that she is resourceful. She found the jar of raw oatmeal, poured some into a small cup, sprinkled some sugar on it, and handed it to me. When I told her this didn’t look like the oatmeal our Mom makes, she explained, convincingly, that this was a new, delicious variation which she called “oatmeal special.” I tasted it, and finished it, and continued to make it for myself well into adulthood In fact, I had some this morning.

Now, a story about Harriet’s courage and strength.

She was born with a heart condition, and endured five open heart surgeries over her lifetime. No one expected her to live as long as she did; she defied the odds against her. I recall one particular surgery — in 1989, I believe — where there was some doubt that she would retain her sparkling memory. The night before the surgery, we devised a plan to determine if her memory was intact: she would tell us the street number of our first house, 513. The next day, after surgery, we were permitted to visit her in her room. She had a tube down her throat, and was unable to speak. When we walked in the room, though, we saw commotion under the sheet covering her. We peeled back the sheet to see what might be wrong, and we saw her fingers repeating the pattern: 5-1-3.
Those numbers took on even greater significance when my first daughter, Lily — Harriet’s goddaughter — was born on May 13.

To close, I wish to acknowledge a few people who were special to Harriet.

First, her friends and colleagues at work. On the day that Harriet passed away, we sat in her room in the intensive care unit and were overwhelmed by the number of people who stopped in to pay their respects. We heard story after story about how much Harriet was loved, and how much she enriched the lives of others. These stories provided great comfort and pride to my parents, and I thank you for sharing them.

Second, my parents. They were the only constants throughout Harriet’s entire life, and lived in constant fear about her medical condition. They cared for her, and had to deal with Harriet’s stubbornness — how she routinely pushed herself, defying her doctors’ orders, to prove her worth. Mom and Dad, your burden has been lifted, and you can now appreciate that Harriet lived a miraculously long and good life — because of your love and devotion to her.

Finally, Harriet’s precious nieces and nephews: Lily, Emma, Sam, Louis, and Charlotte. Harriet’s heart condition prevented her from having children of her own, and I believe this was her biggest regret in life. When my children were born, though, I told Harriet to consider them her own children, too — and did she ever. She would take them shopping for their birthdays, host them for sleepovers and spa night, and introduce them to important music, literature, and art. Kids, she loved you more than anyone — and I take comfort in knowing that there are pieces of her within each of you: her beautiful brown skin, her luxurious hair, and even her quirkiness. Thank you for the joy you brought her.

Despite having been born with an imperfect heart, Harriet proved — by word and deed over her 61 years on Earth — that no better heart ever existed.

Harriet, I miss you, I love you, and I am forever grateful that you are my sister. I hope to see you again someday when we can share another oatmeal special.

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Brilliant comeback

Our two sons, ages 13 and 10, are inseparable.  They play baseball, basketball, and soccer together in the back yard, and share a bedroom.

They often bicker, too.

Actually, they bicker constantly, with the older son criticizing the younger son mercilessly.

We’ve taken to calling them “Turk” and “Virgil” after the bickering brothers (played by Scott Caan and Casey Affleck) in the modern “Ocean’s Eleven” movie series.

Last night, the younger son ended an argument with a most unusual tactic.

As we sat together at dinner, the younger son inexplicably got up from the table and began wandering around the room.

Noticing this, the older son said:

“Why are you the most annoying kid in the world?’

To which the younger son quickly replied:

“Why are you not?”

So confused by the feeble comeback, we broke out in laughter and the argument ended.

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Fairy tale

lily-london2

My eldest daughter has had a challenging senior year in high school.  Although she made the varsity soccer team, she rarely plays; just last week, she made a six-hour road trip with the team and didn’t play at all.  She practices as much and as hard as the other girls, and works part-time, leaving little time for a social life — for her, it’s practice, work, school, sleep, and not much else.  She takes difficult courses, and has cried on several occasions as she worries that she hasn’t done enough to prepare for college.

Like many teenagers, she has insecurities and issues of confidence.  She has often wondered aloud if her teammates and classmates even notice her.

This week, her classmates proved that they do indeed notice her.

First, on Wednesday, she was shocked to learn that she was elected to the Homecoming Court — one of six girls chosen by classmates.  When her name was announced, the other kids in the room erupted with glee and congratulated her.

Then, as if things couldn’t get any better, she played her last regular season game in soccer on Thursday.  A ceremony was held before the game to honor her and the other seniors, and, as is customary with this program, she was inserted into the starting lineup.

Normally a defender, she was positioned at forward.  Earlier in the year, she told the coaches that she was willing to switch positions if it would mean she could contribute more to the team.  She also told them that she had never scored a goal in high school, and she’d like to score one.  In response, the coaches had gotten into the habit of inserting her as a forward when the team had an insurmountable lead, and encouraged her teammates to set her up for a goal.  She had a few difficult chances, but no goals.  Still, it was sweet of the coaches to try, and of the other parents to cheer her on when she entered a game.

This would be her last game.  Although the team would advance to the playoffs, my daughter would likely see no action.

This last regular season game was vitally important to the team.  The girls were undefeated, and ranked second in the state in their division.  Winning this game would bring a conference championship — the first for the school since 2000 — and the first and only undefeated season in the program’s 40-year history.

The game began, and the girls appeared overwhelmed by the stakes.  The opposing team controlled play, and had three short-range shots on goal in the first three minutes that would have been easy scores if not for the brilliance of our team’s goalie.

Then, suddenly, the ball moved to the other end of the field.  Someone crossed the ball in front of the goal, and the opposing goalie lunged for it — and missed.  The ball continued to the opposite goal post, where my daughter was properly stationed.  With a simple kick, she knocked it past the outstretched goalie and into the opposite corner of the net.

After a moment of shock, the crowd erupted.  I looked over to my wife to see her jumping up and down.  Other parents, even those who are normally sedate, were out of their seats, screaming.  My daughter’s teammates rushed to congratulate her in a big pile; when my daughter offered a high five to the first teammate to arrive, the teammate opted for a big bear hug instead.

When the public address announcer shouted her name as the goal scorer, the eruption began again.

A couple of minutes later, the coach substituted for her.  As she ran off the field to wild applause again, her face featured the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.  Her coaches patted her on the back, and her teammates on the bench hugged her again.

The team would go on to score two more goals before halftime, and a fourth goal early in the second half.  Because the game will still tight, my daughter played only the first five minutes, and didn’t re-enter the game until victory was assured, with four minutes remaining.  The game ended with a 4-0 victory.

After the game, the coaches huddled with the players in the locker room and congratulated them on what they accomplished on this night: an undefeated season, a conference championship, and a goal for my daughter.  They praised her for the importance of the goal, and how it switched momentum.

While this was going on in the locker room, other parents came up to me and my wife to tell us how exciting it was for them to see our daughter score such an important goal in an important game, and how happy they were for her.  My wife replied: “This is like a Disney movie… a fairy tale!”

Finally, as I waited for my daughter to exit the locker room so I could drive her home, the athletic director walked by.  A gruff, imposing man of few words, he uttered something about what a good game it was, and I replied that they’re a good team.  Then, as he walked away, he spoke the words that any parent yearns to hear:

“You’ve got a great kid.”

My daughter emerged from the locker room, and we walked to the car, arm in arm.  I told her how proud I was of her and her team, and reminded her how much people care about her.  For the rest of the ride home — and even as I type these words — I fought back tears of love and affection for my great kid.

 

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Better

My three youngest children — ages 11, 8, and 8 — all played Little League baseball this summer.  I enjoyed watching them play, as it took me back to my own childhood when I would spend the better part of each summer day playing baseball.

Every time each of my children would come to bat, the opposing team and coaches would invariably yell: “Good hitter!  Everyone back up!”

No one ever did that for me when I played.

I hereby acknowledge that my children are better than me — in this regard, at least.  To me, this is the primary responsibility of a parent: to advance humanity by ensuring that your children are better than you.

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