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.


About Wm. Amurgis

Father of 5, husband of 1
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