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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About Wm. Amurgis

Father of 5, husband of 1
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