For those of you who are wondering where I have been the last month… On March 1st, my beautiful mother Susan lost her battle with cancer. She was a pastor in the United Methodist Church & she touched many lives. I have not been able to write anything since her death except for her eulogy, which I read at her memorial service on March 5th to a church filled to capacity with clergy, family & friends. I share it with you here in the hopes that you will take away something positive from learning about my mother. And ultimately, that you will join those who knew her personally in keeping her legacy, her memory & her gifts alive & accessible for future generations. Thank you for reading.
Good morning. My name is Cathy. I am Susan’s daughter. Wow. There are a lot of people here. My mother touched a lot of lives. She was a pretty amazing woman. I’ve been told I don’t look much like my mom, but that I sound somewhat like her and I have her mannerisms. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing my mother preach, then perhaps this morning you’ll hear a tiny echo of something familiar. I will try my best not to give a long sermon however—like the graces at the dinner table that just kept going on… and on… and on… right after she started seminary (as we would all sort of open one eye and look around the dinner table at each other). But the bottom line on that is: I really can’t promise anything, because as a friend recently reminded me— I am my mother’s daughter.
Which brings me to my first important point: No matter how impressed you are with this speech, I will not be preaching for any of you next Sunday!
If I cry today, please be patient with me. If I don’t cry, please be equally as accepting & understand it is not for lack of grief but is rather an answer to my fervent prayers for strength enough to make this tribute.
Let us pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, oh Lord my rock and my redeemer.”
As hard as I try, I am not able to make sense of cancer. I am not able to make sense of a life of hopefulness, purpose & helping others cut short at the tender age of 67. I am not able to make sense of losing my mom. But I do know that despite all this, my mother’s death does not have to be meaningless. Today we can do more than be here at this memorial service. Today we can celebrate my mother’s life, and really take to heart her contributions to the world. And we can do something much bigger than senseless cancer. Today can mean more.
At the end of my talk, I will ask you to do three very important things. We’ve handed out pencils, so please feel free to make a note or two.
So. My amazing and beautiful mother. When I was writing this, I thought a lot about what to tell you about her life. My brother and I were blessed to be loved and cherished children. We were wanted, we were respected, our parents believed in us. There is a beautiful story in the book “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach about a little girl about 5 years old (my Hannah’s age) who went out to dinner with her parents. The waitress came to take their order. The little girl without hesitation piped up and said “I’ll have a hot dog, French fries and a coke.” Her father said, “No, she’ll have meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans.” The waitress smiled, looked at the little girl and said, “So what do you want on your hot dog, honey?” When the waitress left, the girl turned to her parents with wide eyes and a big smile and said, “She thinks I’m real!”
Chris and I were always real to our mom. No matter what was happening around us or within us, our mother always believed in our potential, in our ability, and in us as our own creative entities. Not only did she “talk the talk” about respecting kids and communicating with them and listening. But she “walked the walk” as well.
One of my favorite childhood memories is what I call “the mudpie story.” I was about 3 or 4 years old and playing outside in the yard, sitting right at the end of a long hedge that went from the front door to the back porch. Of course, under that hedge was a big, awesome puddle of mud. From my vantage point, I couldn’t quite see the front door, but I could hear it open. I looked up suddenly to see my mother standing over me, looking down with no particular expression on her face. Then just as suddenly, she turned around and walked quickly back into the house. So what goes through a preschooler’s mind in that situation? Uh oh. I’m in big trouble. I know I must have been covered from head to toe in dirt and I was pretty sure her next move was to drag me off into a bath—or worse. But a few seconds later, I heard the door open again and my mother reappeared carrying pie tins, plastic spoons and plates. And she proceeded to sit down right next to me in that mud and make mudpies. (Fancy ones too, I might add—with leaves and berries and sticks for decoration—because as all of you know, my mother never did anything half-heartedly.) That was the moment I discovered my mother was cool.
So she talked about listening to kids, she advocated for kids. But she also got right down in the mud, right where we kids were, to truly listen, understand, and be there with us. Not to try to mold us to fit into an adult world, but to meet us in our kid worlds. This simple lesson became the foundation of my college & graduate school education, it became the foundation of my entire social work career working with kids and families, and indeed, it became the guiding principle I came back to time and time again when my son Alex was first diagnosed with autism. Now they call it “floor time” or other fancy names. Mom just called it “the natural thing to do” – you make mudpies.
Mom spent many years at home with me and Chris. She created a warm, loving “nest” for her family, she made our home an amazing place full of opportunities to learn (I’m thinking especially about the huge variety of pets she put up with, including a dog, several cats, fish, gerbils and my brother’s hermit crabs—ick!) Mom was a girl scout leader, an avid gardener who kept us stocked with fresh veggies, herbs & “sun tea” every summer, and a self-taught cook who graced us with meals from around the world— including Korean, Italian, French & Chinese cuisine.
She read stories out loud in the back yard, brought me tea & cookies when I did my homework, and let me stay up late listening to Beatles music with her and Dad. (Sorry Chris—I think you were still too little for those nights.) And with Mom’s superior organizational skills, she completely outfitted our green Volkswagon bus with all the trappings of a fully stocked kitchen, pantry & utility closet and every home comfort imaginable without even rearranging the seats. Now that is talent. I mean, seriously, a bomb could have wiped out the rest of our neighborhood and we could have survived in that van for six months without running out of snacks & paper towels. No lie.
So she did the stay-at-home mom thing for quite a while. And I think Chris and I would both say she aced it. It was great to grow up that way. But inside our mother, there was a persistent calling. Like a voice that steadily grew louder and louder until she could no longer just set it aside. Mom told me that when she was a small child, she had an out-of-body experience when she was really sick with a high fever. Several years later, during a youth event at her church, she felt a calling to go into the ministry. By the time Chris & I were teenagers, Mom had fully organized her life around her family, but she knew that she needed to honor the life God was guiding her toward. The year I entered college, Mom went to seminary. (And for those of you who are thinking “Aww, how sweet to be going off to school at the same time as your mom” I challenge you to have the guts to share report card time with a woman who always had a 4.0!)
I remember Mom saying to me after a couple semesters in seminary, she felt that all the things she was good at, all the stuff she knew how to do, and all her interests, finally fit together in one place. She was meant for the ministry, she was a natural born helper-leader-teacher-inspirer and she had finally found her life’s work. In truth, I don’t know much about her specific experiences in those early years, since I was away at school and busy trying to grow into my own life. But I do know that whenever we talked about her classes or her new friends or her experiences as a pastor, the common thread was always about bridging gaps. Bringing people together. Teaching according to the people’s capacity. Empowering people, creating peace out of conflict. Mom was just so darn good at unconditionally accepting people as people, and not letting differences keep her from reaching out to understand someone else. She was a scholar of systems theory, and because of her beautiful diplomacy, anywhere she went people just felt drawn to her—perhaps because they innately knew that any difference in background or philosophy between themselves and my mother would not keep them from reaching true common ground and creating win-win-win situations.
Do you all watch or listen to the TED talks? TED stands for Technology, Entertainment & Design. They’re a series of short presentations by experts across many fields & walks of life. William Ury gave a wonderful TED talk recently on the importance of the “third side” in resolving conflicts, both big and small. I highly recommend you google that one or go to www.TED.com where you can watch the 20-minute video online. Dr. Ury’s research, work and personal experiences, show that while reaching out a hand in good faith to simply introduce yourself to someone different may not seem like much, these simple things you share can indeed change the world.
In August 2009, my mother was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer. A day after her diagnosis, she must have had at least 50,000 people praying for her. Prayer requests went out in huge ripples among all the families she had touched, and my mother felt the love & prayers that came back. They sustained her through her surgery in September, and the rather long recovery which followed. In October she began intensive chemo which took the beautiful curls which framed her face, but which never took away her optimistic spirit. The chemo lasted until January, when the doctors said her cancer appeared to have been eradicated. We celebrated Mom’s renewed energy and breathed a small sigh of relief. But three and a half months later, in April 2010, the cancer came back. Mom then started a different kind of chemo to keep it at bay. On December 22nd, we discovered the cancer was now in her lungs. The next day, five days before my mother’s 67th birthday, I began writing this speech. Mom died peacefully, in her sleep, with only me and Christopher in the room. Her last words were the The Lord’s Prayer. And she waited until she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that her children were ready to let her go.
Do you remember at the beginning of this talk I said I would ask you to do three things in honor of my mother? Well, grab a pencil and write this down.
First. Find a child today, any child- yours, a neighbor, a kid in church. Sit with them, be in their world for a few minutes and really listen to them. Allow them to guide you wherever the conversation may lead. Don’t just sit and watch them, really share a moment in their world. Then tell them– in whatever way feels right for you– that you believe in them, that you know they have unlimited potential to learn and that they can do good things in the world. Tell them that no matter what anyone else says they can. They can. And make sure before you go on about your day, that at least one child is absolutely sure that a grown-up knows they are real and believes in them. That was my mother’s gift to me.
Second. Find a person who is different from you. Maybe just from a different culture or background, someone who speaks another language, or maybe someone in your family who sees the world very differently. Stretch on this one, go out of your comfort zone a bit. Maybe pick the difficult person– you know the one, the one who causes you to go <sigh> and roll your eyes. Someone who is challenging or quirky or belligerent or ornery. Or perhaps someone you really don’t like very much. Reach out your hand and invite conversation. Sit with them, listen to them. Reach across that mental distance and open your mind to really hear what they say. Park your natural judgments or preconceived notions elsewhere for a moment, don’t talk back, just listen and trust that there is something important in doing this. Walk away knowing one thing about them that you didn’t know before. By doing this, you will do the most important thing a single person can do to create peace. That was my mother’s gift to the world.
Okay, so are you getting all this? Then let’s go further…
First reach out to a child. Second, reach out to someone different from you. And third—most importantly– share these ideas. Ask another person or two to try this same challenge.
I am not able to make sense of senseless cancer or to make sense of losing my mother. But I do know that today can mean more than all that. Today can mean more than simply remembering a great woman for her great work in her life here on earth. Today can be a chance to send a ripple out into the world, to shout out loud:
“Thank you God for Susan!
We remember what You called her to share with the world.
And while she is with You in heaven,
we will continue that work in honor of her.”
Let’s send a ripple out to the world that God himself can see from the clouds. Make my modest mother giggle with delight watching over us from heaven. Let’s all do that. Because she would really love it.
Thank you. God bless you. Amen.