This morning I awoke for the first time without my mother. My mom bravely fought and beat back the long-term effects of primary progressive Multiple Sclerosis for three decades. At 75 years young though, just shy of her 57th wedding anniversary with my father, it was her recent battles with heart and lung issues that she just could not win, no matter how hard she tried. And she tried. It was her heart that broke in the end and now ours are broken as well.
I want to share a little about my mom. Her story is my story. She was brought up in a predominantly Jewish area of Rochester, New York, the daughter of a Russian Jewish pharmacist and a Russian Orthodox nurse. She lost her mom tragically when she was only 15 and her father never provided support for her education – these both had profound impacts on her life.
But in 1963, just a year out of high school, my mom married her high school sweetheart, my dad, embracing his faith and converting to Judaism of which she was most proud, and by which she was forever defined. Her first few years she was a military wife on base in California but when my father’s service in the Air Force ended, they returned home to Rochester, bought a little mobile home, began their journey as a family and together worked hard in pursuit of better lives and the American dream.
My mom worked nights for years as a waitress at Jay’s Diner while my dad started his career as an accountant at Eastman Kodak and attended night school for nine years on the GI bill at Rochester Institute of Technology to complete his degree in accounting. This all happened at the same time their two young daughters, their pride and joy, were born in 1967 and 1972.
They saved up to by their first house in a good school district in 1969, a little cape cod on Garden Circle. My mother wanted to ensure that her daughters, the loves of her life, had the best education she could deliver, better than her own, and she knew education was what would open the most doors in life for her children. She taught me to read with flashcards before I even attended school. She met with our school principals’ each year and hand-picked our teachers – she was not going to leave this most important decision in the hands of others. She constantly pushed me to get better grades all through school. And she and my father saved all the pennies they could to help pay for my first year of college.
My parents both advanced in their life’s work – my father became an internal auditor and was given the opportunity to travel the world and my mom rose to be a manager of a Hallmark store which she took so much pride in. When I was eleven, they were able to buy a slightly bigger house, the same my parents still live in today. The house where I had my first job as a neighborhood babysitter at twelve, where I was a difficult teenager because education wasn’t my first priority then, where they gave me my first car as my high school graduation gift (a 1972 bright blue Ford pinto station wagon), where I lived when I worked as a waitress for several years to pay for the rest of my college years, where they helped me mend my first broken heart, where I left for graduate school in 1992 and never looked back, and where they built a lifetime of friendships that still exist today.
In 1993, my mom was finally diagnosed with MS. In hindsight, we were lucky - my mom’s was a very long, slow progression with plateau periods along the way. Moving to a wheelchair for distance was a difficult moment – it signified her first loss of independence. But she continued to walk, actually improving her gait with therapy, use a “stick” to get around and even drive up until recently. Nothing could stop her from still hosting her annual holiday party with 50 of her friends each year, or her annual family Thanksgivings for 30 or our annual family picnic each summer. And she didn’t let her disability get in the way of travelling– in the last 15 years she went to Israel, Egypt, Ireland, Scotland, Poland, France, St. Thomas, and Bermuda, drove south to see friends in every state, and twice spent a couple of months wintering in Naples (her favorite). And it was their end of summer weeks at the Jersey Shore with our family and friends that they cherished the most.
If you ask people to describe my mother you will hear words like “tough” and “difficult” and “spunky”. Recently a visiting nurse referred to her as “spicy”. She was all that. But what you will hear most from she and my father’s extensive group of long-time, close friends and family members when they describe my mom are that she was “good” (the best), “honest” (painfully in some cases), “caring” (always concerned for others), “welcoming” (opening her home and heart to all), “loyal” (the best friend you could have), and “proud” (of her daughters and husband).
My mother was not one to preach life’s great lessons. She just lived them. By the examples set be her and my father, my sister and I both developed our strong work ethic, learned the value of a dollar, know that honesty is the only policy, are compassionate for others, and will always be giving of our hearts and homes.
As my mom approached the end of her life over these past couple of months, there were so many things I said to her and we talked about. I told her how much I loved her. We talked about all my happy memories with her. And I told her I promised to take care of my dad and my sister (as I know they made similar assurances about me). And importantly, I told her that all that I am is because of her – because of her love, because she told me every day of my life that I was smarter than anyone else, that I could do anything I set out to do, and that I could be anything that I wanted to be.
But there was one thing I did not get to tell her until she went into hospice. Because I don’t know if she heard I want to say it now, loudly, and to anyone that will listen. When I reflect on her entire life, as you do in times like these, the emotion that is most overwhelming to me now is pride. I am just so very proud of her.
Proud of how hard she is fought for what is important to her in her life. Proud of how hard she worked to give a better life to her daughters than the one she had. So proud of her work ethic and her self-made accomplishments. Proud of how she lived her best and most honest life even though it got tougher each day. Proud of the loving and lifetime partnership she created with my father. I’m so proud of how she faced life‘s challenges with bravery, grace and quiet determination – she is one of the bravest women I know. I am proud that she has donated her body to University of Rochester Medical school for research to help find a cure for disease. And now, in her passing, I am so proud of how she took the reigns one last time and left us on her own terms…
After 10 or 11 trips to the emergency room since February (we lost track…), she came home just a couple of weeks ago and we think she decided if she went back in again, it would be for the last time. So she began to prepare. If you knew my mother, you would know that she does things her own way, on her own terms. She reached out and reconciled with friends. She cleared out the basement (or directed us to do so) so we could prepare for her planned garage sale. She dictated what she wanted in her obituary (“It has to be long…”). She even called a couple of funeral homes to learn more about what we should do and what it costs. Although really fatigued, she insisted on making my father eggs for breakfast last Sunday (as she had done every other Sunday forever). And also pushed forward to go to the Buffalo zoo with all of us later that same day.
Just two days later, her oxygen levels were low and we all knew it was time to go back to the hospital. While the ambulance was there and the EMT’s were getting her ready to take her to emergency yet again, with an oxygen mask on her face, she demanded to have just one bite of the Tom Wahl’s red hotdog that my sister had just brought home for her. To us it just was her way. Looking back, to her, she probably knew it was the last time she would have one of her favorite foods.
I feel so grateful to have had almost 53 years with my mom. And in particular these last few weeks with her knowing that her life was shorter than we wanted it to be. We said the things we needed to and we purposely made our last memories together. She can’t take them with her but I can keep them forever.
Since I was little I remember my mom saying that the good die young and the bad die old and therefore she would live forever. She usually said that when she was being a little ornery. But the saying couldn’t be more true today. My mom was good inside and out and she died far too young.
My mom passed away peacefully on Saturday in a beautiful room with a beautiful view at Highland Hospital, comfortably and exactly the way she wanted to. She fell asleep and just didn’t wake up. My heart is breaking because I’ve lost my constant, my hero, my role model, my purpose, my mom. I will forever continue to honor her in doing everything I can to be the person she wanted me to be. And I couldn’t be more proud to be “my mother’s daughter”.
We know wherever you are that you are still with us, and that you’re happier today than you were yesterday. I love you mom. Godspeed.