Today is my mother’s birthday. Had she lived to see this day, she would have celebrated her 72nd birthday. Almost three years ago she succumbed to lung cancer. What follows is the eulogy I delivered at her funeral. It was the second that I had delivered for an important woman in my life.
Let me tell you about my mom. She was born Janice Rhea Russell a bit more than 69 years ago, in Clinchport, VA. Like all children she was considered one special little girl by her parents and she continued to prove that there was quite a lot of special rolled up in the petite package that I knew as my mother.
Mom’s calling was to the medical field. Many of you knew her entire career, although shortened by illness, involved using her unbelievable knowledge of medicine to help others. When she was in high school she showed the depth of her exceptional mind and came up against some road blocks when she tried to do some things girls didn’t normally do. You see some upper level science classes were not a normal place for a girl in the late 1950s, but mom was not your normal girl.
I have heard it said there are two kinds of people in this world: the takers and the givers. My mom was definitely a giver in every sense. For over thirty years she gave to patients at the Abingdon Medical Group, in the hospitals of Johnston Memorial and Bristol before they grew to the current location near Interstate 81 and in the homes of friends and neighbors as her “official” career ended.
Some jobs have a schedule, nine to five or what have you, but when you are a nurse and care for people’s well being, and there are no boundaries to your calling, commitment and passion to help others. These are some of the things I consider the most important that my mother taught to me. She was devoted to the practice of medicine, but more importantly she was devoted to her friends in their time of medical need.
There were times when mom’s practice of medicine transcended the boundaries of the normal work day, as when she would visit the home of a neighbor with sick children to give her valued opinion to a possible diagnosis. I was told by one of these children that seeing mom at her home was much more reassuring than seeing her at the office, where she had all those medical instruments at her finger tips that she knew full well how to use.
To continue with the thought of her being a giver, it was not unusual before she became sick to see mom arrive at the waiting room of the hospital before the first rays of sunlight to sit with anxious family members who, like me and many others, had no clue what all the medical jargon meant. Mom could translate and tell you exactly what was going on. I know that was so much comfort to all who waited anxiously with her.
She also loved to put people at ease with a bit of humor at these sometimes very concerning times. A friend of hers told me the other evening about a time he was having surgery and mom, Jean, Joyce and maybe another came to see him minutes before his surgery. The nurse did not know any of these women, so asked “Who is your wife?” He said all of them, we are Mormons. You can imagine the amount of time it took to settle this bunch down after a comment like that.
Mom was as good a Christian woman as you will find, willing to do anything she could to help others. My parents did an excellent job showing me the moral way to deal with people and live my life. In turn, I tired to model the Christian life, because you see, my mom only became a Christian within the last ten years. To me this was one of the greatest blessings I got to share with my mom. I have a few special women in my life and the person responsible for getting mom to this point was my wife, Libby.
We use to pass her house on Sunday mornings on the way to church and Isaac would ask “Isn’t Granny going to church today?” Children watch everything you say and do and they know when your words don’t match your actions. They knew what Christ in your life could mean and wanted that for their grandmother.
One of the hardest things in the life of a Christian is having family members who either do not believe in Christ or are not blessed to know him as their personal Savior. For many years I struggled with the though of mom not being able to know Christ was always there for her. Thanks to the blessing of a good Christian mentor, I knew I needed a good Christian girl to marry. She was there to help me in the campaign to help mom understand just how important this was not just to us, but ultimately to her.
One evening Libby went to visit mom when I was at a meeting and not many days after mom spent a night in the hospital due to chest pains. Libby had no idea what was coming, but asked mom what she would be doing the next Sunday. Mom said “I am going to church.” God opened the door and Libby asked the question “If you had died in the hospital would you have gone to Heaven. Later our Pastor came but by then she already had decided she wanted to be a child of God. This is one of those gifts you get from your wife that you will never forget and cherish forever.
Also involved in this family endeavor were her grandkids, Meredith and Isaac who loved her equally as much as she did them. Mom loved to play cards with them, but she wasn’t about letting them win, she wanted them to know how to win and lose. The funniest thing about it was when Meredith or Isaac would beat her or her friends at their own games. Mom loved to her Meredith’s evil little victory laugh.
Isaac reminded me of a message on a plaque next the couch mom spent her last days on. It says a father is someone you can look up to no matter how tall you are. I think my mom had her eyes on her heavenly father and knew she was in good hands.
Some people go their whole life not knowing and understanding what a blessing their family truly is. I do not consider myself in the category as I certainly am wealthy beyond many measures with the large group of family and friends I hold close. Many of these same people were considered by my mom to be family as well.
Again, to touch on the idea of my mom as a giver, up until this week that was true, but about a week ago she transitioned away from this quality to the other, not by choice of course. Over the last week, I feel like so much over her giving was returned by many of you sitting here tonight. Mom talked and talked about how good everyone had been to her over her life and especially the last thirteen months since she was diagnosed with Cancer.
Mom had some really good friends that made her life so much richer, helping to fill the void left when my brother and father left her side prematurely. Interestingly, it was mostly a group of women that came to be known as the Hussies. Now that is not particularly a socially acceptable reputation, but they bore the name with pride. On bus trips, shopping adventures to Pigeon Forge and other places, this group gave mom so many great memories.
One of the things this group enjoyed more than anything was their weekly game night, usually some type of card game. The group would rotate the location of this weekly ritual and my mom really enjoyed having the game at her home because another of her passions was to cook and bake. As a matter of fact, at Christmas time, the people from Hershey’s chocolate would call her up to make sure they were going to be able to supply her needs for the season.
As many of you know I lost my brother, father and mom’s mother in a very short period of time. Shortly after mom accepted Christ, he sent us a very special person. Mom was in a very deep, dark place and this person reintroduced her to fun and to living life again. Jean Yarber was a constant companion of my mother, enjoying bus trips, shopping, plays, food and life with her as they laughed their way across the country.
Probably most importantly though, they proved their devotion as friends by being there in the very darkest days when each of them battled Cancer. Each came to the aid of the other, living in the other one’s house as they delivered the primary care necessary to survive these battles. You cannot ever thank anyone enough for that kind of love.
Another of the group of friends mom held so dear was her next door neighbor of more than four decades, Martha Bryan. Martha spent most of the last five days of mom’s life with us, rearranging her work schedule and life to give mom the best care she could desire. They shared the love for nursing and helping people. I am so grateful to Martha for her friendship to mom and our family, even though really she is already been a part of our family for all that time.
I cannot leave out the other two people who spent so much time helping care for mom this week. Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle James also did all they could to make mom’s last days the best they could be. I spent some time talking to Aunt Mary Ann about how it felt to be the last of the original four that was your first family group because I knew she would understand my feelings. It was clear how much they loved each other as I watched them interact over these last days.
As we sat talking through the night Thursday night as mom slowly faded from us I was so blessed to have two of mom’s best friends with me helping to ease the pain. Jean and Martha and I sat at the bar in mom’s kitchen and played one last card game to honor her wish for one last game. It doesn’t seem possible that any laughter could be found at this time, but your funny fond memories will always help you in these times. If you have ever wondered what pie would taste like at three in the morning the three of us can assure you it is pretty good then too.
Let me take this opportunity to thank you all for your attendance tonight, your kind words and acts of kindness not only this week, but in all the time you have known my mother. She was so appreciative of the kindness of others. Relationships are what make this mortal life, even with all its moments of sorrow, so much easier to navigate. Mom’s friends made her experience over the last year something she could withstand with grace and dignity. For that I thank you all.