Cancer Took My Mother’s Life But It Will Never Take Her Lessons

I remember looking over at her in her Levi jeans and t-shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, steering the wheel of a 1973 Chevy pickup.

Mother’s Day 2016

The black and white photo above was taken of me and my mom during our Mother’s Day hike one year ago. Perched on an old wooden fence, it was my first time experimenting with the self-timer app on my iPhone. I’m glad I did.

This photo of the two of us and the card I gave her last year are the two tangible things I have to remember our last Mother’s Day physically together. The card I recently found in her night stand, tucked away in a Ziploc bag among a stack of other cards she had saved from me and my sister. In last year’s card, I wrote something that now seems ironic. Before signing my name, I wrote, “I don’t know what I would do without you.” Little did I know, the answer was looming around the corner. Four months later, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and three quick and painful months after that, she became an angel.

What I would give to write those words to her again this year, still unknowing life without her physically here. But this year I have the answer, and in it comes the irony.

On this first Mother’s Day “without her”, I will do exactly as I have done every day since her passing. I will celebrate her more than I ever have before, allowing my thoughts of her to burn through every waking minute of the day (and if I’m lucky, my dreams too). I will reflect on all of the lessons she taught me (in the eulogy below), internalizing the way she lived her life as the way I live mine now. On this first Mother’s Day “without her”, I will feel more with her than I ever have before and I will find peace this year knowing I will never have to wonder what I would do when that day came. Because, as I so appropriately and ironically captioned last year’s Instagram photo of us, “Forever and ever, Amen.”

Below is the eulogy I spoke to a grieving room of 500+ people at her Memorial Service. My gift to her this Mother’s Day is keeping her legacy alive by sharing her embedded lessons with you…

I feel like I am waking up from a dream. Like the sweetest dream you could ever imagine. One of those dreams where you close your eyes the second they open, trying to will yourself back to sleep to savor just one more second.

How in the world were we so lucky to be chosen this woman’s daughter? To have spent our life being her pride and joy, feeling her unconditional love and watching and learning from her deeply wise self. She did everything for me and Elizabeth. She was everything to me. She was my mother. She was my father. She was my idol and my best friend. I cherished (most) every moment, and I sat on her (most) every word. This is what she taught me.

Have fun, seek adventure and never lose your sense of humor.

My mom took her “responsible parent” duties very seriously, but she was equally “the fun” mom. I loved showing her off at college parties. She knew how to hang. She had a thirst for adventure, and she looked to travel to quench it. I will be forever grateful to her for exposing me and my sister to the world. Renting open air jeeps in Mexico to explore the countryside, snorkeling Hawaii’s coast and hiking Machu Picchu with her at the ripe age of 60 to name a few. I recently found her list of “next adventures to tackle.” At the top of the list she wrote, “A cattle drive with my girls.” A cattle drive is now at the top of MY list. She had a quick sense of humor and her inner child was always waiting to come out to play. At a family Easter gathering a few years ago, she wowed the crowd with a front flip off the diving board. That’s just about how she lived her life. She also loved to dance, she had the gift of rhythm. One of the things I will miss most is her twirling and whirling me around on the dance floor many times right here in this room, and her smiling at me as she did. That smile though, it was brilliant. A few times she compared her smile to mine, saying we both had the gift of “eye smiling.” It was sure a compliment. In an email she wrote me a while ago, she said “a smile and laughter help us through everything.”

Be curious, and stay humble, she taught me.

My mom was curious about all things, places and people. She thought there was something to learn from everything. She was always seeking to understand. To expand her perspective and see the world from all ages and walks of life. In her opinion, she was better than nobody.

Use compassion and forgiveness as your high road, it’ll set you free, she taught me.

My mom saw the best in people. Even the ones who caused her pain. She had compassion for their shortcomings and always reached for union.

Love unconditionally, she taught me.

If my mom was one thing, it was love. She had it for everybody. It was her answer for everything. She gave it so naturally and freely. There was never a day in my life I questioned her love for me. She showed it boldly and in all the small ways in between. I’ll spend my life longing to find one of her little hidden love notes around my house. Longing to walk up to her front door to a welcome home sign. “Love is always the answer,” she’d say. She got that from my grandmother.

Remain loyal to your people … and always to your family, she taught me.

My mom would do anything for anybody. She went the mile for people she hardly knew. She’d swim an ocean for her closest friends and family. She was there when you didn’t need it, and she was there when you needed it most. I’ll never forget the way she showed up for my grandmother during the end of her life. My mom sacrificed it all for other people’s well-being. She sacrificed it all for me and my sister. Except to her, it wasn’t a sacrifice. She never turned her back on anybody, and the number of people in this room is a testament to that.

Speak the truth and live with integrity, she taught me.

My mom always told me to leave a place better than you found it. She was the person who picked up garbage walking down the street. I will always hear her little voice in my head after a day of yard work telling me “Erie, wind the hose when you’re done with it. It makes it easier on the next person.” And “Erie, write your thank you cards.”

Live each day with purpose. Earn your fun, she taught me.

My mom had the longest daily to-do lists and somehow, they always got done. She carried the load of two parents and seemed to do it with ease, rarely asking for help, except with the chores! She taught us hard work growing up. Saturdays were for yard work, the three of us out back, me and my sister tackling the raking, sweeping and mowing. My mom, up on a ladder cleaning out the gutters or up in one of the six olive trees with a chainsaw going to town on the offshoots. My mom could do anything.

She was also my moving company with those fit biceps. She moved me into most every house I’ve lived in over the past 15 years. One of my favorite memories of her is when she moved me into my freshman year at the University of California, Davis. There we were, just the two of us and our Australian Shepherd Meadow, driving up Interstate 80 in the hot summer sun. I remember looking over at her sitting there in her Levi jeans and t-shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail with her hands on 10 and 2, steering the wheel of an orange 1973 Chevy pickup. The two of us loaded and unloaded the truck together that day. I’d like to think pulling up in that pickup with my mom behind the wheel gave me some street credit around the dorms that year. “Don’t mess with me” is how it read.

And finally, embrace adversity. It can be a gift if we let it be, she taught me. THIS lesson she taught me over and over again.

Just as equally as my mom was gentle and loving, she was strong. She was a fighter. She took on every challenge and she did it with grace. I hear her voice in my head telling me “Sullivan, we’re survivors.” She’d use my last name when I needed a pep talk. She’d call herself Cunningham when she was giving herself one. She refused to be a victim of anything. In an email she sent me years ago, she wrote, “All of life’s challenges are rites of passage to the next chapter in life. They are lessons to learn from. To come out the other side with greater wisdom and depth.” She’d say, “Sullivan, pick up the torch and march … with your head held high.”

These words and her lesson about adversity got me through many of my greatest uphill climbs. It was so ingrained that when she was diagnosed with cancer, I needed no reminder. Neither did my sister. We both suited up as a mighty team of two and began to march with our heads held high. We were by her side most every day over the past 3 months. My sister took the weekday shifts, at my mom’s side around the clock, and I came home on the weekends. Elizabeth, you were incredible. Thank you for being my support too.

Despite some of the ugliness of such a diagnosis, I celebrate these past months as the most beautifully profound 3 months of my life. For the first time in my life, my mom spent more time receiving our help than giving it to us, allowing us to give back everything she had given and taught us. She taught us unconditional love and loyalty, and that’s what we were to her.

I have a few very visceral memories in my mind that I’ll never forget. I’d be down putting on her shoes or arranging meals by her bedside. And I’d look over at her looking at me with tears in her eyes. I’d say, “Mom, what’s wrong?” And she’d reply, with a smile on her face, “Oh, nothing.” And we’d move on, me knowing they were tears of joy. A week or two before her passing, me and my sister were getting ready for bed in her bathroom after having just helped her with her nightly routine and climbing into bed. Her bathroom has two large mirrors where you can see a clear line of sight to her entire room and to her bed. There my sister and I were, brushing our teeth and washing our faces and there, through the mirror I could see my mom lying on her bed. I saw she was staring at us with wonder, pride oozing out of her pores and again with tears in her eyes. “Mom, what’s wrong?” I said. She started to smile and said, “Oh, nothing. It’s just that, you both are so amazing.” I’d like to think that her smile was because she recognized what I do now. That it wasn’t the two of us she was looking at in the mirror. It was herself. At the two incredible beings she had created. She was smiling because she knew that no matter what was to come, we’d be OK. And we will be.

And so here I stand amidst this new life challenge. Hopefully the greatest of my life. Which only means one thing, it’s an opportunity to learn another one of life’s beautiful lessons. To come out the other side with greater wisdom and depth. In another email she wrote to me, she said, “Everything happens for a reason. With time, we’ll know what that reason is.” As I journey forward through this rite of passage into the second chapter of my life, I invite you all to join me. To pick up her torch and march with our heads held high, keeping in mind all the lessons she taught us. To see it as another one of Marnie’s gifts — an opportunity to learn and grow from. Don’t’ worry about me and Elizabeth. She spent our lifetime preparing us for this. We’re survivors.

To close, I want to say from the bottom of my heart, thank you all for taking such good care of us these weeks and months. It has meant absolutely everything. And when the dust settles, don’t forget about us. I’ll forever be looking for my dance partner. Mom, I love you. I know you are so proud of us.

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