I hope you will pardon this deviation from my normal ramblings. I am sad to write that my mother passed away unexpectedly at the beginning of this month, and this eulogy is the piece of writing that commanded most of my attention since then. I read this before friends and family at my mother’s celebration of life. There is some philosophical reflection toward the end, which is why I chose to publish it here. There is really nothing more I can say of it.
Thank you for being here today. Thank you for showing up for our family, for my mother.
A lot of people are going to come up here and say a lot of beautiful things. I will not try to outdo them.
I do have a few pretty words to recite, but that will come later. I will do my best to be brief and intentional, but I hope you will forgive me if I ramble a bit. I know that sitting in a pew for a long time listening to other people talk can be tiring, regardless of how talented the speakers. I will do my best to honor that.
I would like to begin by giving a blasphemously condensed history of my mother’s very full and enviable life.
My mother was born Brandy Lynn Howard on the 10th of April in 1974 to a mason and a retail clerk in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She grew up mostly in Spotsylvania, attending school in what was then a small town from kindergarten to 12th grade. She moved around a bit, but what is important to note is that she was a small town girl born to a proud working class family.
In high school, she met my lovely father, who I am told was exceedingly handsome and charming. Some things never change, obviously. Both being accomplished athletes, they met at one of their various sports practices, and were inseparable all throughout high school.
When my mother graduated high school, she had little money for college. Nevertheless, she persisted. She worked and earned enough money to take classes, some at Marymount College, Tarrytown in New York and others later at Mary Washington College. I recall her telling me the story of she and my dad sneaking into the city so that he could secretly get a tattoo, which was decidedly not allowed at the very strict military institute he was attending.
Eventually, my parents took a break from their relationship. My mother came back to Virginia, and resumed working in retail. Through her unparalleled work ethic, talent for creating relationships spontaneously, and general brilliance, she climbed the corporate ladder at Chanel, arguably the most prestigious fashion house in all of human history. Anyone currently wearing any Gucci, Prada, or Valentino may now be excused.
At the mere age of 20, she earned the position of Director of Business Development and Sales I.T. at corporate Chanel. She was truly a small town girl in the big city, taking on New York and Paris like she belonged there. A part of her certainly did.
After leaving an exciting and international career at corporate Chanel, my mother continued as a leader in business and brand development for a number of Fortune 500 companies. She also grew our family’s commercial real estate business, truly allowing Virginia Properties to grow into the new century and compete in the digital age. The list of her accomplishments goes on. Her most recent client list is a testament to how truly borderless her life and career were, with contracts ranging from Los Angeles to Germany to Dubai.
Aside from her impressive professional accomplishments, my mother was a consistent and ardent philanthropist. She was not a philanthropist in the way that many people are. Her empathy came from personal experience and not a desire to perform charity. She knew what it was like to struggle, to be the poor kid. She knew what it meant to be teased, to feel ashamed of one’s hair cut. My mother gave to others because she had made it- she was one of those few and inspiring cases of someone beating the odds and succeeding in spite of very real barriers. For several years she served on the board of the Fredericksburg Food Bank, and sponsored a young boy in the Philippines named Jovan. She told us that he was our brother, and every month when I was little she would sit us down and read us his letters and show us his most recent pictures. She told us never to judge anyone, and to always give to others who needed a little extra help. She reminded us that the men and women standing on the side of the road could just as easily be us, or our father, or even her. She told us that we never know what other people are going through, and to always treat others with kindness, dignity, and respect. It is because of my mother that Maddie, Bella, and I have always been the kids to offer the bullied child a seat at the lunch table, or to share our cookies at snack time. She taught us that, and I quote, “our purpose in this life is to help others.” She also taught us that we could do anything we put our minds to if only we worked hard enough. And she was right.
My mother struggled bitterly for most of my life with crippling mental and physical illness. The two compounded each other. Things were hard, a lot of the time. But my mother never, ever gave up. She was a fighter. More so than anyone I have ever met. And I cannot express in words to you all how truly and profoundly proud of her I am. As a psychology major and aspiring clinician, I know what the odds look like for someone who struggled as she did, with her medical chart. The odds were not favorable, y’all. And yet, despite this, she fought. Through soul crushing depressions, seizing anxiety, and crippling shame, she fought, and over the past three years, I saw a woman who previously could barely get out of bed most days rise up and not only survive, but thrive. She always told us that she knew she was imperfect, and she knew she would continue to mess up, but she would never stop trying. And she kept this final promise to us.
Much of who I am I owe to my mother. My hair, my eyes, my skin, my confidence, my work ethic, my sense of style, my unshakeable belief in the goodness of humanity and the worthiness of all people…. These are all things I owe to her. She taught me more in word and deed than perhaps anyone else.
She also taught us that everything happens for a reason. Which leads me to my next point.
My mother was the first feminist I ever knew. She hyphenated her last name when she married my dad before it was cool. So, it pains me that I will now exclusively quote the writings of men when reflecting on her life and death. I have a feeling she would give me a pass and I hope you will too.
In his work, On Living and Dying Well, Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero reflected that, “the whole life of a philosopher is practice for death.” Well, it turns out he was correct, because while I would not yet honor myself with the title “philosopher” I have certainly read the work of enough who are honored with such a title to have been in practice for quite a long time. Reading about death is nowhere akin to experiencing it, but I would like to share with all of you some of the more impactful things I have come across in my short life.
Viktor Frankl was an existential psychotherapist who was imprisoned at Auschwitz during the Second World War. During his time in the camp, he wrote much of what would become his most famous work and a foundational text in both philosophy and psychology, Man’s Search For Meaning. Clearly it didn’t occur to him that women also search for meaning, but I digress. When reflecting on his experiences in the camp, and upon remembering the behaviors of the people around him, he came to a conclusion about what was required to survive in unbearable circumstances. In essence, he believed that what mattered was that we chose our perspective, remained steadfast in faith, and never gave up the belief that our lives mattered. What I am most interested in for my purposes now is that first belief: that while we may suffer greatly in circumstances beyond our control, we do, at least to some extent, have an ability to choose our perspective.
I encourage us all to have faith. I know this is comical coming from me of all people, but I will encourage us nonetheless. Again from Cicero I quote, “We can leave certainty to people who claim it’s possible and who boast of their own wisdom […]. All [peoples] acknowledge the existence and power of divinity […]. I am not embarrassed (unlike others) to admit that I don’t know […]. You don’t see god, still, you come to know god from his works […;] all the beauty of virtue.” In this way, I saw and met the divine through my mother.
The most important piece I would like to share with you all today is also from Cicero, and reads as follows: “Away with these old wives’ tales that it’s terrible to die before one’s time! What time? The time of nature? It made us a loan without a due date […]. But of every other good we consider it better to have some share than none at all. Why is it different with life?”
He also shared a story about his friend Pompey, who had recovered from an illness only to later die a humiliating and painful death.
Here is what I believe we can learn from what I have just recited: my mother suffered and struggled greatly for many years. She was in and out of the hospital more than anyone I had ever heard of. Three years ago, she had her closest brush with death and yet, she lived. Calamity after calamity, she lived. There were so many times when she should have died, and it would have been when we all were angry, and resentful, and hateful to one another. But she didn’t die during those times. Instead, my mother passed hopeful and with the full knowledge that her family loved her, supported her, and was proud of her. A class of ancient philosophers known as the Stoics believed that it was best for one to leave this world when life was at its height. My mother and our family have been blessed with a gift that so many others have been denied- the gift of parting with our loved one in the fullness of hope, and love, and genuine fondness. My mother told us that everything happens for a reason. My friends, we have much to celebrate. We were blessed with three extra years. All of life is a debt that may be reclaimed at any time. How fortunate are we that the fates allowed us the three extra years necessary for us to part with our dear mother, daughter, wife, sister, and friend, on a note of peace, forgiveness, and love? There is no more that could be asked. It may seem like incomprehensible timing, but my family was perhaps blessed with the best timing possible. My mother lived more fully in her shortened life than many people could in two lifetimes. My mother did not suffer the same fate as Pompey- she died at the pinnacle of her life, and I cannot tell you how grateful and joyous I am for that.
So while I am struck by a grief that words cannot convey, and I have and will continue to spend many hours weeping inconsolably, I want to encourage us all to assume an attitude of, in the words of my sister Maddie, “radical optimism.”
We must cling to faith in the goodness of life; we must cling to each other; and we must cling to an intentional practice of gratitude for the immeasurable gift of my mother’s whole beautiful, dynamic, and I say again, enviable life, and especially for these past three years which gave us the opportunity to part in love, pride, and mutual support.
I wish you all peace and love and I thank you again for your presence on this day of great sorrow and celebration.
I leave you with the words of author Raymond Carver, a poem he wrote while dying himself, titled Late Fragment–
And did you get what
you wanted, from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.