Folks, it’s been two years since I was asked to speak at my friend Betty’s memorial service. I got to thinking about her just recently, and as I read through this again, thought it might be something worth sharing. So that said, here’s my eulogy, for my friend Betty…
Hi – My name’s Tom Roush – I had the pleasure of knowing Betty – well, Don and Betty back – gosh, how long’s it been? – close to three years now, meeting both of them at the cancer survivor’s support group that was held in a nondescript conference room at the Ballard hospital.
There were a number of us there – old folks, young folks, and everything in between… I was one of the in betweeners, I guess… Each of these meetings was “moderated” by a social worker of some sort – and they each had their own way of going about things. They were all wonderful in their way – the goal being to bring us to a safe spot where we could actually talk about our feelings toward this – this *thing* that had brought us together.
There was the one who really insisted that things be done by the book.
(None of us had read the book)
There was the one who was like everyone’s Jewish Grandmother – she brought laughter, love, encouragement and hope to each of us.
And then there was the one who came in one day when we were all talking about something other than cancer.
You know… Life…
…and she got so mad…
We were there, in a cancer survivor’s support group, and she was upset because we weren’t talking about cancer.
And you know what?
We’d LIVED it – to be honest, it pissed us off…
We all knew – in that support group, that if you said “Chemo” – you wouldn’t have to explain that chemo was the thing that made you barf, or made your hair fall out – that chemo often – for lack of a better, more socially acceptable term – spayed women and gave men involuntary vasectomies. We didn’t have to explain to the folks there in the room that chemo – oh, let’s see if we can find a nice word for it….
No nice words…
For some of us, radiation sucked – and we didn’t have to explain that or talk much about it – it was something that most of us in the room knew.
You know what we wanted to talk about? We wanted to talk about surviving. Remember what kind of support group it was?
Here, I’ll tell you what it wasn’t.
It wasn’t a cancer survivor’s support group.
It was a cancer survivor’s support group.
We wanted to talk about surviving.
And we did…
Oh Lordy, we talked about surviving…
It was wild – if you can imagine a bunch of scarred up people who’ve done battle with “the big ‘C'” wild – we were so into talking about life –about this thing called survival – and not just surviving, but having fun doing it – that that moderator got mad and walked out…
Dang we were a rebellious bunch…
She wanted us to talk about cancer – because in her eyes, it was cancer that defined who we were, and she saw the common theme between all of us being that we’d had cancer…
The thing was – we had had cancer, but it hadn’t had us.
We didn’t have to take the time or words to explain to the people in the room that this whole thing called cancer sucked.
We didn’t have to spend the time talking about how lonely it was, to go through this battle that no matter how many people are helping you, supporting you, loving you, the battle, and the fight, is yours alone to fight.
But this was the place we could talk about it.
As so often happens when going through a battle like this, we do our crying in private, and then put on a brave face – a mask, if you will, and go out and face the world. Sometimes, in that room where we met, we cried, and sometimes the conversations we had were astoundingly hard, and sometimes – some of the best conversations we had had no words at all.
Sometimes, we didn’t say anything.
We didn’t have to.
The conversations were – you know what?
I’ll tell you what the conversations weren’t.
They weren’t shallow.
We rarely talked about what TV show was on, or what movies were on. Much as some might consider this heresy, we definitely didn’t talk about which sports teams were playing – or winning.
We talked about life.
We talked about easy stuff that made us laugh, and hard stuff that made us cry.
We, who had stared death in the face, and had death blink, had absolutely nothing to hide from each other.
When we went into that room, the masks came off.
You know what masks I’m talking about… They’re the ones we wear every day. The mask that you put on
- When someone asks you how you’re doing, and you’re having trouble at home, and you say, “Fine”
- When someone asks you how you’re doing, and your finances are down the toilet, and you say, “Fine”
When someone asks you how you’re doing, and you just found out that you’ve lost your job, and you say, “Fine”
Oh, the masks we hold onto – so tightly
- When someone asks you how you’re doing, and you found a lump the night before, and are waiting for an appointment to go talk to the doctor about it – but you still have to go to work to keep the health insurance, and you say, “Fine”
- When someone asks you how you’re doing, and you’re waiting on test results, and you say, “Fine”
Or when someone asks how you’re doing – and your spouse – or someone you love – found a lump – and you feel helpless beyond words, because no matter what you do – the battle is theirs to fight, and you choke out a “Fine”
And – after all those – when someone sees a certain look in your eyes that could mean any or all of these – a look you didn’t even know was there, and asks, really asks, “How ya doin’?” and you either bravely or stupidly, or, because honestly, you can’t quite face that question yourself, you put on that lie of a mask and you say, “Fine.”
Those masks were left in a pile outside the door to that room.
Oh, we did talk about cancer.
We talked about fear, about how much to tell people because society still wigs out a bit when they hear that word…
We talked about how much to say to the people you spend most of your life with – at work.
We talked about knowing you were going to be out of commission for a year or so as the medical establishment tried to cut or fry or poison the cancer out of you, hoping to kill it (the cancer) before either it (the cancer) or it (the poison) killed you, making you feel worse than the cancer ever did in the process.
We talked about how to get your job back after your body’d healed, knowing you’d be dealing with the effects and mental/emotional scars of this long after your hair grew back, long after those physical scars had healed.
We talked about our fears for our families, for our loved ones, for how this was affecting them, and how, in so many ways, they were fighting the same battle – and yet a totally different one.
We did talk about cancer.
But we didn’t talk about cancer nearly as much as you’d think – when we needed to, we did, but you know what we did most often?
We told stories.
We encouraged each other.
We talked about ferocious penguins in Antarctica, we talked about adventures across the country, we talked about our children – how proud we were of them, or what trouble they were getting into, and about journeys we’d taken, and journeys we wanted to take.
Closer to home, we talked about walking around Green Lake, about going up to Costco, and getting that pound cake they have up there, – and especially those Costco hot dogs. And we talked about Don’s wonderful little carvings when he brought them in for us to see.
We talked about this, this thing called life.
And every time I showed up late – let me re-punctuate that – and every time – I showed up late – it was hard for me to get out of work that early – I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door, and in that room, there was at least one moderator (pick one, we outlasted them all) and a variety of people, but the one constant there was Don and Betty.
And when I saw Betty –there was always this look that said, “I’m so glad you made it!”
A look that told me – without the mask, how she was doing. Sometimes she was doing well, sometimes not… We didn’t hide it in there.
And actually, that says something… without masks, there were no secrets… Betty didn’t have any secrets from anyone… You called their house, and by golly you were on speakerphone. You talked to Don, and you were talking to Betty.
I have to tell you – that my memories of Betty are pretty much limited to that room.
I’ve spent the last week or so trying to put to words my memories of her, and as so often happens in times like these, your mind, in its shock, tries so hard to lock the memories away for safekeeping that you can’t unlock the door to get them out, even when you want to, and no matter how hard you try.
But one thing leaked out through that door.
It’s how Betty made me feel.
There were times when I came into that room – all frazzled from a crappy day, whether it was at home, at work, or somewhere in between, it didn’t matter, and there was this sense of peace there.
It didn’t make sense – given the battles we all were facing, and fighting, but the peace was there. There was always a hug from Betty – always a smile, a handshake, or a hug from Don. Betty made me feel welcome. No matter how hard it was to get there –
Betty’s eyes told me I’d done the right thing in coming.
Betty’s hand, when I held it, told me that everything was going to be alright.
Betty’s body – when she hugged me in that warm, gentle, soft way, told me things I can’t even put into words.
See? I told you some of the best conversations had no words.
Now you’ll see I’m not dressed all fancy here, that’s no disrespect to anyone here, especially Betty… In fact, – I was thinking about it, honestly –every time Betty saw me, she saw me, as I said, all frazzled, with my backpack from work slung over my shoulder, having either ridden a bike or a bus to get there. That’s the way I’m dressed now, because if she saw me all dressed up, she’d wonder who the heck that stud muffin was in the suit – and to be honest, I’d rather she recognized me.
The thing is – the last time I hugged Betty – I didn’t know it would be the last time I hugged Betty.
The last words I spoke with Betty – I didn’t realize they would be the last words I spoke with her…
And I don’t remember them.
But do remember how she made me feel, and so I’d like to leave you with this…
You young folks out there:
Look around – you’ve got parents, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends here.
You middle aged folks – Oh, Lordy – I have to classify myself as one of those now.
Look around – you’ve got brothers, sisters, children, nieces, nephews, and friends here.
And you older folks – the ones who have earned that silver in your hair…
Look around – take your time – nobody’s leaving – look at those kids, those grown up kids of yours – those grandkids.
All of you – When’s the last time you hugged them?
What were the last words you spoke to them?
How did they make you feel?
More importantly – how did you make them feel?
I suggest to you, that
…if there have been cross words, go and forgive – or ask for forgiveness.
…if there is distance, reach out to each other.
…if there is pain, reach out to heal.
You don’t know which of your words will be the last ones, folks.
Please, take the time to think about them, make them good ones.
I’ve tried to put into words who my friend Betty was – but I can’t talk about her in the past tense – because my friend Betty is still very much alive, right here. (my heart)
And so, on this anniversary, I remember my friend Betty – and I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned from her with you as well.