My mother just passed away 5 days short of her 100th birthday. Instead of mourning, we decided to have a “celebration of life” ceremony on her birthday.
At her ceremony, I gave a short tribute in honor of her life. Although it was quite difficult for me to get through, I opened with a few “momisms” and funny stories. From her habit of saving everything, to her little squeal when she saw you and her tendency to talk to everyone. She even talked to “risky” looking strangers in other countries.
As you might imagine, when you live to 100 you have outlived most of your friends. And yet at her ceremony, there was still standing room only. It was truly a testament to how my Mother embraced everyone and made friends so easily.
The following were my words of tribute:
Honoring My Mom and Her Beautiful Courage
As I sat down to think of a few words to say about Mary Stryker – my mother, your grandmother, or great grandmother or mother-in-law or Aunt or friend, I thought about some of the tributes I have heard in the past. Many of them have glorious stories of baking cookies and family vacations – all sunshine and unicorns. But I thought, “how can you possibly boil down the entirety of a person’s life into just a few words?”
It’s impossible, but when I thought of the single word I would use to describe my mother, I thought of COURAGE. People who knew her would certainly think of different words for her. But let me explain why I chose the word ‘courage’.
Mom was the sweetest, most outgoing and gregarious person I have ever known. She often took to striking up a conversation with complete strangers. One memory comes to mind of her chatting up a group of men at a train station in Italy, who I swear meant to rob and kill us. I am sure there are hundreds of stories like this. Many times she talked to a complete stranger whom no one would EVER consider talking to. She was an unbelievably loving and kind person.
More than anything, she loved her family. But she was not perfect – she lived a real and true life of ups and downs. Every life gets a bit messy and hers was no exception.
Courage Through Life’s Challenges
Mom suffered her entire life with depression. She was hospitalized more than once in my childhood and again at times later in life. I can assure you that even though people misunderstand mental health issues today, they were truly misunderstood 40, 50 or 60 years ago. It was seen as a mark of weakness. As if you could just “snap yourself out of” it – like a light switch. As you can imagine, that sort of mentality only made matters worse.
Some even saw it as a weakness, but I couldn’t disagree more. It is precisely why I chose the word “courage” to describe her. I can assure you – she was one of the strongest, most courageous people I have ever known.
I want to share with you some of the challenges she persisted through and I will tell it in the second person as if I’m speaking to her directly now.
A Letter as a Testimony of Courage
Mom – you grew up on a farm with no indoor plumbing and your father committed suicide, leaving your mother to raise five children alone. You worked all through high school and two years after high school to save up money to go to college.
After your younger sister Amy graduated high school, you and Grandmother Griswold (Nana) moved to Manhattan – where Nana cleaned houses to afford the small upstairs apartment you lived in. After delaying your college education to wait for Amy to graduate, both of you worked throughout college to pay for that coveted college education which was an almost unthinkable achievement given your background and extremely limited means. You met your future husband (our father). But he joined the war effort halfway through his junior year, and the two of you went years without seeing each other.
Finally, after the war, you returned to Marshall county where you lived in a small house in town until you were able (with the help of Grandpa Stryker) to buy a wonderful home and farm. Eventually, you saw the house and farm taken away from you when the government created what is now Tuttle Creek Reservoir and forced you to move back into town.
You lost a child shortly after childbirth. You lost your husband of 42 years (and had to wait 33 years to be reunited). When you made the choice to move to Topeka to be near to your sons and their families, you had no idea you would lose two of your sons.
The True Meaning of Life
This glance into the mirror of darkness has a point and it is certainly not to depress you. On the contrary, it is meant to inspire you. It is especially fitting that she was an educator as she would have wanted in some way for those who are younger in the room to learn one final lesson: we’re here to help each other. We oftentimes forget that.
It is always okay to ask for help. My mother sought counseling and psychiatric care because she knew she needed it, and she knew the importance of good mental health.
When you face dark moments, you need to reach out to family and reach out to God. You do not need to work through those dark times in life alone. When you deny others in your family the opportunity to help you, you cheat them of the opportunity of giving you a hand up. We are all guilty of that – I am the worst offender.
Please do not cheat others of the greatest pleasure in life which is to help each other.
Every day, right in front of us my mother was teaching us that you can emerge from those times where there is little hope and be stronger than ever before. It takes courage and faith and reaching out to those you love when you need help.
My mother truly embodied Matthew chapter 22 verses 36 to 39: to love God with all your heart and love others.
Finally, remember that after the dust has settled and you reflect back on how, in the giant scheme of the universe, it likely was not as much of an issue as you thought it was. And you can still be the sweetest person in the world – just as my mother was.
Not Goodbye, But See You Again
Mom, I really admire most your courage and your strength to overcome the challenges life threw at you, which were numerous. But also I admire that you persevered even with your mental health issues. We all love you and know that you did what you could to teach us many lessons. I pray that we have not only learned those lessons, but that we will apply them as well.