To be steadfast
My mom’s eulogy delivered on Dec. 5, 2015, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
On behalf of our entire family, I want to thank everyone gathered here for coming to celebrate my mom and her magnificent life. These have been difficult days, weeks, months and even years for our family — and we are all still mourning the loss of one of the most beautiful and beloved souls we have ever known. But we are reaffirmed; we are made steadfast in our faith knowing that she continues to live — both in our memories and upon high with our Lord and our Mother Mary.
This Thanksgiving weekend was a difficult one for many reasons. She loved this holiday more than any other. As children, we used to host at our home. And she was determined — especially this year — to celebrate it as a family, if it was the last thing she did (which it was). These last few weeks were difficult, but her fighting spirit was so strong, nothing could hold her back from leaving the hospital last Wednesday to give thanks and celebrate as a family on Thursday. Shortly after our dinner, I walked out onto the pier where we ate and came across a boat named “Steadfast.” Under the name it quoted scripture, the First Letter of Peter, Chapter 5, verse 10, which reads:
“And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”
Make you strong, firm and steadfast… If there was one thing my mom taught us, it was to be strong, firm and steadfast. She had a tenacious way about her — she exuded resilience and perseverance; she had a voracious appetite for life. She was courageous; and she was gracious.
When she was diagnosed, she was angry, we were all angry… I am still angry. But she never let the anger consume her — she channeled it to fight, to battle and to conquer the disease that would try to claim her life. The last few years, she lived more than many live in a lifetime. She traveled the world many a times over — fulfilling lifelong dreams.
Several years ago, I was privileged enough to take her with me as my guest for a dinner at the White House. As simple of a life as she had lived, she made herself right at home. Several years later, I would return to work in that same building. And she frequented us so often that the Secret Service agents seemed to know her by name.
She was so special — so special that some of her greatest heroes felt compelled to lend their support. Most recently, she was serenaded by her beloved Barry Manilow, received a call by Vice President Joe Biden and was personally blessed by Pope Francis himself.
After 46 years, she traveled back to her homeland of Cuba and danced with me on her hometown streets of Sancti Spiritus to the music of Beny More, Cecilia Cruz and Marc Anthony.
She loved to dance. She was my first dancing partner — and taught me how to love, appreciate and move to the son, danzon, and salsa from where we came from. She was always an island girl and adored the water, the peace it draped around us and the way it could calm our souls — even during the most difficult of times.
She was a giver — like Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree,” she gave until there was nothing more to give. When she fell ill, my daughter took to painting and one day, we ran out of canvases. My mom did not hesitate one second to give herself as the canvas and wore proudly the paint that my daughter adorned on her face.
She was not just a great mother– she was truly the best grandmother a child could ever ask for. Shortly after my daughter was born, my mom contemplated quitting her job to spend more time with her grandchildren.
But St. Stephen’s was not just a job — it was her community and an extension of our family that made an everlasting impression on her life. She was known as a surrogate mom and best friend to many — and her office chairs were often turned into counseling sessions where she would give advice, guidance and comfort to all who needed it. She found purpose here and truly belonged in these halls — and for this reason, it is so appropriate that she will rest in these walls.
We were fortunate. We were able to walk with her — alongside her, during this journey, to the very end. She was always surrounded by friends, family and loved ones. In the Jewish tradition, there is something called Shiva — which means seven. It is the seven days after someone passes in which a family is supposed to “sit” together. She loved the film by Jane Fonda called “This is where I leave you,” where the main character played by Fonda gets her children to sit Shiva after the passing of their father.
Well shortly after my mom was diagnosed, we began an extended “living Shiva” — in which our entire extended family would congregate almost religiously in a two bedroom apartment in the Keys every weekend to sit with one another, break bread with each other and enjoy our company with her.
In some ways, I feel this was probably her greatest parting gift: to unite and strengthen the bonds of those that loved her so dearly. And she left this earth with her husband, children, sisters, and nieces grabbing to her hands and clenched to her rails as she made her way to Heaven while we all prayed to Hail Mary.
She taught me to love… To love deeply and profoundly — with every bone in my body. She taught me to believe — in our Lord, in His mercy, and His grace. She taught me to hope — to never, ever give up. To battle until the bitter end with joy in our hearts. And she taught me how to forgive — forgetting is hard, she said. But forgiveness, it is liberating — it sets us free and empowers us to overcome adversity.
And battling this terrible disease was undoubtedly the greatest adversity we’ve ever faced. Although we are not experts on cancer, throughout this process we have been blessed to count on the support of many friends in the healthcare industry — many gathered here today — that opened doors at leading hospitals like MD Anderson, Dana Farber and UM Sylvester. We were incredibly fortunate to lean on the amazing team at UM: the tireless doctors, nurses and caregivers at Sylvester that did everything in their power to save my mom and cared for her as if she was one of their own.
In meeting with countless medical professionals and researchers, our minds were continuously blown by how close — and yet how far — we still are to finding a cure. Beyond that, we witnessed the unintentional and brutal pain patients like my mom incur as a result of archaic — and even new forms of — chemotherapies.
It was her belief — and it is our belief — that we must all commit ourselves to accomplishing the unthinkable: our “moonshot” to cure cancer. Crazier things have happened, she thought. We looked up into the heavens and said we would touch the face of God and put a man on the shiny surface of the moon — and we did it. Curing cancer can be Our Moonshot. And so in her name, in her honor, in her tribute — we must carry on the good fight.
So within these walls, we can suffer, we can mourn and we can cry — but as we walk out those doors, we are called to open ourselves to the Lord who will restore us and make us strong, firm, and steadfast … in love, in faith, and in hope (just like she taught us).
Mama, I love you and I miss you. With this community bearing witness, we will not let your suffering go in vain. We will triumph over this terrible disease and one day soon — we will find a cure. I will miss you dearly and your memory will adorn my mind until we see each other once again — where Bob Dylan described:
“Beyond the horizon, behind the sun
At the end of the rainbow (where) life has only begun.”
Our mom requested that in lieu of flower donations be made to MumuFund.org, a fund established by our family in her honor to spread awareness of pancreatic cancer and raise funds for pancreatic cancer research.