This past Saturday, Dr. Steve Davis gave the message at my mother’s funeral. As pastor of First Baptist Church of Carrollton, Ga., he recounted that, during a recent visit, she told him that she was the luckiest person on earth.
Take her circumstances into account: She had endured and beaten both uterine cancer (in the 1970s) and colon cancer (she was given a clean bill of health last month). She had entered a nursing home in 2006, where many thought she would stay (including my sister and me), but returned home to live on her own in 2007. She suffered a series of strokes last year and could barely move, but went on — through hard work and great physical therapists — to regain use of her hands and arms. Her life was not easy, but she thought she was the luckiest person in the world.
The evening before the funeral, our family visited with more than a dozen of her friends and former students (she taught high school math). They recounted, often tearfully, how she had changed their lives for the better — by encouraging them to marry or to apply to college or to continue working on math, until they were successful, which all of them were. Different tales united by the same message: Don’t say can’t; you can do it.
By the time my sister and I arrived at the funeral home an hour before visitation, her friends were already lining up in the hall. By the time my husband and children joined us, an hour later, there was not a parking space available. The line to enter the reception room was long, and the emotions strong.
My mother’s constantly smiling face, her determination, her can-do attitude, her encouragement of students, her interest in others above herself and her faith in God made her different from other people.
Her former students recounted how she had pushed them toward success. Known for giving graduates the books The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper and Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss, she believed in her students until they believed in themselves.
In the first story, a big, heavy train needs to be pulled across a mountain. While other, larger engines turn down the challenge, the little engine takes it up. On the way up the steep mountain, as the engine slows, it repeats the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Finally, it reaches the crest and transitions to, “I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could.” When I was a child, she read me this book so often that I memorized it.
Dr. Seuss’s tale Oh, the Place’s You’ll Go is a bit more complex. There is no single mountain, but rather a series of ups and downs, mix-ups and strange birds. “You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” Reminding us that “bang-ups and hang-ups can happen to you.”
That there will be times when things don’t work out and we will end up in “the waiting place,” waiting for one thing or another, “waiting around for a yes or a no, or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.”
When the waiting is over, “there is fun to be done … there are games to be won.”
It reminds us that there will be “games you can’t win.” But adds the encouragement that “you will go on,” with success “98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.”
The luckiest person on earth. Steve concluded the message that possibly he (and we) were the luckiest people on earth instead of my mom, since we had had the great advantage of having known her. She was more interested in others than herself, she encouraged and believed in her students until they believed in themselves, and she looked at each detour as an adventure. She loved many and loved deeply.
Reflecting on the memories shared and lives helped reminded me that, while my mom might be gone, she has left a legacy in the people she loved and the lives she changed. The best memorial to her might just be to encourage more and love more deeply.