Yesterday, I spoke at the Celebration of Life/Memorial Service for my mother, Lyn Burgess. What follows is the text of the eulogy I delivered.
Eulogy for Mom
by Kirsten Wilson
G.K. Chesterton said, “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”
I come from a family of readers. The number of books in our homes is greater than our shelf space—and we’re okay with that. Mom was a voracious reader, and I, too, am a lover of books. But we differed in this: I read my favorite novels over and over again; she read books once.
Why read the same book multiple times, Mom reasoned, when you could explore new ones? The only book she returned to again and again was the Bible. That was the story she chose to find herself in most fully.
And so, as I reflect on Mom’s life today, I’d like to do so in the context of the biblical story that, for those of us who follow Jesus, we walk through each year at this time—the story of the passion and resurrection of Christ. And I’d like to share with you some of the story I saw God writing in Mom, right up to the end.
For the first time ever in my life, to mark the beginning of Lent this year, I decided to attend an Ash Wednesday service. I’d seen people with ashes on their foreheads, observing the day, and I knew the reasons for it. But I’d never joined with other Christians in receiving those ashes. Nor did I know that the marking of a cross on a worshiper’s forehead was called an imposition of ashes.
But the ashes, they symbolize death. And death seldom arrives conveniently. Mostly, it’s an unwelcome interruption, an undesired invasion of a person’s space or time or plans. Death, I suppose, is the ultimate imposition.
Seven weeks before Ash Wednesday, Mom had received her cancer diagnosis. And even though she was no more mortal at that point than she was before this news, I carried the truth differently then, as though someone had dipped his thumb in ashes and smeared them across the days of my calendar and through the rhythms of my conversations and into all the crevices of my heart.
In the service, I found myself filing toward the front of the sanctuary, and at last standing in front of the pastor.
“My sister,” he said, and dipped his right thumb into the container of ashes he held in his left hand.
“My sister,” he said, and applied the ashes to my forehead in the shape of a cross, all the while holding my gaze and gently speaking truth.
“My sister, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…”
I did, of course, remember that. The frailty of life had been screaming at me for weeks. Maybe it’s been screaming at you, too. The death of someone you love will do that. But there was something that happened when I walked away from the pastor to return to my seat. I saw pew after pew of people marked by the cross. This community did not take away my inner screaming, but they met it. They shared the pain of it. They acknowledged it, much as we do for one another today.
That was how Lent began for me. But from that point on, time sped up. I traveled through Lent in a topsy-turvy way, walking the journey through death and resurrection with Mom weeks before Good Friday and Easter arrived on the calendar.
During her time in the hospital and in hospice, Mom displayed a beautiful gratefulness toward each person—friend or family or medical staff—who entered her room. She was careful to thank every nurse, every tech, every doctor who cared for her. Watching this in her was my Palm Sunday. Mom placed gratefulness all round herself like palm branches, all the while looking for the appearing of her Savior.
A couple of my favorite photos of my parents are from a vacation the two of them took to Hawaii. The pictures capture them about to embark on a bicycle tour that would take them down a winding mountain road. They look like they’re preparing for a space launch, complete with flight suits and giant helmets. My parents are grinning and posing like kids, ready for a big adventure.
They didn’t tell me and Josh about the adventure until after they’d done it, which was probably smart, as we would have surely counseled them against it.
And we wouldn’t have been entirely wrong in our trepidation, either, as it turned out. Dad took a header over the handlebars toward the beginning of the ride, and Mom skidded on gravel toward the end of the ride—a spill that resulted in a hairline fracture of her leg.
Somehow, this episode came up in conversation with Josh and Mom and me one day when Mom was in hospice. Josh and I were still, so many years later, shaking our heads at the foolhardy nature of our parents’ ride.
But remembering it, Mom said, “Well, maybe I wouldn’t do it again, but…” And her face lit up at the memory, as if she were living it one more time. “The speed was so exhilarating as I flew down the mountain,” she said. “The views were breathtaking. And I couldn’t help but praise God. I was singing praise songs at the top of my lungs inside my helmet.”
That was Mom. An unexpected adventurer, with a quiet love for speed, and an eye that noticed the amazingness around her and thanked God for it.
Sometimes, as on the bike tour, she praised God for the beauty of nature. But mostly, I saw her praising God for the beauty she saw in the people she loved. I think Josh and I would both say that in losing Mom, we lost our biggest fan. Our spouses and our kids and Dad—they all feel that loss, too. Just last summer, she flew out to Colorado to cheer me on and to participate in a retreat I was leading. She and Dad flew out to watch our kids compete in marching band competitions. When Dad was performing in a play, Mom was in the audience—if not every night, pretty close.
Mom had the habit of noticing the gifts and abilities of all of us in her life—and letting us know how amazed she was by what she saw. If you didn’t get the chance to talk with her during her last days, I can probably guess some of what Mom would have said to you. She likely would have told you how amazing you are, told you that she loved you, and thanked you for the role you played in her life.
If Mom’s gratefulness was my Palm Sunday, then the steadfast way in which Mom moved toward her death was my Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Mom lived by her task lists, and gained pleasure from checking completed items off her list. And her last list was full of the most important events. The evening Mom decided to stop treatment, she asked the family to gather around her hospital bed to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” together. And so we did: Dad, Josh and Amy and Thomas and Grace, my aunt Nancy, and me—and we even FaceTimed my husband, Steve, and our kids, Daniel and Katie, into the circle, so that they could be part of it, too.
A couple days later, Mom asked that we celebrate communion together. Pastor Cody came and reminded us of the environment in the upper room the night of the Last Supper. Passover was a feast looked forward to with excitement and joy—a time that the whole family would gather together. A celebration. But on that occasion, when Jesus gathered with his disciples, there was also confusion and grief.
And yes, we felt all those things, too, as we celebrated our own Last Supper, knowing we would not drink that cup together again until He comes.
I don’t know where you find yourself in the story of the passion and resurrection today. Me, if I had to place myself in the story right now—I’m probably smack in the middle of Holy Saturday. The death has happened, but the stone has not yet been rolled away. I’m mostly quiet and contemplative and watchful. In random moments angry or confused or sad. Mom has always been a steady and faithful presence in my life, and without her, I’m a bit unmoored.
Right now, I miss the teacher I have lived with and loved and followed.
Mom taught me to read and to write when I was two years old, because I wanted to learn long before I would start school.
Mom taught me to stand on my head when I was five—by demonstration.
When I was grown, Mom taught me that the best conversations cause you to miss your exit on the freeway by miles. Time after time. No matter which one of us was driving.
Mom taught me how to shop at Kohl’s, milking the system for all it’s worth. She would love the fact that I bought this bracelet when it was 40% off, and then paid for it using an extra 20% off coupon and my Kohl’s cash.
Mom taught me to be a lifelong learner. When I was an undergrad, she went back to school to get her MBA. When a job she held required knowledge she didn’t, she learned what she needed to learn, and then quietly proceeded to excel at her new skills. Even while she was in hospice, some of our conversations centered around what God was teaching her. She was a learner right to the end.
For many years, though Mom and I each had our own careers, she as a non-profit executive, me as a writer and speaker and church staffer, we both also had husbands who were pastors. And it was good for my soul to share with her that very specific niche of joy and pain. Some days, we celebrated each other’s victories. And other days we talked and prayed each other off the ledge of bitterness or self-righteousness or the desire to plunge into the fray and defend our husbands. Many times, her wisdom steadied me and kept me sane.
Mom taught me that a quiet and steady faith can hold as much power— sometimes more—than the loud and flashy sort. Which I needed to learn, because, like a moth, I had a natural tendency to fly toward fire.
I don’t want to make Mom out as perfect, as a Jesus figure. She would be the first to tell you that her life had all kinds of cracks. But she was, up till the very end, more and more conformed to the image of the Savior she loved. And so I think it’s fair to say that in her last days, she reminded me more and more of Jesus. And I celebrate that.
Any story of Lent must, of course, end with Easter and the empty tomb. But I’m afraid Mom beat me to resurrection this year. Her story skips ahead of mine.
And her story ends well.
I’ve read through The Chronicles of Narnia every couple years or so, since I was a kid. And though Mom would shake her head at how often I’ve returned to those books, I think she’d love the way C. S. Lewis ends the story of Narnia, describing heaven in a way that would appeal to any lover of books.
Lewis writes: “…for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Mom’s story ends well—and it doesn’t end at all.
Notes: G.K. Chesterton quotation from Orthodoxy, 1908. C.S. Lewis quotation from The Last Battle, 1956.