The family eulogy, written & presented November 26th, 2009
Hi, I'm Heather, Colleen's eldest daughter. Today I'm speaking on behalf of Colleen's husband, Bill, and the children - Peter, Sheryl and myself.
Firstly the family would like to take this opportunity to thank the wonderful staff at Whakatane hospital, and the people at Hospice Eastern Bay Of Plenty. I always thought "oh, that's nice" when I saw those "in lieu of flowers" bits at the end of obituaries, but what Hospice have done for my mum and the whole family goes well beyond what the word hospice ever evoked for me. They've provided nursing care, equipment, they've organised domestic help and personal care, they were the ones that suggested we bring mum home so she could spend her last days with her family, and they've given us some amazing guidance and moral support on a daily basis throughout this difficult period. They are awesome.
Secondly, I ought to apologise in advance: if you're remotely uncomfortable at the sight of a grown woman wailing like a toddler with a chilli-flavoured lollipop, you're at the wrong party. Bear with me.
It was always going to be pretty easy to collate a laundry list of good things to say about my mother, but over the last few days - indeed, these last weeks and months - I've seen a whole swathe of little snippets of her life added to the classical mother figure I already knew, to gradually form a mostly-complete jigsaw puzzle of a real, complex, & generally magnificent three-dimensional person. It kind of took me by surprise.
I think it's safe to say that everyone here knows how smart my mum was. She had a lot of different hobbies over the years, and excelled at pretty much everything she put her hand to. She took on the responsibility of many different teaching and administrative roles, most notably in her profession as a teacher, and in the Girl Guides. She got us children to follow suit - Mum & Dad made sure we got every opportunity to try out whatever hobbies were available and encouraged us to stick with the ones that resonated. All my life I took it for granted that "doing stuff" came as standard. That's what normal people do, they get interested, they get involved.
As smart as I always knew she was, it's only been in the last few weeks I've realised the extent of my Mum's resourcefulness. All her different activities weren't just things she stumbled into. What she did was identify what she needed, for her family and herself, and she'd then just make it happen. In particular, she was a very social person, and the different activities were a way to connect with people, forge new friendships. That aspect of her was so pervasive that I'd barely even noticed it until I saw the common theme in the sympathy messages - that she was so warm, friendly and welcoming, and that she connected.
With her sharp mind and her ability to connect, she was also generous - if family or friends were undertaking a task, she'd jump right in with whatever skills she had to offer. She even seemed to bypass the "maybe I can help" thought process and jumped straight to "what's my role here". It could be argued that sometimes she was too generous - a few of my school projects had a not-inconsequential amount of her handwriting and hand-drawn cartoons in them. I still suspect she enjoyed those projects more than I did, although that probably would've been easy, since it was just homework to me. As for whether she should have let me stand or fall on my own, I think she empathised a little too acutely - procrastination is the common trait that vexed both of us all our lives. I'm dressing it up as a tribute to her that I had to get up at 6 o clock this morning to write this speech.
The other common theme in the messages we've received is, of course, how positive she was. I think she'd always been grateful that we'd never had to deal with any major catastrophes in our family, so it wasn't until she got sick we all discovered just how deep and abiding her strength really was. Even with all that she was going through, she was usually the one comforting us. The day before she died, she realised what was happening to her, and still - after some heartbreaking conversations she declared that we don't know what's going to happen, and that we'd make the most of whatever time we had.
So I've glossed over the laundry list for the purposes of not talking all day, but as always, the greatest of these is love. A regular occurrence at our house would be one of us kids walking into the kitchen and catching mum & dad having a bit of a smooch. Without fail the scandalised child would go "ewwww", to which mum would say "well, would you rather we were fighting?". It's lucky for her that none of us smart alecks had heard of the phrase "false dichotomy" at that point. But it's definitely her most valuable legacy that we were part of a family with parents who loved and sustained each other for the whole of their time together, all the better to share the love around.