Saturday, January 10, 2015

My Mom's Eulogy - January 17, 2015

I am glad to have the opportunity to share the story of my mom with you.

She was a remarkable woman.

Mary Lou Cuthbert was born on May 13, 1930 to James and Margaret Cuthbert.  She was the youngest of four children.

Most of her years growing up were on Savannah Street, in downtown Detroit between Six and Seven Mile roads.  Her grandchildren Michael and Caroline would later think it was "cool" that Grammy had grown up so close to the trailer park on Eight Mile Road popularized by rap star Eminem in the hit movie of the same name.

But reality of her early years were more ones of struggle and lean times.

My mom's father worked in the Water Department for the City of Detroit.  The job did not pay particularly well.  In fact, at one point at the height of the Depression, my grandfather received his pay in script rather than cash, redeemable for food and other necessities only at the company store.

Both of her parents were strict Southern Baptists.  This meant, among other things, that her family were sworn to avoid such vices as drinking, dancing and using alcohol (her husband Ted later "cured" her of these beliefs). Sundays were a day of rest - no one in the Cuthbert household was allowed to do anything other than think about religion.

When World War II came, her older brothers went into military service, becoming pilots along the way. After the war, they returned home and started a flying school where people could learn how to fly airplanes.  My mother volunteered to help them in various administrative tasks. She was eventually rewarded by her brothers with a gift of a piano, which sat in our home for many years.

My mom attended Cass Tech High School, hoping to become an engineer.  However, in those days only two professions were available to women:  teaching and nursing.  My mom said she didn't like the sight of blood, so the choice was fairly simple.

But this doesn't mean that she didn't take her major seriously.  She threw herself into her studies with the same determination that would characterize her in so many other endeavors later in life.

Many years later, when we were celebrating her 65th birthday, I asked my mom whether she had any regrets in her life. She said had only one (a remarkable statement, when you come to think about it).

Before each semester at Wayne University, her father borrowed $75 to pay her tuition.  Why, she asked, did her father do this?  In those days, women were not expected to work outside the home.  The best they could hope for would be to meet some nice young man, get married and raise a family -just as my mom's mother had, and her mother before that.

Why did James Cuthbert - the son of a poor Irish potato farmer - think that life would be different for Mary Lou?

My mom said that she wished she had kept the cancelled loan papers that her father had signed to remind her of how much he believed in her.

It was at her time at Wayne that she met her future husband.

My mom was involved in a musical revue at college.  At one point in the show she was part of a chorus line.  The line was coed, alternating with men and women.

Her sister and mother told her that there would be a cute guy next to her in the line.  They thought he would be a great catch.

So when she came home the night after the performance, her sister and mom were eager to know whether she had managed to get to know the young man in question.

Yes! my mom replied. Ted Glen seems like a great guy and we're going out on a date.

Her sister and mother were appalled.  They didn't want Mary Lou to go out with some kid from Hamtramic who had been born with the name of Gajewski.  She was supposed to have met the other fellow next to her named Grant Beard.

Well, it was too late.  Ted and Mary Lou were smitten, and eventually decided to get married.

Her father, however, would not allow the marriage until she earned her degree.

So, in 1952, my mom graduated from Wayne, and shortly thereafter became Mary Louise Glen.

The next few years were a whirlwind.  My father took a job at the DuPont Company in Wilmington Delaware shortly after they were married against the wishes of both sets of parents.  Moving from the Detroit area was hard, but it was not the first move they would make.

Stops in Bridgeton, New Jersey; St. Louis, Missouri; Toledo (for the first time); Waynesboro, Pennsylvania; and finally Toledo again followed over the course of the next 16 years.  There were also two summers in Houston, Texas, when my father worked for NASA.

And, oh yes:  there were three children. John, Paul and David were born in measured succession, every two years (my Mom was always big on planning!).

We were lucky kids.  Our parents were role models in so many ways, and the love and attention we received laid a strong foundation for our futures.

Through it all, however, my mom never gave up on her dream to be a teacher.

At every stop along the way, she found ways to continue to teach. It was not always easy with three small children, but my mom always found a way.

Later, when she completed her PhD dissertation, she dedicated it to the three of us.  She thanked us for understanding her desire to be "more than mom".  Frankly, I can never remember feeling left out because of her career, such was my mom's determination to be both a mom and a teacher.

Her dissertation, by the way, was titled "The Educated, Working Wife and the Division of Labor in the Household".

(Wonder where she got the idea?)

The years went by. Eventually we settled in Toledo in 1968, which is where my parents spent the rest of their lives. They both were professors at the University of Toledo:  my Dad in the Engineering School, and my mom at the Community and Technical College (nicknamed "ComTech") that at the time was part of UT.

My dad was the first to get tenure, in the late 1960's. Then, in 1972, it was supposed to be my mom's turn. She was listed as the number one candidate for tenure when the list went to the President's office for final approval.  But she was denied.

Why? she asked. She had done everything to deserve tenure.

Well, the answer came, the President and his staff felt that they should give the available tenure slots to men. After all, my mom's husband already had tenure, so she didn't need it as much.

Wrong answer.

In one of the few times I saw my mom angry growing up, she told the University that she was going to sue. The threat was enough to get them to change their mind, and she received the much-deserved tenure.

But mostly their lives in Toledo were pleasant.They joined the Toledo Country Club and became a regular part of the Club's social activities - a long way from their lower middle class upbringing.

 My mom's first brush with cancer came in 1976.  But in typical Mary Lou fashion, she not only faced down the disease but also used it as a spur to complete her dissertation.

 I remember her saying at the time that if she going to die, she wanted to have at least completed her doctorate. You see, she had delayed completion while raising children, and now with her youngest child off to college she thought she would have time to complete her work. Cancer would have to wait - it was not going to stop her. And so it didn't.

My dad died suddenly in 1984.  My Mom became a widow at age 54, just when it looked like the two of them would enjoy many long and glorious years together.

But you can probably guess what happened. Despite her grief, she forced herself back into life.  She volunteered at a number of different organizations, including several years at a woman's prison.
She attended numerous professional conferences, often giving papers or speaking on panel discussions. And all the while she maintained a full teaching load, including summer school.

Travel also became part of her life. My Dad was not one for travel vacations. As it turned out, however, my mom very much was.

She estimated that she took over three dozen cruises, mostly on her own.  Her favorite stop in the
Caribbean was St. Thomas, with its beautiful vistas and plentiful shopping. She loved visiting Hawaii to see Paul and his family. My mom also came to Boston fairly frequently, although she grumbled that the weather was usually cold and rainy.

 My mom lived a wonderfully full and interesting life. When setbacks occurred, she fought back, determined to not let events dictate the course of either her career or personal life.

Before I stop, I wanted to share a few things about my mom that you might not have known:

  • She was a good cook, but her specialty was breaded baked pork chops.  She also made a pretty mean chili;
  • She played golf for many years, and was an active part of the 9 hole group at the Toledo Country Club.  Unfortunately,  her game was uninspiring;
  • She took an interest in Beatrice Potter - author of the Peter Rabbit books - after reading stories to her grandson Michael. She enjoyed Beatrice so much that she used to dress up as the author and give talks to school kids while dressed in authentic costume.  The props you see here in this room were part of her performance;
  • She was passionate about reading, and teaching others to read. She taught a speed reading course in the 1960's.  In the early 1970's she started a program at Com Tech aimed at inner city adults to help them learn to read.  Even in retirement she was part of the "Ohio Reads" program, which helped third graders get started;
  • In her later years, she wanted to make sure that the World War II vets received the recognition of their service before it was too late. She paid for several vets fly to Washington so they could visit the World War II memorial; 
  • She once smuggled $1,200 in cash to rural Kenya to help the women there build a well.  She knew that if she sent a check it would be lost in the corruption of Kenyan government. If there are any federal agents in the room, I'm sorry, it's too late;
  • She traveled to Moscow shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall as part of a Junior Achievement group.  One meeting included Boris Yeltsin. She also reported that Moscow winters were colder than anything she had ever experienced;
  • She was as comfortable with the minority community in the inner city of Toledo as she was at the Toledo Country Club.  Only a week before she became ill she volunteered at the polling place near Scott Park, as she had done so many other times.  She was the lone white registered Republican not only among the volunteers but the voters as well;
  • She loved her grandchildren Michael, Caroline and Roni with a passion.  Usually our Sunday morning conversations were mostly about their activities - I guess my mom felt that I was too late to help.
I want to leave you with one final anecdote.  I doubt I will make it through without tearing up, but it illustrates so much of who she was.

Two weeks ago, my mom made the decision that further medical intervention was pointless, and she wanted to end her life with the same dignity and courage that she had exhibited in her 84 years on this planet.

I followed the ambulance that transported her to hospice, and was waiting when they opened the doors to take her inside.

I must have looked pretty sad.  My mom saw me, shrugged her shoulders with a wry grin and waved at me. She wanted to let me know that she loved me, and was comfortable with her decision.  Later, when I sat by her bed to try to offer comfort to her, instead she thought only of me, and told me to go have dinner - she would be fine.

At the time when she was facing death, her only thought was of her son.  We all should experience such a love.

Godspeed Mom.

Mary Louise Glen

My mom passed away earlier this week. She had been ill for some time. 

 As it turned out, I had read a book called Being Mortal written by Dr. Atul Gawande in early November. The book was terrific in helping me face the issues my family has been dealing with in the past few days. I thought I would write the Doctor an email, which is shown below.

 Dear Dr. Gawande,

 I am sure you get hundreds of emails like this, and so I doubt you will even see this.

 Still, if you do, I wanted to let you know how much Being Mortal meant to me.

 I read your book in early November. It is a terrific read on a difficult subject, and I told several friends and colleagues about it.

 Then I got the call that I dreaded. My mother was admitted to the hospital with esophageal cancer on November 15. Even though she was 84 years old, she had been in generally good health for most of the past few decades. My grandmother had lived to 102, so the combination of good health and genetics seemed to bode well for many more years of life.

Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case. My mother’s health quickly deteriorated. Scheduled radiation and chemo therapies were delayed with the hope that she would get stronger.

Then her feeding tube became clogged, and she was readmitted to the hospital to try to insert a new one.

 However, as you well know, this procedure on an older woman in failing health can be tricky. With the help of my brother (who is also a doctor), my mother’s medical team discussed the alternatives with my Mom. She told them that she did not want to go through any more medical treatments. After living a very full and productive live, she wanted to end her days with dignity.

 While logically this was the right decision, it was difficult for me to accept. The stories from your book – particularly about your daughter’s piano teacher – helped me understand that often it is better for a person to end their lives doing what they love.

 Your book helped me to not only understand what was going on, but also to realize that even our advanced medical skills cannot prevent death.

 Last Friday, acting as her health care POA, I signed the papers to send her to hospice. My mom was still lucid enough to understand what was going on, and so we talked for a while longer. I followed her ambulance to hospice.

When they pulled her out of the van, I was standing there waiting. She smiled at me and waved. Even so close to death, my mom wanted to let me know that she loved me, and that she was comfortable with her decision.

 My mom died three days ago. I miss her terribly, but I am proud of the way she faced the end.

 I apologize for the length of this email, but I wanted let you know how much your work meant to me.

 Thanks, Dave Glen