This Wednesday, July 17th, we said goodbye to my mother, Nance. She put up an impressive fight in Palliative care. In fact, the doctors joked that they would no longer be making predictions about my mother’s condition, because she would somehow defy them at every turn. So Nance, right? She died exactly six weeks after her stroke, on July 11th, at around 8 PM, with her family around her.
Despite my intense anxiety to do so, I spoke at the funeral. I just felt this pull, like I had to. For both Nance and myself. She was my best friend, so I didn’t really feel much choice in the matter. That being said, I can’t even express how nervous I was. I couldn’t sleep on Tuesday night, because I was so anxious! I truly thought I might projectile vomit standing at the podium. Which, come to think of it, Nance would have really enjoyed. It would have given her a (way-too-long) story to tell for the ages. So maybe it wouldn’t have so bad. In any case, I didn’t throw up in front of everyone I know. Phew. And I only choked up once-ish, which was a major surprise to me.
Many requested that I share my speech, so I decided to post it here. I hope you enjoy it.
RIP, Nance. You will be so missed.
I’ve been fighting myself on what to say up here. Part of me wanted to go into a dissertation on my relationship with my mother and everything that she means to me, but that doesn’t feel right. Part of me wanted to tell you everything I know about her, and hope that it’s enough. But let’s face it: the woman could talk, and we’ve only got an hour for this thing. Perhaps the biggest part of me didn’t want to get up here at all today. How am I supposed to boil down what my mother meant to myself, my family and this community? It seems completely impossible.
I keep going back to our last conversation, the night before her stroke. I had crashed my bike… and by crashed, I mean… ran it into a parked car while not paying attention. I messed up my front tire and brake system pretty good, and I was generally just upset about the accident and my role in it. Plus, I was dreading what I would have to spend to fix my bike. Naturally, my mother was the first to know about what happened. After asking if I was ok, she went right to work on talking me down from my anxious ledge. She said to me, “I’m just glad you are ok. Things can be replaced — people cannot.”
And that was the last thing she said to me.
As I struggled fiercely to write these words, her last piece of advice reverberates through my head. People cannot be replaced. That is a fact of life. Nobody on earth could replace my mother — the woman was a colossal presence with insurmountable spirit. Whatever her faults and foibles, her life was dedicated to doing good and enriching the lives of those around her.
So I thought I would talk about Nance in a way we could all relate to, because nothing could express everything she meant to everyone. I just wanted to share some of her best qualities — those that resonate with me every single day. I hope they will resonate with you, too.
Nance was selfless & sacrificed for what she loved, and what was important to her:
She left a successful insurance job to spend more time with her three children, even though it meant temporarily sacrificing her career aspirations. She spent time with us, every day. And she never regretted it once. In her years doing daycare at our house, she came to love every child who walked through our door as her own. She couldn’t help it, it was who she was. Now that I look back on her life, it is clear to me that the money and success she left behind was insignificant to her compared with the hours, games, meals, day trips and activities she did with us every day. Josh, Adam and I always came first.
When I was about 10, I got cut from the AAU team I really wanted to play for. There were other teams in the area, but none of them appealed to my competitive spirit. So for two years, my mother tirelessly trekked across Connecticut twice a week, from Coventry to Mystic, so I could play on the AAU basketball team I wanted to. She never even complained about it — even when I did.
She took a job as athletic director at Coventry, even though she was woefully undercompensated for her time. Yet she couldn’t fathom leaving. She wanted to do right by the kids lucky enough to live in this town. Because she loved it. Because she cared too much to give it up. Because in her opinion it was rewarding on so many other levels — money was too far down on the list of priorities to change her mind.
Most amazingly, I don’t think she viewed any of this as a sacrifice. It was what what she wanted and what made sense to her core.
My mother was also committed and involved, sometimes overly involved:
When my mother decided on something, she was in 100%, no questions asked. The woman makes things happen! And good luck for anyone who thought they could steer her otherwise. Some might call this “stubborn” — but I call it focused. Each summer when I was in college, my mother and I would sublet an apartment on the Upper West Side. The year before I graduated, she told me “I’m going to get my own apartment in the city next summer.” “Oh, really?” I said, incredulously, “How are you going to convince Dad?” “I have my ways.” She told me. And sure enough, about a year and a half later, she and my father signed a lease to our family’s first NY apartment. She had her ways, all right: she scrimped, saved, researched, and reasoned endlessly with my father. And in the end, he was all the happier for it. I’ve often heard him remark on how glad he is that they had the time in the city together that they did. Where many people focus on the roadblocks, my mother zeroes in on the ultimate goal. She will stop at nothing to accomplish what matters to her.
Speaking of her commitment: She never missed a game. And I had thousands of them. I played on multiple teams during every week of the year, and she was there for all of it. She took me all over the state, the country, and even the world, to give me the opportunity to seek out fulfilling competition. And long after I’d left both the court and the field, she never missed one of your kids games, either. Her endless commitment to supporting young athletes was incredible — almost mind-boggling, if I’m being honest. Did she ever get sick of watching 14-year-olds play soccer? No. Did she ever tire of attending scholar athlete banquets? No. Did she ever take a week, a day, or even an hour away from thinking about how to improve Coventry Athletics? No. Not even when she was on vacation. Not even at my frequent prompting for her to relax and let go for a little bit.
High school sports were not the only things she found herself overly involved in: My mother would frequently decorate my friends’ apartments, sometimes without prompting. She would spend way too many hours watching Big Brother. And Big Brother After Dark. And the Live Newsfeed Online. And maybe she cruised the online forums, but it’s not my place to say. She still assisted with my taxes, and helped me ask for a raise, and always knew how best to approach a harry social situation. She asked the tough questions that got us all to open up against our own wills, one time or another. Not so she could gossip, but so she could help. Every time over the years I tried to shut her out, I would find myself back under her spell, dying to know what well-reasoned advice she would dole out.
She was always in there; always on top of things. She chaperoned, class-parented, troop leadered, coached, taught, fundraised, argued in front of the board, built alliances, mediated, advocated, educated, guided and advised. And she somehow did it with ease.
Which brings me to my last, most important point. She cared:
My mother cared about everything that I had to say, even when it was drivel. Who will care that I just went to spin class? I know, Nance! Oh look, a new restaurant opening in the neighborhood – better text Nance. I have an 8 minute break in my day — I should probably call my mother and talk at her to fill the void. It’s incredible to me that she sustained a genuine interest in the minute details of my life. Even when I could feel myself being tiresome. Even when I overanalyzed past the point of any reasonable thought. She entertained it all. And she cared every single time. Some would say that’s what mothers do, but it went beyond that with my mother. She really cared. She really listened. She really wanted me — and everyone — to feel important.
We were all important to her. Everyone in this room — even the few who are here to support me that she never met. Every single one of us mattered. She was behind us at every triumph, bump in the road, success, and failure. If you ever had a conversation with my mother, I’m sure she bragged about me to you. I’m sure she went on way too long and you probably seriously questioned if I could really be that great. I’m not, but my whole life, she was the one person who REALLY believed in me. And that made me better every day, and still does. Many of you have told me that I was her pride and joy, and I think you’re mostly right. But what you probably don’t realize, is that you were her pride and joy, too. She bragged about you, constantly.
Her athletes and coaches were a continuous source of pride. Each year she looked on as her teams defied expectations and bragged about their victories, both large and small. And she wasn’t just proud of the volleyball team (but seriously, who wouldn’t be?!). Sometimes it was simply an underachieving team turning it around and having their first winning season. Other times it was a kid having the guts to come out of the closet and into the open, accepting arms of their team. She cared about every single one of those kids, and by extension, their families.
She cared deeply about her friends and colleagues, too. I know about your loving marriages, school acceptances, beautiful vacation homes, new jobs, engagements, pregnancies, house purchases, moves, and promotions. I know because she told me, with enthusiasm and genuine support. I know because you mattered to her. She was in your corner, rooting for you at every step. My mother will always be in your corner and in mine.
So here’s to the woman who brought us all here; who spent her life loving and giving herself to so many. Sometimes she pushed us too hard, but we strived because she believed in us.
She cannot be replaced, but she will live on, through each and every one of us. Let’s all give her something to brag about.
We love you, Nance.
Nancy-Jean Levinson (Doster)
February 20, 1954 – July 11, 2013