Eulogy for Helene McHendry

Tonight we held a remembrance service for my Mom, Helene McHendry (January 20, 1951-October 7, 2020). I wanted to share the eulogy I delivered at the service.

So many things about mom’s death have felt impossible, but none more so than trying to capture her spirit, and light, and love in words for this service tonight. If you knew my mom, then you know words can never fully describe the person she was. More than that, though, I still cannot believe she is gone.

Cancer took her body from us in less than a year — and during an especially cruel year marked by a global pandemic that threatened us at every turn. I miss her terribly — every day her absence sits like a weight I am not prepared to bear. Yet, there are moments where the burden becomes just a little lighter — moments where I see and feel her with me:

• I see her in my own face when I look at the mirror every day.
• I hear her joy and optimism in my sister Erin’s voice every time we talk on the phone.
• I feel her smile as my Dad meets one milestone after another in his stroke recovery.
• I sense her presence whenever Aunt Beth and I talk on the phone.

My mom made her love known to so many people that I find myself collecting fragments of her in the people who knew and loved her as I did.

I know that many of you are here tonight because of how much she meant to you. I take comfort in sharing this time with those whose life was better for knowing my mom.

Mom had this sixth sense about when the people around her needed some extra support. If she were with us today, I know she would smile, throw her arms open wide as can be, and say “come give me one” — demanding we give her the hug we didn’t know we needed. Her hugs were always something special.

Of all her virtues, mom’s capacity to love, her selflessness, and her strength shows the remarkable person she was.

Love
Many years ago after a visit with my parents, Amanda quipped that she could never love me as much as my mom loved my Dad. This is not, of course, her fault. Few if any of us are capable of the kind of selfless love that my mom gave to all of us every day.

• Through times both calm and turbulent, she loved my dad relentlessly.
• Through times both calm and turbulent, she loved my my sister and I relentlessly.
• Hell through times both calm and turbulent, she even loved CU Buffs football relentlessly.

I was her anxious baby boy and so much of our life together was spent with her soothing my worries both real and exaggerated. Few sons are lucky enough to have the friendship and bond that my mom and I had. In moments both reasonable and absurd she was there for me:

• My mom was the person who taught me to dance, just in case I found the courage to ask someone to a school dance.
• She was the person who drove me to every one of my baseball games and volunteered to be the official scorekeeper for the team.
• My mom was the person who searched sears high and low for a pair of gray non-pleated pants that would fit my short frame when I decided I wanted to start umpiring baseball.
• She was the person who not only watched absurd hours of Star Trek with her son and bought him the entire run of TNG on VHS from Columbia House, but also jumped in the car with me in the summer of 1998 to see Star Trek: The Experience in Las Vegas. She didn’t love Star Trek, she loved me.
• My mom understood my desire to go to college out of state and delighted in our road trips to and from Ripon College.

All of us who knew her are better for experiencing the depth of love she was capable of.

Selflessness
Mom was also frustratingly selfless. A year ago I was sitting beside her hospital bed as she recovered from brain surgery. In a particularly hard moment, tears began to fall from my face. She noticed, and grabbed my hand and said, “Hey my Baby Boy, none of that. Everything will be ok. I have spent my life getting strong so I can fight this.” There she was just out of brain surgery and spending her time worrying about me.

Mom sacrificed so much for others. She worked hours and hours of bingo fundraisers so my sister could play competitive soccer. She never once complained when I was little and, after working to get me suited up in all my hockey gear, I would tell her I have to pee and she had to help me undress and then redress. She worked her full time job at Lane Library at the University of Colorado — Boulder only to spend her evenings developing film and weekends photographing weddings for my Dad’s business.

Towards the end we all knew she was in pain, but she would never admit it to us. To say aloud that it hurt, that she was exhausted, that cancer was getting the best of her, would have meant that those of us around her might have to share the agony of her fight. As the days and hours left for her dwindled, Erin and I sat at her bedside talking to her and playing Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” on repeat. The cancer caused a stress fracture in her hip and even slight movements in bed caused her face to rush with agony. Even then she would not admit she was in pain because she did not want our hearts to be heavier for her agony. That was mom, selfless to her last breath.

Strong
Mom was the strongest person I know. She had this mix of mental and physical toughness that made her an inspiration. Growing up, my mom lived a very different lifestyle. For years she smoked a couple packs of cigarettes a day. One day when I was 16 she woke up and decided she wanted to change. She walked upstairs and announced that she had smoked her last cigarette. To fight her urges to light up, she began taking walks around Greenway Park. Soon walking turned to jogging and then jogging turned to running. It takes a kind of strength that defies words to quit cold turkey and transform yourself into a marathoner.

It was that same strength that saw her through giving birth to two premature children, through the worries my sister and I put her through on our paths to adulthood, and it was the same strength that steadied her through her fight against cancer. About three and a half months before she passed, we traveled to Blackhawk and shared an AirBNB with mom and Dad, as well as, Amanda’s parents. The grandparents doted over Nora, we ate, we laughed, and we were together. We also took long walks and even a short hike. Mom did not miss a step. You would never guess that she had lung cancer or that she was undergoing chemo and radiation. She smiled as wide as can be, and put one foot in front of the other. Years of training, and running, and biking gave her the strong frame and mental toughness she would need to face cancer. When her body began to weaken, her faith carried the load — on that trip, she took a deep breath and told me that she was at peace. She said, “I can only control what I can control” and she put the rest of it in our creator’s hands. That moment was so powerful, and it left me in awe of strong woman I was lucky enough to call mom.

Just the other day, I was telling Amanda that I wish I had seen mom once more before the end when her latest brain tumor was already stealing bits of pieces of her from us. I long for a moment with her, in spite of her nearing end so that we can talk openly and honestly about the love and life we shared. Amanda held me in her warm embrace and gently said “I know.” After a slight pause, Amanda reminded me how much of a gift it is that I had a mom who was never shy in expressing her love, in celebrating every accomplishment of those around her no matter how small, and who never left the kinds of things a child wants to hear unsaid.

Mom never left me wondering how she felt: she made sure that I knew she loved me, that she was proud of me, and that she felt honored that I became the adult she always wanted me to be. Having that last moment together would have meant so much, but in its place, I have a more memories of my mom’s love than I could ask for.

I will admit that in the darker corners of my mind, I am frequently overcome with the pain of her absence:

• On Sundays when I would normally call her, I find myself listening to old voicemails so I can hear her voice.
• When I take a cute picture of Nora — and let’s be honest they are all cute — I struggle with not being able to text it to her.

However, in life and death, Mom would not want her story to be consumed by such sadness. Instead, she would want me to give the same love she gave others to those around me. She would want me to find joy in giving selflessly of myself to others. Last, she would want me to transform my pain into the strength I need to be the man, husband, and father she raised me to be.

Mom tried to see the best in everyone and I can think of no better way to honor her than my pushing myself to be the person she saw in me — no matter how impossible it is to live up to such expectations.

Mom, we miss you, we love you, and take heart with knowing that in our own time when our creator calls us home your big smile and open arms will be waiting for us. Until we see you again, please keep watch over us from above.

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AcaGuy

Associate Professor in Communication Studies. Rhetorical Critic.