Susan Jennifer Gawlak (1950-2010): A Eulogy from Daughter to Mother

Posted on August 29, 2010 in Reflections

My mother passed away on August 20, 2010 after a courageous 2 year battle against metastatic breast cancer.  Here is a copy of the eulogy I delivered at her funeral service.

My mom loved words. This is but one of many things I have in common with her. Or more accurately, one of many aspects of the person I am today that exists because of who she was and because I was fortunate enough to have someone like her as my mom. Many words come to mind now as I reflect upon the inspiring life she led. Brilliance. Beauty. Determination. Compassion. Courage. Creativity. Perseverance. Wisdom. Strength.

It goes without saying that I love my mother very much. I will always love her. There will not be a day that passes from now until we meet again where I will not think of her and feel a dark void where before she had always left the light on for me. But more than that, I am proud to say that not only did I love my mom, I also admired and respected her. From the moment I was born until the moment she died, my mom, the spirited, talented and influential Susan Jennifer Gawlak, set an example for the kind of woman and the kind of person I aspire to be.

I got my first lesson in feminism at the age of 5. I came home from kindergarten after a day of playing ‘Farmer in the Dell’ and excitedly told my mom that I had decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be the farmer’s wife. My mom responded to this by asking me why exactly it was that I didn’t want to be the actual farmer. She explained that girls could do anything boys could do. Girls could do anything they set their minds to. I saw the world and my place in it differently after that day. I feel lucky that living in a culture which remains challenging for women on many levels, I had a kindred spirit in my mom, someone I could look to to lead the way.

And lead the way she did. When she decided she wanted to be a journalist, she didn’t let the fact that she had no formal education and no field experience hold her back. Instead, she convinced the Morinville Gazette to pay her by the column inch to write on … well, pretty much anything there was to write on, even if every other reporter on the floor thought it was a crap assignment. All she wanted was a foot in the door, because she knew if she had that, the rest was up to her. And once that foot was in there, my mom never stopped climbing, never stopped reaching for the next rung of success and accomplishment. Over the next twenty-five years, she transitioned from writer of 250 word puff pieces on community dances and bake sales to managing editor of one of the most successful and respected weekly community newspapers in the country. When I consider my own career in website development, competing in a male-dominated field with no formal training, I never needed to look any further than my own mom to prove that passion, hard work and perseverance are worth more than any diploma or degree, and that if you want something badly enough, there’s a way to make it happen.

The greatest gift my mom ever gave my brother and me was an environment at home where we were free to express our ideas openly and encouraged to stay true to ourselves. This was not always an easy task. When I would come home crying because the neighbourhood bully was picking on me or because it was my turn on the outs with the other girls at school, she always reminded me that I had a choice – I could let other people define who I should be and how I should engage with the world around me, or I could hold my head up high and make my own way. The path of least resistance was a completely foreign concept to my mom, and I am so grateful and thankful to her for instilling in me respect and love for myself – qualities she herself possessed and demonstrated consistently in her daily life. I can only hope that as she watches over me, she is proud of the woman I have become.

My mom is the strongest person I have ever known. When she was diagnosed with cancer, I was already having a tough time with depression. In spite of her illness, her fatigue, the private hell she was going through coming to terms with her mortality, she was still my shoulder to cry on, the person I could confide in, the person who supported my choices and empathized with my circumstances. She always did everything she could to help me. During the most difficult and painful part of her life, she was the one comforting me and holding me and telling me that everything was going to be OK. She continued living every single day to the fullest, as though it was her last. Even pumped full of chemo drugs and steroids, her feet and legs swollen, her body failing, her hands shaking, she kept a smile on her face and joy in her heart. She continued to give of herself to the people around her – me, my brother, April, Chad and Brendon, my dad, my Uncle Gary, the rest of our family, her friends, my friends, Al’s friends, her colleagues and the community she loved living in — right up until her dying day.

There are so many things I am going to miss about life with my mom. I’ll miss our viciously competitive Scrabble games, even though she only managed to beat me once in the last 17 years. I’ll miss traditional Christmas Day poker, even though she constantly needed the hand ranking cheat sheet to remember whether or not a full house would beat a flush. I’ll miss her bad puns and long talks about politics, culture, women’s issues or the latest Margaret Atwood novel outside in the gazebo in the summertime drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. I’ll miss her proper English style turkey dinners, slow roasted with bacon on top to keep the white meat juicy, and perfectly puffy Yorkshire pudding. I’ll miss the evening phone calls just to see how my day was or remind me that she loved me.

It humbles me to know that my mom saw herself in me, and I promise to do everything I can to live up to the bold, brazen and brilliant legacy she leaves behind. Words were her thing, just like they became my thing by virtue of being her daughter, but at this moment there are no words to express how much I will miss her or how much more difficult the world will seem without her by my side. What I do know is that I would not be where I am or who I am today without her. I love you so much, mom. I know your spirit is here in this room where your treasured family and friends have gathered together to celebrate your life, and I want you to know that I will do my best to honour your memory and live my life in a way that will continue to make you proud until I too one day pass through Athena’s gate and meet you on the other side.