I want to talk a little bit about what happened and how we ultimately paid tribute to such a special woman. As you know, Toni suffered a massive stroke about six years ago. At that time, honestly, we thought she wouldn't make it through. But she did, because she was so impressively strong. For the next six years she lived in a nursing home, but was able to come be a part of family celebrations, holidays, and regular visits. For six years, almost every time we saw her, we would leave the visit marveling at how much better she seemed: more conversational, telling jokes, participating, asking questions, seeming more like herself. It was really good to have her around.
Honestly, however, we did a lot of mourning for Toni in the immediate aftermath of the stroke. Yes, she pulled through against all odds and showed improvement visit after visit, but she still was unable to live at home, or give Eric parenting advice, or chat on the phone for any length of time. The relationship Eric had with her already was forced to change drastically, and essentially he already lost much of the mother he knew. But we were so grateful that she was still there, still able to be a part of our lives, still able to share memories and meet her grandchildren and celebrate our big life events. It was really special to us to have her be a part of all those things for the last six years. In a way, it felt like borrowed time.
A couple of months ago, Toni developed an infection that took a disastrous toll on her body. After some time in the hospital, she recovered, but never fully recovered. Ultimately, complications from that infection were too much to overcome.
We got word on Tuesday, June 8th that Toni's condition was rapidly deteriorating, and Hospice didn't seem to think she would make it through the weekend. That happened to be Eric's last day of school for the year, so the next morning we packed up our things and drove down to St. Pete - an epically bad drive. We drove through insane sheets of rain numerous times throughout the trip, and terrible traffic from Orlando to Tampa. A trip that usually takes us 3.5 hours took us six, with two kids who missed naps and a whiny dog. That was a day, alright.
Thursday morning Eric golfed with his brother Ronnie and visited with his grandmother, who had also fallen very ill and was in the hospital. They also went to visit Toni. Toni had mostly been sleeping but she was awake during that visit and was able to tell Eric she loved him.
On Friday, we all went to visit. We hoped Toni would be awake to see the kids, but she was sleeping soundly when we arrived. We stayed a few minutes but decided not to try to wake her. We kissed her good-bye and left, and on our way out, a nurse stopped us to ask if we had decided on a funeral home. That sparked a flurry of activity, trying to figure out exactly what we wanted to do in terms of arrangements when the time came.
As a side note, I would like to highly recommend to everyone that if you have particular wishes for what you'd like to happen after you pass, please make those known to your loved ones, and clearly (preferably in writing). There was much debate and back and forth over what Toni wanted, and it was stressful to try to figure out the best way to handle everything in a way that everyone would feel comfortable with. We spent the weekend going over everything time and again, and making calls and talking things through and doing research, but without resolution.
On Saturday, Eric spent the morning with his dad and brother, and then that afternoon we went back to visit Gramz at the hospital. We ran into Eric's aunt, uncle and cousin, just leaving as we arrived, and had a nice chat with them. Eric and Gramz had a long talk while I took fidgety E.J. back outside to crawl around in the grass in front of the hospital.
On Sunday we went up to my mom's house for a bit before driving back to Jacksonville. Eric was due to start a new summer fellowship the next day. We debated calling off work from the new job and extending our stay, but ultimately decided that we would likely be returning soon and didn't know when or for how long, so we thought it best to go back home in the meantime. Our drive back to Jacksonville was uneventful, but Eric and I spent a lot of time talking through other ideas for how to handle things in the event of Toni's passing. We talked a lot about the woman she was and the best way to pay tribute to her in a way that we knew she would love.
When we arrived back in Jacksonville, the kids seemed very happy to be home. We let them enjoy their house a bit before feeding them dinner and putting them to bed. We had just finished preparing our own dinner when Eric's sister Kelley called with the news that Toni had just passed.
We knew it was coming, but the moment was very surreal. How could this really be happening? We hugged each other and cried.
And then immediately, decisions had to be made. As far as plans, we had left with things still very much up in the air. Eric and I talked everything through very carefully but quickly and at last, the ideas we had swirling around during our drive kicked into place and we knew what we wanted to do.
We drove back down to St. Petersburg the very next day, and immediately upon arrival Eric went to meet with the funeral home to make all the arrangements. He also picked up his grandmother from the hospital and took her home, where he met with Kelley to talk things through. (Although Gramz was discharged from the hospital that day, she took a big turn for the worse as the week wore on and unfortunately was back in the hospital by the time of the funeral. I know that was so hard for her and I hate that she had all this going on at once.)
In the end, we decided to have Toni buried at the Largo Cemetery. Our sister-in-law Stephanie helped us select a lovely spot under a tree, and Toni was buried there in a private ceremony for family and close friends on Thursday, June 18th. Pastor Joyce from Kelley's church led the service, and did a lovely job. Ronnie and Kelley read Bible passages and Eric gave the eulogy that I shared in my previous post about Toni. I also read the following poem:
You can shed tears that she is gone
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she'll come back
or you can open your eyes and see all she has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can't see her
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she's gone
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back
or you can do what she'd want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on.
- David Harkins
We concluded the ceremony by placing brightly colored flowers onto the lowered casket. Even Ellie placed one (though she wanted to hold onto hers at first).
After the ceremony, all the siblings, cousin Tara and close friend Leighanne went to Olive Garden (Toni's favorite restaurant) for lunch. It was so nice to spend that time together.
On Saturday we held a public Celebration of Life for Toni at Taylor Park in Largo, and invited all who knew her to join us. The event was relaxed and filled with memories of a great woman, which is just what we hoped for. Again, there was a brief program: "I Hope You Dance" (a song with special meaning for Kelley and Toni) played to kick things off, then Kelley's Pastor Tash spoke. Ronnie read a verse again, and Eric gave his eulogy, and I read the poem. We then opened up the floor to people to share memories. We also had tins with notecards and markers on all the tables and we asked people to write down their memories of Toni and add them to a clothesline we had going around the pavilion, featuring our own memories and pictures. People wrote some really beautiful things, and I loved that by hanging them up around the space it was like we were literally surrounded by happy memories of Toni.
People also had really nice things to say when they came up to speak to us. Toni made such an impression on so many lives—I'm not even sure she could have realized how many, in fact. What a special person.
After the program there was food and we all just stood around and talked about Toni and caught up with people we hadn't seen in a long time. It was really, really nice. I was so pleased with how it came together. Eric, Kelley, Cathy and I worked hard to put it together (and Kelley and Cathy definitely bore the brunt of the legwork, for which we are grateful), and it turned out nicely.
And that was it, really. We came back home on Sunday and now it's back to regular life.
It still feels very surreal. As I mentioned, much of our mourning was already done after the stroke six years ago, but it is still hard to believe that she's gone. I think that will creep up on us, for example, when she's not at E.J.'s birthday party in a couple of weeks. Or at Christmas. Or if we have another baby that she won't be able to meet. Those little things that were so important for us to have her be a part of...those are the moments that will be the most difficult, I think.
Throughout my years of knowing Toni, I tried to let her know how much she meant to me. I admired her immensely—her devotion to her children was an unparalleled selfless love. She was strong and she was smart and she was kind. She welcomed me into her family with open arms, even when I was nothing but a shy sixteen-year-old kid. She was funny and bold and outspoken. She never put on airs; she just always was who she was, and who she was was something special.
Even though I know I tried to tell Toni how much I appreciated her and her family, I still am left wondering if it was enough, if she really knew that I felt I hit the mother-in-law jackpot, or if she knew how much I hope to be a mother like her to my children.
I hope she knew all that, because not only do I appreciate her for who she was, but for the legacy she left behind. She raised three wonderful kids, one of whom in particular I am quite fond of. She raised Eric to be the perfect husband for me. Like his mother, he is strong and smart and kind. Like his mother, he puts his family first and loves selflessly. He is the exceptional father to our children that he is because of his mother. Toni's memory will carry on in the husband and father that Eric is, and hopefully, it will continue when our children are caring for their own families someday. My children will benefit immeasurably because of Toni's legacy. That is a beautiful thing and it is a debt I cannot repay.
Thank you, Toni. Thank you for all you did for your family and for all of us. We love you.