My mom died on Friday night, March 15, 2016 after a two year battle with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive cancer. At some point I’d like to do a post about my parents’ battles with cancer and how it’s influenced the work I do in chronic disease prevention. But that’s not today.
I didn’t deliver a eulogy at my Dad’s funeral 3 years ago and I’ve regretted it since. So in a way, this eulogy was for both Mom and Dad.
Over the last few weeks I’ve posted dozens of photos of mom in the sixties- friends all over the world seem to have enjoyed them, as well as the stories that accompany these images. I thought some of you might be interested in hearing a little more about my mom, so I decided to post the eulogy here.
A Daughter’s Eulogy | Esther Krohn 1946-2016
Anyone who knew Esther Krohn knew that she put everyone else first. Her family and her friends were infinitely important to her, and she invested all of her energy into ensuring that the people she loved were happy and well cared for.
This was evident in Mom and Dad’s relationship from the very beginning. Soon after they started dating, Mom bought tickets for a music festival due to take place upstate in the summer. At the last minute, Dad had to take call. Did Mom call a girlfriend and make alternate travel plans? Absolutely not. She stayed in the city on a sweltering August weekend as she didn’t want Dad to feel extra disappointed about missing out. That little music festival turned out to be the most important musical event of the 20th century, if not ever. If missing Woodstock to take care of your boyfriend isn’t the purest incarnation of altruism, I don’t know what is.
And of course that’s how it went down- because Mom always put herself second. Or third. Or fourth. There was nothing more important to Mom than being sure that her family was happy and that their needs were constantly anticipated and consistently met.
Her desire to care for us took on innumerable forms, some obvious, some more subtle. For instance, during East Hampton summers she monitored the motion of the leaves around our house or the fluttering of the flags on the ocean beaches, hoping that these observations would relate to the conditions at Napeague, ensuring Dad a good windsurfing day. Likewise during those summers she observed and reported the intensity of the sunlight, hoping that I might have a productive and enjoyable day photographing.
Mom never let anything get in the way of caring for the family- what she called “her job.” I don’t remember her being sick a single day in our childhood- and I doubt it was because she didn’t get a cold- it’s because she never let it stand in the way of doing that job. Regardless of whether she had slept 3 hours, which was often the case, or whether she recently had a major surgery- she was always there to make us breakfast, get Dad off to work and us off to school, drive us to after school activities, make us dinner, help us with our homework and get us to bed.
Mom was expert at caring for those she loved. But she was expert at so much more, in both the physical and intellectual realms. She had an impressive and diverse athletic ability- trying everything from skiing to windsurfing to sailing to running to tennis- she really did it all. And she was an aesthetic virtuoso –this was evident in her legendary green thumb, in her encyclopedic knowledge of art and antiques, home decorating, and her uncanny ability to walk into a space, see the vast potential- and then achieve it.
She took pride in sharing her love of art and culture with us as children- any weekend we weren’t skiing or sailing, she piled us into the car early and ushered us to a museum or performance in the city- I am forever grateful for that immersion so early on.
Everyone here knows of Mom’s phenomenal sense of style- a sense that transcended medium. It was apparent in her knack for decorating, flower arranging and gardening, and in her impeccable personal appearance. The aesthetic details we saw on the surface of Esther Krohn were a confident expression of her vast knowledge of art and design.
My personal favorite era of Mom’s were the 60s and 70s- in fact it’s likely that the photos of her in this era as well as a hermetically sealed time capsule of floor length psychedelic dresses, hidden away in the basement of our childhood home, informed my own love of vintage style. Mom forged on with countless reinventions, all successful in their own way. Even her collection of 1980s hairdos, some rather mullet-y in nature, were pulled off with grace and flair.
She even had a style overhaul a year into her cancer battle, eventually ditching the wig for a chic pixie-like cut in her natural, strikingly beautiful grey, which no one had ever seen prior. She stopped wearing makeup, with the exception of a bright red lipstick that highlighted her infectious smile. When her clothes no longer fit, she assembled an entirely different wardrobe, resulting in a new look- one more unique and striking than anything I saw her wear since the 70s. It was authentically her, and it was beautiful.
And speaking of beauty, it’s tough not to mention her legendary, outward physical beauty. From the time I was in nursery school, every teacher and parent commented on her loveliness and elegance. And it wasn’t just because she was a babe. Her beautiful smile, engaging nature, compassionate demeanor and sense of humor all played a part in her attractiveness. All of these attributes made her the life of the party, the belle of the ball, and a devoted friend to innumerable people over the course of her life. She was magnetic, and everyone gravitated toward her.
Many of you reaped the rewards of Mom’s aptitude for entertaining. As Max mentioned she was a gifted cook and an exemplary hostess. Whether a small dinner or a big charity fundraiser, entertaining gave mom the chance to show off some of her numerous talents while taking care of other people.
In working so hard for the sake of making others happy, and in putting everyone else first, I don’t think mom saw herself as coming last. Mom took great pleasure and pride in being there for her friends and providing the vital framework for her family’s happiness and success. That being said, when others need you most, it can be hard to carve out the time and space to take care of yourself, particularly if you’re the kind of person who mom was.
Perhaps the most potent example of mom’s altruism, and sadly a tragic aspect of her propensity for caring is that she sublimated her own intense physical suffering when Dad was dying. Who knew that she too had cancer, but put Dad’s pain ahead of her own, so that he would feel loved and comfortable without feeling ashamed or guilty. We all knew that she was suffering emotionally, and that her stomach issues, at the time thought to be anxiety induced, were irritating to contend with. But in retrospect, it is haunting to think of her stoically enduring the effects of cancer alongside her husband.
That was mom. Everyone else first.
I can’t imagine how rough it must have been for fiercely independent mom to eventually let others help for a change once she received her diagnosis.
When she had no choice but to relent and let others help, she never complained of her own pain or sadness. All she communicated to us and to her valiant caregivers was her guilt about disrupting our lives. To the end, her main concern was that her family should not feel inconvenienced.
Just as we all did, I wanted so much to do something meaningful for mom in her time of suffering, and I feel so grateful that in the end she finally allowed me to do just that. On the last night she was verbal, the night we initially thought she would go, Max and I stayed rather late. While he took a nap I sat at Mom’s bedside holding her hand, as we had done for weeks. She thought the end was near as we did- although tenacious as she was, it turned out that she would go on fighting for another week.
Around 1 am, I told Mom that I was about to head home, and I’d be back to see her in the morning. Ordinarily she would say something like “you do what you need to do,” and send me on my way. That was sort of her code for “I kind of want you to stay, but it’s more important to me that you tend to your own needs.”
But that night, she looked uneasy, and didn’t respond. “Mom,” I asked, “do you want me to stay? I can stay.” Mom had a hard time talking in her last few weeks, and with the oxygen machine blaring in the background it was tough to hear her faint whisper. So I put my ear a millimeter from her mouth and heard one very distinct word: “Stay.” Of everything Mom did for me over the course of her life, and there was a lot – that one word was one of the greatest gifts- the permission to return a lifetime of caring by just being there in her time of need.
I began with a musical tale so perhaps it’s fitting to end with one. My most Proustean memory, at about 2 years old, is being with our parents at a condo called Middle Earth, in Sugarbush, VT. It’s 1976 and the the two 8 tracks perpetually on were two of our parents’ favorites- the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road. To this day, any time I hear those albums I am transported to Middle Earth, and am instantly embraced by a sense of warmth, home, and the unconditional love of my parents. But even as a child, those albums were tinged with sadness, as it occurred to me that they would be uncomfortable to hear when my parents were gone. I never imagined that time would come so soon.
The last line of Abbey Road’s The End is “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Our parents put a tremendous amount of love out into the world, and in return, were blessed by the love of each other, of their family, and a vast network of friends. Their example of love and compassion continue to inspire me every day of my life. I only wish they could have stayed around a little longer to inspire us all.