Eulogies for Lisa

We said goodbye to Lisa (or tried to) on Friday. Several people have asked me for a copy of my eulogy, while I knew I had to have copies of the beautiful words offered by everyone else. So: my eulogy is posted below. And: this PDF contains my eulogy plus the other eulogies offered on Friday, by Rabbi Debra Dressler, Wael Haddara, Rachel Heydon, Hilary Teplitz and Elaine Worthy Thomas, Julie Faden, and myself. May her memory be a blessing.

Eulogies for Lisa (PDF)
Lisa’s Blog

Thank you all so much for being here today. Rabbi Dressler, Wael, Rachel, Hilary and Elaine, Julie, thank you for your kind and heartfelt words.

I’m Lisa’s husband Rob. On this beautiful, miserable day, at the end of the worst week of my life, on zero hours of sleep and several extra-strength Tylenol to fight the fever I’ve been running for days, I somehow thought it would be a good idea to stand up in front of one or two hundred people and try to sum up, in a few minutes, the most incredible person I have ever known. I’m afraid my speech is too long and it’s not properly footnoted, but I do think it is pretty good in parts. Let’s give it a whirl.

* *

I met Lisa at a party, in Boston, in the final weeks of the twentieth century. We had talked for all of three minutes when a song she liked came on, and she said, not to me but not not to me, “I’m going to go dance! Does anybody want to come?”


A three-minute talk, then a three-minute dance to a three-minute song—that was all the interaction we had that night. The next morning, I called her up at 9:03 am to ask her out. I figured 9 am was business hours, and I waited until 9:03 am so I wouldn’t seem too eager.

On our first date, because it was 1999, I tried out a conversational riff that dudes like me had been trying out all year: We’re on the verge of the year 2000! We’re living in the future! So, where’s my jetpack? Where’s my flying car? Lisa sweetly faked a laugh and said, “Where’s my flying public transportation? I mean, why is it easier for us to imagine flying cars than it is to imagine a sustainable urban infrastructure that brings access and independence to everyone?”

And I said, “Daaaamn.”

On our fourth date, Lisa gave me two of her favorite novels as a Christmas or Hanukkah present: Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. All she said about them was, “I love both these books. Maybe you’ll like them too.” But I was smart enough to get it: this was required reading. And before there was any fifth date, there was going to be a quiz. Never have I crammed more avidly for an exam.

If I’m making her sound demanding or strident, then I’m not doing this right. Lisa was the most generous, gregarious, loving person I’ve ever known. But she had impeccable taste and that meant she had high standards. She loved the colors of the trees in fall—a sign of her New England roots—but she had exacting standards for fall foliage. Often, we would be driving through some stunning technicolor vista in Massachusetts or Ontario or upstate New York, and I’d say, wow, would you look at those colors. And she’d say, “That’s lovely. I think we must have just missed the peak orange.” Or, “In another four days, that is going to look really nice.”

* *

When I first met her, Lisa was a fairly new graduate of the Harvard School of Education. She taught history and social studies for a short time at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and had just moved to Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts.

I want to do something now that Lisa would never, never do, which is to explain why she was not “just” a high school history teacher. For Lisa, being a high school history teacher—no “just” about it—was an achievement, an honor, a noble calling. Nevertheless, I want you to know that Newton North happens to be one of the greatest public high schools in America. It is an amazing place. It is one of the pinnacles of the now-besieged ideal of a democratic public school system—an institution that serves a truly diverse student body with an absolutely top-flight education. I had some exposure to the intellectual discussions in the staff room of the social studies department at Newton North, and they were every bit as cerebral and sophisticated as the history department at Harvard, and considerably more humane. And even at Newton North, at the very top of the heap, Lisa was a star. She won their highest award for teaching; she was beloved by the students and the staff; she made her mark on hundreds of lives.

Lisa taught at Newton for about ten years. She loved it. Then, her husband managed to finally finish his dissertation and find a job—in a different country, at a university and a city neither she nor anyone else in Boston had ever heard of. A city called London, except it wasn’t the real London. And a University of Western Ontario? People congratulated us and silently thought, “It’s too bad Rob couldn’t land a job at the University of Ontario.”

But Lisa somehow agreed to leave the stellar career she had built, and the rich life and the amazing friends she had in Boston, to be with me. She started over, and went from being, essentially, one of the top history teachers in the entire United States to being a first-year grad student in a place where nobody knew what Newton North was or what she had accomplished.

Now, she insisted this was her choice, that this was what she wanted, that she was totally ready for this change. And the reason I believed her, the only reason I can live with myself about that choice, is that I can’t think of any other single moment when I ever got her to do anything she didn’t want to do. So I have to assume she really did want to move to Canada.

Lisa came to love it here. She said, “Canadians make me want to be nicer.” Of course, Lisa was nice; she was sweet and giving. It’s just that coming from the U.S. to Canada gave her superpowers. You’ll all remember that Superman was not super strong on Krypton. It’s only when he came to our planet, and was exposed to the rays of Earth’s yellow sun, that he became super strong. Lisa was the same way. Moving from the hard-charging, urban, east coast United States to the polite, suburban, Canadian midwest gave her superpowers, like her steely teacher’s gaze, and her “I’d like to speak to your supervisor” voice, and her “actually, I think the Ontario elementary curriculum does contain cursive writing” smile.

Lisa loved the community she found in London. She threw herself into it, in a dozen ways. She made such dear, dear friends here: at Western’s Faculty of Education, in our Old South neighborhood, at Temple Israel, at CERI, at the Western Fair Farmer’s Market, everywhere.

Lisa only complained about moving to Canada once. She was something like seven months pregnant with Yuki, and seven months into her first Canadian winter. We were trudging across a desolate, frozen parking lot (Springett, for the Western folks) in the howling wind and premature darkness of February. She slipped on the ice, and fell to the ground, twisting and taking the impact hard on her tailbone to protect her precious, giant belly. She looked up at the black sky—Earth’s yellow sun was so very far away—and wailed, “Smarties are not the same as M&Ms!”

But as I say, Lisa grew to love Canada, even in February. Our daughter Yuki is named for Lisa’s great-aunt, who was and is like a grandmother to Lisa, Lisa’s maternal grandmother having died of cancer at the age of 47. But Yuki is also the Japanese word for snow. After Yuki was born, and after Eli was born, many’s the time Lisa would drag the four of us on nature walks in the middle of winter. We’d be trudging through howling blizzards, across frozen wastes of ice, and she’d smile her thousand-watt smile and say, “Isn’t this great, guys? It’s a winter wonderland!”

* *

When Lisa and I were first married, we were both really struck by a line from a book, a sort of pop-Buddhism mindfulness book that said, “Anything that can happen to anyone can happen to you.” In other words: you could lose your job, you could get hit by a bus, you could get terminal cancer. The only answer to the question “Why me?” is, simply, “Why not you?” This idea seemed really important and ominous to us both. Lisa added a corollary to it. She said, “You have to hold on to your cuties.” This was like a syllogism for her: anything can happen to anyone; therefore, hold on to your cuties.

I remember driving with her on the Masspike on the way up to my family’s cottage for Canadian Thanksgiving. It was the golden hour, and the sun hit that gorgeous fall foliage just right (“In another three days, this is going to look really nice!”) And Lisa was sitting beside me, bopping along in her seat to the car stereo. She was doing what she called her Muppet dance, all goofy abandon from the waist up. And it was just such a perfect moment, and she was so beautiful, and I was so happy, and I looked at her in the golden sunlight and said, “Wow. If our lives were a movie, this would be the flashback—the impossibly happy, color-saturated flashback of how wonderful my life was before I lost you.”

Why would I say that? And why did we both fixate on that line from the Buddhism book? Were we practicing for today, even then? I don’t think we were. I think it’s more that we were young and we were intoxicated by how deeply, powerfully, and quickly we had fallen in love. But we were frightened when we realized, too late, how much that love opened us up to hurt, if and when anything bad ever happened to the other.

As Lisa cried in the ambulance on the way to the hospice the day before she died, I flashed right back to that flashback. Just like in the movies.

* *

Lisa was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer three years ago. She approached the disease like she approached everything else in her life: she went All In. She researched the medical science and she researched the emotional journey too. She read stacks of medical journals and New Age memoirs and graphic novels.

Lisa’s (award-winning) PhD dissertation compared the narratives used in history classrooms in the United States and Canada. Lisa studied the way we force historical facts to fit preset narrative templates. Historians like me like to think we are telling the true stories of things that happened. Lisa showed that most of us have just one or two basic story patterns that we gravitate to again and again.

The night before her very first session of chemotherapy, Lisa and I went out for an intimate dinner. The single action item on her agenda was to choose the story or metaphor she was going to use to talk about her cancer. Lisa didn’t want to talk about “fighting” cancer. She didn’t want her illness to be a “war” she had to “win.” She tried out a host of metaphors that night, and in the three years to come. “Cancer is like a journey,” “cancer is like weeds in a garden,” “cancer is like an unwelcome guest” (which would make it the only guest ever that Lisa didn’t welcome). One therapist urged Lisa to try to “make friends with her cancer.” “My friend really sucks,” she said to me that night.

A lot of these thoughts and metaphors found their way into Lisa’s writing. Some of that writing was published in newspapers and magazines. A lot of it was posted on her brave, beautiful blog. Too much of it is still scattered around our house in the exquisite little Japanese notebooks that Lisa loved.

As time went on, Lisa had less and less need for metaphor. She became more clear-eyed about what she was facing. She could call things by their actual names. The joke about looking for a metaphor for cancer is that cancer is itself one of our culture’s most formidable metaphors. One day Lisa said, “I got it! You know what cancer is like? It’s like… some kind of malignant disease, that hides and spreads inside your body. If only there was a word for that.”

* *

After finishing her PhD, Lisa joined CERI, the Centre for Educational Research & Innovation, at the Schulich School of Medicine. Basically, CERI studies education in a medical context. One of the themes of Lisa’s work at CERI involved medical communication: the way all the moving parts of a hospital do, or do not, communicate with one another. Doctors, nurses, patients; the day shift and the night shift; the ways that the work of healing bodies might be helped or hindered by anything from workflows and workplace cultures, to software design, to the physical layout of a hospital, to hierarchies of status, race, class, and gender.

As Lisa lay in a hospital bed recovering from her first brain surgery—not even back in her own hospital bed, but in the post-op recovery room where she had to be under close observation for twelve hours—she got put out by the way one male doctor was interacting with the female nurses. Lisa could barely whisper, but each time a new nurse came by to give her some meds or swab her cracked, dry lips, Lisa would try to get the nurse to stand up to that jerk doctor, to organize, right then and there, to equitably restructure the workplace.

Most of our doctors were not jerks. I want to thank all the doctors, nurses, social workers, and health care people who worked so hard to give us three more years with Lisa. That includes the Ontario health care system (Lisa says: cherish it! Fight for it!) and also Lisa’s informal but massive network of friends who just happened to be doctors, nurses, or researchers.

I most especially want to thank those medical professionals who recognized Lisa as an expert in her own right on the subject of Lisa’s cancer, who respected her as a more-than-equal partner in her treatment. Those who did not soon learned their mistake. We went once to see an eminent specialist, in either Toronto or Boston. She, the eminent specialist, was startled when Lisa quoted chapter and verse of some highly technical cancer studies from around the world. Lisa mentioned some cutting-edge research happening in California. The eminent specialist, trying to regain her authority in this conversation, said, “I think you’ll find that nothing has been published from that study.” “I know,” Lisa said as she opened an Excel spreadsheet on her laptop. “That’s why I got them to email me their raw data!”

* *

So many people loved Lisa. The cards and texts and emails have been pouring in since Wednesday. One thing that has struck me about them is not just the numbers, but the intensity. Many people loved Lisa, but also many of the people that loved her really really loved her, often with an intensity that seems surprising given the briefness or lightness of their connection: someone she met on a school exchange, someone with a stall at the Farmers Market, someone she took one class with in 2008 or 1992. The messages I’ve been getting don’t say, “Lisa was my friend,” or even “Lisa was my best friend,” they say, “Lisa was the best friend.” They say she was the brightest light, the most beautiful spirit. They say she gave the best fashion advice, she had the best shoes.

I’m not sure what created this effect. I think it is that when Lisa talked to you she really wanted to know you and to hear you. Whatever the relationship was, when Lisa was in, she was All In. And that kind of attention, that kind of focus, makes people feel wonderful.

Lisa’s dear friend Rachel, who you just heard from, and who I think probably laughed with her and talked with her and commiserated with her every single day of the past year, was telling a story a week or so ago about someone who annoyed her, and then she stopped and sighed and said, “The thing is, I just kind of hate everyone except Lisa.” (Rachel’s husband Sean was standing right there!) But I got it, I totally got it. I know Rachel didn’t mean it literally, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate anyone, but I have often thought: if you could talk to Lisa, why would you choose to talk to anybody else?

God, she was funny. Someone once told her, “you’re quite good at physical comedy” and she loved to repeat that, drawing out the word “physical” so it turned the compliment into a backhanded insult. But her wit! She could be as daffy as Gracie Allen one minute and as sardonic as Dorothy Parker the next.

She was stylish and whip-smart and cool, but also goofy and generous and kind. She was Jewish and Japanese. She was Hermione Granger, but not a doormat. She was adamantine, which means “having the brilliance, luster, and hardness of a diamond.” She was a teacher and a scholar and an activist, she was a sage advice giver and a spiritual seeker, she was a rabble rouser and a riot grrrl and a healer and a beautiful spirit.

* *

I’ve made it this far—page seven of ten—without using the words “wife” or “mother,” and that was intentional. But can there be any doubt that Lisa filled those two roles as magnificently as she did everything else?

I’m not going to reduce Lisa to stories of how she made me a better person. But of course she did. On the night we met, she pulled me onto the dance floor, and then she just kept pulling me onto the dance floor for twenty years. Pulling me into new places, new experiences, new friendships; coaxing me, cajoling me into opening up my heart, not just to her but to the world; getting me to go All In.

I started studying American history because I loved the comedy and calamity of the United States. But like many Canadians, I regarded “the States” as a kind of spectacle on TV. It was the greatest show on Earth, but I did not myself have skin in the game. But Lisa wouldn’t let me remain a spectator. She pulled me onto the dance floor.

Lisa loved Frederic Jameson’s line: “History is what hurts.” For her, history was not an abstract intellectual exercise. It was blood and tears and spirit, the sufferings and triumphs of real people. She opened me up to all that. She made me care, deep inside, in a way that sometimes hurts, about things like democracy and justice and the health of the American republic.

[sarcastic:] Thanks a lot for that, sweetie.

Lisa taught me so much about teaching. In my grad school training, the classroom was an arena, where you compete to show off how clever you are. For Lisa, the classroom was a sacred place, where every day you have the opportunity and obligation to repair the world. This is the Jewish concept of tikkun olam: every day you work in a modest, patient way to rectify an injustice, to fix the system just a little bit, to heal some small breach in the proper functioning of the world.

That same impulse brought Lisa to Temple Israel, and to the wonderful community our family has found there, and specifically to Temple Israel’s Social Action Committee, which Lisa co-chaired with her dear friend Nancy, another adamantine Jewish-American woman who somehow got lured by a soft-spoken Scots-Canadian to the frozen north. And there they did good works with the London Food Bank, Share the Warmth, ReForest London, the Interfaith Peace Camp—the list goes on.

* *

Of course, Lisa was a mother. And Lisa mothered as totally and ferociously and impeccably as she did everything else. Oh Eli, oh Yuki. She loved you guys so much, so much. And whether it was the fun stuff or the hard stuff, the drama or the drudgery, your mother was All In.

You’re going to find as you grow older that her brilliance, her love, her generosity, her intensity—they are all running through your veins. They’re going to give you superpowers. But first, our suddenly small family is going to hurt, for a good long time. And that’s a good thing, because we loved her. They say love and grief are not separable. If we love, we grieve, that’s the deal.

I know that what your mother wants for both of you is for you to always get out on the dance floor; to see the beauty in every winter wonderland; to keep yourself open to love and to grief for other people and for the world.

How are we going to live in a world without her? It makes no sense that she is gone. We three will have to figure out, together, the ways in which she is gone and the ways in which she is not. I know that all I have to do is look at you, either one of you, and I can see your mother, clear as day. Yuki, you might get tired of hearing it, but you are so much like her. Everybody knows it. You are brilliant and sensitive and generous and brave. Eli, this is more secret, but you are her too. You’re goofy and spiritual and gentle and wise. I have you guys, and that means that Lisa will never leave me. We will have to find the places you can look to see her too. We will find them together.

* *

Yuki: You and I have talked quite a bit about Mommy’s cancer as it progressed. You’re so smart and so perceptive, it made less and less sense to hide things from you or to sugarcoat the truth. I treasure the way you and I can talk about the hard stuff, and I’m determined to preserve it: hard stuff like cancer, but also the hard stuff that 13-year-olds are supposed to worry about, like annoying teachers and drama between friends.

I want to tell all these people how unbelievably brave you have been, but I never wanted you to have to be this brave. You give me strength, but that was never supposed to be your job. I know you don’t always feel brave or strong, but your Mom has taught you all you’re going to need about being a strong, kind, amazing woman. Last night you told me, kindly but firmly, exactly how long I could stay up writing this eulogy: what time I had to stop working, and what time I had to be in bed with lights out. I felt queasy, because it was like Lisa was in the room.

But listen: that doesn’t mean you need to become your mother or live up to her example today. I know you want to take care of me and even your goofy little brother, and I love you for it. But you don’t need to grow up right now. I want you to be a kid. Just be a kid. Just be the great kid that you are. The stuff that Mommy taught you is time-released. It’s in you, and it will come out gradually, when you need it.

* *

Eli: Buddy. Huckleberry. You’ve got her superpowers too.

I can’t imagine a sweeter love than the one she had for you. I really hope that without Mommy around, there will still be enough softness and sweetness in your life. I hope that a Dad’s hugs and cuddles will be good enough, that I can be as sweet to you as she always was. We’ve been working hard to make sure we all get eight hugs a day. We can up the dose for as long as is needed.

Eli, I don’t know if you know what people mean when they say someone has “an old soul.” Usually it means that someone young seems surprisingly wise. You played your first game of Dungeons and Dragons, with me, your mother, and Yuki, when you were four years old. You named your first D&D character “Ancient Eli.” We didn’t know why, but that was the name you wanted. Much later, we figured out that you had meant “Agent Eli”, like a secret agent. But “Ancient Eli” was perfect, and it stuck, because sometimes you seem to have an ancient soul.

* *

I’m going to close this long speech with a story some of you have already heard. Of course, the person I really want to tell this story to is Lisa.

Lisa, on Tuesday, as we waited for the ambulance to come and take you and I away to the hospice, away from our home and our children for the very last time, I struggled to say something helpful to the kids about the people we love being with us after they die. I think Eli was wrestling with the realization that you would not be at his bar mitzvah the way you were at Yuki’s bat mitzvah, just a few weeks ago. And Eli, speaking slowly the way he does when he’s working out his ideas, said something like: “When you know somebody, even somebody that’s alive, only part of it is actually doing stuff with them. Mostly it’s stuff you remember and stuff you think.”

And then Yuki said—and the point of this story is both the profundity of what Eli said and also the exquisite mix of admiration and irritation that can only exist between a loving older sister and her little brother—Yuki said, “Ugh, Eli is so wise.”

And in that moment, Lisa, I thought we might all be OK.

Thank you.