Remembering Mary Card Harbaugh

It took a little convincing to get Mary to run her first mini-Marathon. She had the normal anxieties any of us would about running 13 miles. She wasn’t sure she could do it, probably wasn’t looking forward to all the training. To help convince her, Lori Danielson began rattling off all the benefits they would get: “It’ll be fun! It will be such a great accomplishment! We’ll get in shape!” Mary was unmoved. “We’ll be in an elite group,” she continued, “we’ll make some new friends!” Finally, Mary said, “Lori, I have enough friends!” This was ridiculous, obviously. For Mary, there was no such thing as enough friends. In fact, she was simply incapable of not making friends, no matter where she was or what she was doing. She did run the Mini that year. And, of course, she did make new friends; some of whom are probably here today.

It is simple to see how she made and kept friends so easily. She was the kind of person that exhibited all of the qualities that drew people to her and made them want to stay. Even if you’d just met her, you couldn’t help but think you’d known her a long time and start looking forward to seeing her again. Mary was always willing to step out, have fun, make everyone feel welcome while still maintaining a strong sense of her own personality and always being her own person.

She probably laughed more than anyone else I’ve ever known. She found true joy and mirth everywhere she looked. She was so full of life and had a sense of humor so self-effacing it was disarming. I’m sure that most of you know one or two embarrassing stories about her. And if you think back to where you heard them, it probably leads directly to the source that knew best: Mary herself. Things that most of us might try to hide – truly embarrassing moments – Mary would openly share, especially if the story would make you laugh and give her a reason to laugh right along with you. She was very serious about living, but she didn’t take herself too seriously.

Nikki was telling me recently about their frequent trips up to Rockville for the Covered Bridge Festival. They loved to peruse the booths there, not to buy anything, but to figure out how the craftsmen where making their goods so they could copy them. During one of those trips, they got to talking about how smart they were to have left the kids at home, especially while they watched others less clever than themselves pushing strollers around in fields that were becoming muddy and difficult. This went on to the point that it became the theme of the day: “look how free we are without our strollers, look at all these other silly people who didn’t plan ahead!” Until they got to the bottom of a particularly steep hill, covered with mud and gravel, and saw a woman struggling to push her husband’s wheelchair. Without a word, Mary walked up behind and pushed him up the hill. Someone needed help and Mary gave it. Her generous, caring, giving spirit on perfect display.

We have lost one of the truly great ones. The world has lost a shining example of a beautiful soul. All of us have lost a dear friend, a loving daughter, a loyal sister, a proud and adoring mother; a committed, tolerant, and devoted wife. A true soulmate.

Our hearts are broken.

I don’t pretend to know why God feels he needs Mary more than Sam, Jack, Lucy and Maggie do. More than Joel does. It is beyond our comprehension. Our hearts are broken, but our Faith is not, because Mary’s wasn’t. Mother Teresa famously said, “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.” He apparently thought a great deal of Mary, too, because he certainly gave her more than most of us could handle, and she carried that cross without complaint.

We watched her fight with the spirit of a warrior; the heart of a Mother. She gave it everything she had and, in the end, succumbed to one of our greatest fears. But she fought the good fight, she maintained hope throughout. She never gave up, she never felt sorry for herself, and she never  stopped thinking of other people.

Earlier this Summer, when Mary was having a particularly difficult time with her chemotherapy, Joe brought her over to St. Vincent’s for an appointment. I happened to arrive at the hospital at roughly the same time. Just looking at her, it was obvious that she was struggling. I stupidly asked – like we all seem to do – “How are you doing, Mary?” She smiled and said, “I have a headache, I’m dizzy, I’m nauseated, my whole body hurts, blah, blah, blah… I have cancer.” Her simple statement of fact carried no illusions or speculation; just the truth. Such was her character, that even when she felt as bad as she could, she was courageous, light-hearted, and generous.

Her great sense of humor was nearly always on display, and this humor and selflessness served her well, even when she had little reason to smile. A couple of weeks ago, Mary was in St. Vincent’s and she and Joel had been told there was really nothing left the doctor’s could do. The decision was made to transition from treatment to comfort care. One night, Mary was in bed and her sisters, Kitty, Jennifer and Melissa were all there in the room her. Worn out, she said to them, “Ok, I’m going to close my eyes now and just die.” The sisters said their goodbyes and she fell asleep… After sleeping for a short time, she woke up, looked around and said, “Well, I guess it’s not automatic!” This was classic Mary: always making light of a situation for the benefit others, always smiling, even in the face of her own death.

So our hearts are broken, and we mourn our loss, and we ask unanswerable questions. But we can’t let that be the end. We must work to find meaning in our loss, a new message of hope, a renewed devotion to live our lives to the best of our ability. To use the blessings and talents that God has given us for the greater good and to the very end. And in these efforts, we need to remember the gifts that Mary brought to us all: Her spirit. Her courage. Her joy. Her resilience. And her love.

William Penn wrote that “Death cannot kill what never dies, nor can spirits ever be divided that live and love in friendship.” So Mary will live on as we remember her, and I will remember Mary as a teenager at swim meets and football games and proms.

I will remember the way she gave her heart to all the children she served at Methodist, so many times becoming far more than a caregiver to them and their parents.

I will remember her as a radiant bride on her wedding day, having been preceded down the aisle by Stewart, one of those patients that became such an endearing part of her life.

I will remember the proud mother who literally beamed when she talked of her kids, and accepted any and all of their friends as her own. It’s no surprise to anyone who knew her that these young men escort her today. Two of her own, and six others that might as well have been.

I’ll remember her carefree laugh and her radiant smile, both of which were on full display so often and with equal intensity on the best of days, as well as the worst.

And I’ll always remember the way she said, “Joel!” when she was ever-so-slightly mortified by something he had said or done. (Which will be easy, because it was a lot.)

I will remember that she was a planner, a gatherer, a bit of a meddler. She loved being in the know, and knowing everything that was going on with everyone around her brought her distinct pleasure. Mary was definitely the type to set someone up on a blind date– not to be intrusive– but because she saw an opportunity for both of them to be happier. It’s an example of her continual focus on other people. Char and I were recipients of this kind of meddling, and I’m thankful for her persistence.

And I’ll remember Mary sitting in her chair by the fire, with a blanket and a book (and, normally, a child or a dog on her lap) watching the action around her, so happy that all those kids and all her friends felt so comfortable in her home.

I’ll remember her co-parenting with Char and Nikki, all while explaining how they were better together than with me or Bret or Joel.

I will remember how, when she hugged you, you knew she meant it.

But mostly, I’ll remember how much she loved Sam, Jack, Lucy and Margaret. How much she loved Joel. And her sisters, her Mom and Dad. Her nieces and nephews. And all of you. She had joy in her spirit and love in her heart that knew no bounds. Even now. She loves you still; and always will.

Sam, Jack, Lucy, and Maggie: We are all called to see the face of God in each other, and your Mom was great at it. I see her kind and generous spirit, and her irreverent sense of humor in all of you. I see her wonderful warmth in each of your smiles. Your Mom was one of a kind and irreplaceable, but she lives on in all of you, and you need only to turn to each other to see her again. But if you need more, all of us with you today – and many more that couldn’t be here – stand ready to help in any way we can, to show our support and love for you, in return for all the ways she gave her heart to us. Because we loved her greatly and love you as well.

As for the rest of us, we have work to do. We need to learn the lessons that Mary was teaching. We need to do everything we can to appreciate the standard she set and put it to work in our lives.

We need to be courageous in the face of things that are truly frightening.

We need to be kind and loving to the people around us who need it the most.

We need to open our hearts as well as our homes to the people we love.

We need to face each day with renewed hope and joy and a commitment to never waste another moment.

We need to take living less for granted.

We need to hug each other so there’s no doubt about how much we mean it.

And in the end, no matter how it comes or what it looks like, we need to keep the Faith that the hand of God is at work in our lives. And though we may not understand the events that unfold or the tragedy that befalls us, it is His plan, and His will, and our role is to make something remarkable come from whatever it may be.

That’s what Mary did, with every moment she was given, and it was an extraordinary blessing to have known her.

About Jim Cota

Jim lives in Indianapolis with his wife and four kids and feels lucky to work with the fine folks at Rare Bird. An occasional writer, tweeter, and shooter. If you need to know anything else about me, this should do it...
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9 Responses to Remembering Mary Card Harbaugh

  1. This was a truly beautiful tribute Jim. Although I did not know her, you make me wish I had. I figured she had to have been one of the “good one’s” because of what I knew about Joel. My heart goes out to him & his family, & they will remain in my prayers.

  2. Gail Hayes says:

    So sorry to have missed this live but also happy to have read here. Thank you for sharing from the heart. <3

  3. Teresa Matchett says:

    Thank you for putting into words what soo many of us felt, but may not have been able to articulate so well. I was truly moved and the humor of Mary brought to life during that special moment helped me remember to celebrate her as she would have wanted. Thank you

  4. Nicole Brattain King says:

    Beautiful words for a beautiful woman.

  5. Julie Henricks Mahurin says:

    It is through your love of Mary and the genuine understanding of who she truly was that these words were shared. So eloquent and inspiring- you captured her through words and let your pen ink emotions that will touch all who read. I knew Mary only socially- but was in awe of her courage and am amazed by the impact she has had on so many. Thank you for sharing this eulogy. It truly has inspired me to try harder and embrace more- those i love, those I should forgive and those whom I’ve yet to meet.

  6. Polly Bryan says:

    Jim, I am sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral…but visitation was lengthy and a tribute to Mary, Joel and the family. I am glad I was able to read your words because I heard from several people what a good tribute that you gave. I know it helps all the family to be able to read and save this for the future.

  7. Dana Hochstetler Kirkwood says:

    What an amazing piece! Very well done!

  8. Robert Flott says:

    Jim,

    These are truly beautiful words. While I know Joel fairly well, I wish I had known her better. Your words give honor and comfort.

    Bob Flott

  9. Hi Jim, I am so glad you posted this. I didn’t know Mary but through you I have a glimpse of this extraordinary woman. The world won’t be the same without her but she surely has left her footprint. Beautiful and courageous tribute.

    Martha Walker

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