My wonderful sister in law Donna passed away on April 7, 2018 at the age of 79 after a long journey with Alzheimer’s. Hap and his family asked me if I’d do the eulogy for her. I was honoured.
We held a Celebration of Life for her on Sunday, July 29, 2018. My brother Hap gave me permission to publish the eulogy as I’ve had several people ask me about Donna. I first wrote abut her on her birthday in January, 2013. (https://oneoldsage.com/2013/01/06/today-is-a-special-day/)
I’d like to thank two people who helped me in its preparation. My wife Linda, who helped with proofing and keeping my facts straight, and my author friend, Julie C. Gardner. (JulieCGardner.com) In spite of editing her third book, Forgetting Ophelia, she took the time to give me some valuable edits.
Thank you both.
Good afternoon everyone and thank you for coming to Donna’s Celebration of Life.
I was at the parking garage elevator yesterday and I saw an older couple hurrying to catch it. (There’s a phrase I won’t be able to use much longer, “an older couple.”) I held the door for them and as we were going to our floor, the lady asked me if I was enjoying my stay and I said “Yes, thank you and you?”. She smiled and said “Yes, we’re going to a wedding this afternoon. What are you here for?” I said, “I’m here to celebrate too. I’m here to celebrate the life of my sister in law Donna. And what a life we have to celebrate!”
I was honoured when Hap and family asked me to do a “brief eulogy” for Donna. Then as I thought about it, I realized, it’s a trap! How in Heaven’s name can you do a brief anything about Donna? I’m pleased Hap booked the room until 4.
Who was Donna? That’s pretty easy to answer. She was smart, thoughtful, dedicated, resilient, and loving. She was a wonderful sister, wife, mother, grandmother and friend. She was special.
I know few people who enjoyed life as much as she did and who brought so much joy into the lives of others. There aren’t many people in this world whom we can say nothing bad about, but she was one of them.
Alright, in fairness, maybe Heather’s second grade art teacher may have a few unkind words. One day Heather came home in tears and told Donna the teacher told her that her circles weren’t round enough. Whereupon, Donna headed to the school and said to the teacher “Do you not like children?” But other than that, my comment still stands.
As the saying goes: “Never get between a mother bear and her cubs.”
Hap has said he doesn’t think he would have had the career achievements and years of sobriety he’s enjoyed without Donna by his side. Conversely, Donna gave Hap the credit for what he achieved through hard work and love for his family. Hap and Donna were committed to each other and to their entire family.
I’d like to talk about love and commitment for a moment. It’s difficult to find a better example of those words than what we saw in Hap and family. Donna was never abandoned during her progression into dementia. She was supported throughout her journey by Hap and family and at a point in time by excellent caregivers. Hap and family supported each other, and they, in turn, were supported by good friends. I don’t want to mention anyone for risk of missing someone, and I know Hap will have already expressed his gratitude to you. But now, I say, “thank you” for supporting my big brother and his family.
If Donna were here today, I think she’d be embarrassed and delighted. Embarrassed because so many people came out for her, and delighted, because she’d have a chance to renew old friendships, to talk, and to laugh. Donna enjoyed good conversation and a good laugh. Here’s a phrase I can hear her saying: “If anyone at my Celebration has a long face, I’ll never speak to him again.” paraphrasing Stan Laurel.
Donna passed from this world in much the same way she lived her life. Peacefully, with dignity, and surrounded by love. She was a woman who was never pretentious, conceited, or arrogant. She dined with paupers and princes and treated everyone the same. Taking this to the point of breaking Royal protocol by speaking to Prince Andrew and Lady Sarah Ferguson before being spoken to by saying, “Greetings, Welcome to Prince Edward Island.” While Hap, simultaneously, was trying to find a hole he could crawl into.
Perhaps this down-to-earth attitude came from her Prairie upbringing, having been born and raised in Prince Albert by her mom and dad, Lil and Rube Shore, along with her three sisters, Maxine, Lorraine, and Sharon, and her brother Dale. Only Maxine and Dale remain.
Donna went to Teachers College in PA and got her first job in the not so bustling community of Island Falls where she met Hap Armstrong (or Howard, as Mom always called him), a tall, skinny Mountie, who as you can see, is still tall.
In one of the smartest moves of his life, Hap asked Donna to marry him. A marriage which physically lasted nearly 57 years, but I’m sure will endure spiritually much longer. You see, even as Donna was in the final stages of her dementia journey, Hap always saw a glimmer of the old Donna. I think that glimmer is what we call love.
Assistant Commissioner (Retired) Hap Armstrong and Donna Armstrong
Other than her family and Hap, I think I knew Donna the longest of anyone here. I knew her for nearly 57 years. I know it’s hard to believe. Fifty-seven years, and I don’t look a day over 50!
My dad met Donna before Mom and I did. He went to Island Falls to see Hap and meet Donna. He liked Donna. A lot.
I met her just before the wedding when I was 11. I liked her right from the beginning. Hap and Donna were married on July 17, 1961 in PA. She was a beautiful bride being met by a very happy and proud Hap, resplendent in his red surge.
Donna and her Dad (Rube Shore)
I got to know Donna very well that summer. I stayed in PA after the wedding and spent a few weeks with them. She was wonderful to be around.
I can’t mention that stay without sharing one story Donna loved to tell about me. She was packing garbage down into the kitchen garbage can and severely sliced her finger on a tin can lid. She required stitches. As she’s bleeding all over the floor and trying to stop the bleeding with a towel, I innocently asked “Which can?” She never let me forget it.
As we got older, I always responded to her greeting of “Hello Little Nelson” with, “Hello Little Donna.” She started calling me Little Nelson when I was in fact much smaller than her. It was a greeting I loved to hear. She did it with a smile and a voice that warmed the heart.
I don’t think Donna really knew what she was getting into when she married a Mountie, with moves to Green Lake, Regina, Balcarres, LLoydminster, Yorkton, Edmonton, Fort MacMurray, Toronto, Charlottetown, London and going to some of these places more than once. Not all moves were easy. Some moves were a little traumatic; but she always rose to the challenge and made friends everywhere they went.
No matter where they lived you were guaranteed a few things. A warm welcome, a cup of coffee, good conversation, and a great meal. Whether that meal was one of Donna’s special Christmas dinners here in Nanaimo, a regular family supper, or Hap’s lobster in PEI, it didn’t matter. Plus, her homemade desserts were always pretty darn good!
During the moves, they welcomed 3 magnificent daughters into their lives: Sheryl, Jacqueline, and Heather.
Sheryl at 6 months and Hap
Jacquie 5 Months
Heather 10 months
Donna expected her girls to fight their own battles, but if she felt they were unjustifiably wronged, she wasn’t afraid to step in if necessary.
She also wasn’t afraid to let them fall and get hurt. She’d be there with the band aids, hugs and kisses and then scoot them back out the door once the tears stopped.
Donna was very proud of each of them. You could see it in her face, hear it in her voice, and see it in her actions. That doesn’t mean she didn’t want to figuratively choke each of them from time to time.
Or sometimes, not so figuratively. While in Bradford, Sheryl got her mother’s dander up. Spoon in hand, Donna waved it at Sheryl and said, “I’m going to wrap this spoon around your neck”. Sheryl started laughing and then Donna did too. Donna was holding a wooden spoon. Sometime later, Donna did the same thing, so Sheryl kindly took the spoon, and bent it for her.
Donna had so many pride pegs for her girls.
Proud of Sheryl, joining her Dad, becoming a member of the RCMP, receiving her badge from her proud and happy Inspector Father (although the picture may not show it), and then rising through the ranks. I was at Sheryl’s graduation along with many family and friends. Donna had tears in her eyes. She was so proud. Had she seen Sheryl become a City Councillor, I don’t know how we could have contained the excitement.
Hap presenting Sheryl with her badge.
Proud of seeing Jacquie get her degree in metallurgical engineering, marrying Dr. James Kirkland, welcoming Hap and Donna’s first beautiful granddaughter, Anna, and getting her MBA. Donna was there for Anna’s birth while Hap stayed at Jacquie and Jim’s house where he paced, much like he did when his own were born.
Jacquie, Anna, and Jim 2018
Donna loved being a granny. When Anna would visit Hap and Donna in Florida, Hap would send me pictures. There was one consistency in those pictures. If Donna and Anna were together, Donna was always smiling.
Proud of Heather. While Hap was in PEI, Donna was seeing Heather through her final year of high school in St. Albert, before going on to get her BSc from the UofA, embarking on a career in the pharmaceutical industry and marrying her husband Ken Travers. With the birth of Leah, Meghan, and Courtney, Donna had three more beautiful reasons to be happy.
Leah, Meghan, and Courtney
Donna loved to play with her children and grandchildren. All they had to do was ask her to get down on the floor and play and she was in! I’m not sure who was having more fun.
I can say with absolute certainty if she were here, Donna would be telling and showing each of her daughters and granddaughters how much she loved them.
To Jim and Ken, she loved you guys too, but please refer to my comment on a mother bear if you had any doubts about where you sat in the pecking order.
There are too many stories about Donna’s adventures in moving to tell you about in one sitting, but I do want to relay a couple of them.
When they moved to Green Lake with Sheryl and Jacquie, Hap had a German Shepherd named Boots. Boots was a wonderful dog and protector for the girls, but Boots had a habit of procreating in the driveway leading to the house/detachment. There was a running battle between Hap and Donna. Donna figured Hap should have better control over his dog and in some way entice him to go behind the garage. Hap, not being as astute then as he is now, asked Donna, if she was in the same situation, would she be enticed to go someplace else! I hear Donna was speechless. I’m not sure if it was because she was annoyed or dumbfounded.
It got to the point where a couple of guys in Green Lake would phone Donna while Boots was getting busy and say, “Hey Donna your sign is back up!”
Donna hated to see children suffer. She loved them all. When she was teaching in a one room school at St. Cyr, a blink of the eye between Meadow Lake and Green Lake, she noticed some of the kids were eating lard sandwiches and some had nothing at all for lunch. She started taking extra sandwiches for her own lunch and then feigned she couldn’t possibly eat them all and gave them to the kids who needed them the most. She was Mom to everyone.
In his memoir, Hap talks about a time in Balcarres when Donna was backing the car out of the garage and hooked the car bumper on the door frame which started to come with her. She stopped, pushed the frame into place, and hammered the nails back in. She wasn’t that good with a hammer and like lightning, seldom struck twice in the same place. Being a trained investigator, Hap saw the white paint on the car and followed the trail to the garage door where he saw the hammer marks. Donna fessed up and said, in the future, she’d use a block, so the hammer marks couldn’t be seen.
You can’t talk about Donna’s life without talking about what we in the family call “Donna Stories.” I’ve lost count of how many times I got a phone call from Hap who was laughing like crazy and his opening line would be “I have to tell you what Donna did today!” As he’d tell the story, Donna could be heard chattering in the background and laughing along with Hap. She had a great laugh. She never took these things personally. I don’t know one person who could laugh at themselves better than she did.
Many years ago, somehow the conversation came around to the three brothers. Myself, Hap, and Kelly. My wife Linda said, “I think I got the pick of the litter.” Without missing a second and to Hap’s chagrin and my delight, Donna said, “I think you did too!”
I know Linda questions that statement from time to time.
When we lived in Victoria I returned from a trip to the U.S., so I had to clear Customs. Hap and Donna happened to be visiting from Ontario. A male flight attendant and the co-pilot cleared before me. I got to the Arrivals area and saw Linda and Hap laughing and Donna grinning from ear to ear. It turns out the flight attendant, seeing all the people waiting for their loved ones, said something to the effect of, “There’s never anyone to greet us.” Whereupon Donna made a bee line to the young man with her arms wide open saying in her big outside voice, “Son!” As Donna was heading toward him, Hap and Linda were going in the opposite direction.
She wanted to make sure he got a welcome too.
I could also mention the time with egg beaters in hand she was desperately looking for them and saying, “Where did Hap put the beaters?”.
Or the time she wanted new wallpaper in the kitchen in London, so prior to a dinner party she marked areas of varying sizes and in order to get dinner you had to take off the piece with your name on it. One couple had just completed a renovation, so they got a small piece. She was always thoughtful.
Or the time she said “Look, even the trucks are decorated for Christmas!” and Hap had to explain she was seeing the clearance lights.
Donna loved to golf, and Linda and I loved to golf with her and Hap. It was the social part of golf which Donna enjoyed more than the score keeping. In fact, she had her own unique way of keeping score when she was playing with us. It was called “I’ll count this hole if it’s a good one.”
If she bashed a ball into the rough and if she couldn’t get it out after a couple of swings, the “five finger wedge” came into play. When the ball hit the fairway, she’d inevitably say, “I wasn’t going to count this hole anyway.”
If you ever played golf with Donna, you’ll know her swing was a sight to behold. It reminded me of someone starting to collapse, catching themselves, and then driving the ball down the fairway. Strange but effective.
I could spend a long time telling Donna stories. We love those stories, as we love her.
There are a couple of sentences that A.A. Milne wrote in Winnie the Pooh:
“If there ever comes a day where we can’t be together, keep me in your heart. I’ll stay there forever.”
Or as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Where there is love, there is life.” Donna will live in each of us who loved her, for as long as we live.
Now, I’d like to leave you with two thoughts.
First, I’m sad Donna is no longer in my life, but I’m so very, very, grateful that she was.
And second, if there is a Heaven, and our spirits go there, I see Donna sitting, laughing, and chatting with her cohorts.
Inevitably, one of them will smile and say with real affection, “I have to tell you what Donna did today!”