Last month, my sister’s beloved husband, Marty, succumbed to pancreatic cancer, having been diagnosed just after Christmas. Marty was truly one of the best people I’ve ever known, and I am just one of countless family and friends still reeling from this unfathomable loss. It was my honor and privilege to offer a eulogy at his memorial service, and I share it with you today, both to comfort those who loved him, and to introduce him to those who really missed out by never having known him. Until we meet again, Marty. Life will never be the same without you.
If I didn’t know Marty Helwich, and someone asked me to write and deliver a eulogy for him, I would say, “well, tell me a little about him.” And I would hear about this wonderful person… a great son, husband, father, uncle, brother… even a spectacular brother-in-law.
Someone who was hard working, loyal, fun, funny, kind, generous. A friend like no other.
And the stories! So many that would be touching, and funny, and everything in between. And I’d think, this is a dream job for a writer! It’ll write itself!
But here’s the thing: I did know Marty Helwich. And if you knew Marty, and you loved Marty… and let’s face it, to know Marty was to love Marty… then this goes from being easy, to being probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because the facts, the stories, the material are all the same, but now I’m doing it with a broken heart.
But then I realized, nobody was a bigger movie fan than Marty. And if we learned one thing from the movies, it was this:
So, in Marty’s honor, I will do my best to comply with that sacred rule.
I was truly honored to learn that Marty himself wanted me to give his eulogy. Of course, I also learned that his plan was to sit down with me and tell me what to say.
Well, that wasn’t meant to be. So, Marty, I’ve done my best to get inside that big head of yours and figure out what you wanted me to cover today. I hope I can achieve the proper balance of decorum, irreverence, humor, gravity, and movie references to do you proud. And to show I’m taking the job seriously, I’m even wearing Cubbie blue, right down to my fingernails.
I’m sure we could all tell stories for hours, so I decided to focus on the four things Marty loved most in the world: family, friends, the Cubs, and movies.
To be honest, family and friends can almost be treated as one. Because if you were Marty’s friend, he treated you like family. And sometimes the two overlapped.
In fact, I’m part of Marty’s family directly because of the friends he made as a child.
Many people here today have known Marty since youth group at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Oak Lawn. My cousin Patty once said, when you think about your true friends, think about who will be there at your funeral. It’s the truth.
If Marty hadn’t made these lifelong friendships, there are many people in this room who not only wouldn’t be here, but who would never have been born. He formed friendships in youth group that have endured, and, as Patty said on the video, that resulted in me meeting my husband, which resulted in Suzie meeting Marty, and then Chris meeting Tom… and all the generations that follow.
As I imagine those days, I think of the movie The Sandlot. I don’t know if Marty was the kid that is always imitating the Great Bambino, or the one that fakes drowning so the cute teenage lifeguard has to give him mouth-to-mouth, but I have a feeling that what took place on the south side in the 70s could rival any scene in the movie.
And Marty, even though I know dying wasn’t your idea, I have to say the line anyway: “You’re killing me, Smalls!”
But you didn’t need 40 years for a friendship with Marty. Whether you go back that far, or just met him last fall, when he was your friend, it was without bounds. How interesting that on the weekend we say goodbye, Toy Story 4 is in theatres. The song “You’ve got a friend in me” could have been written for Marty.
And I’m equally sure that death hasn’t stopped Marty from making new friends. There were pictures in the montage of Marty at the Field of Dreams location, but I think he’s in the real field of dreams now. I tried to imagine Marty sitting up in the ultimate sky box to watch the Cubs this week, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t help but see him being more comfortable in the bleachers. Sitting there, talking with his new friend, Ron Santo, and giving him the play-by-play of how great it was to be here in person when the Cubs won the World Series.
And over to the side, I see Sheldon Leonard, standing behind the bar, hitting the cash register button and saying, “Get me, I’m giving out wings.”
But as committed as Marty was to his friends, it hardly held a candle to how he felt about his family. One Christmas Eve a few years ago, Marty and I were sitting at the kitchen table, surveying the boisterous scene. Everyone was talking at once, laughing, and having a grand time. Marty said to me, “This is what it’s all about… family. That’s what’s important.”
He modeled unconditional love to his entire family. Tommy Boy said it, but Marty lived it: “Brothers don’t shake hands. Brothers gotta hug!”
And the greatest treasures of his life were Margaret, Tommy, and David. I remember getting a call late one night in early May, 1990. “Hello, Aunt Laurie,” said the excited voice. “Margaret Katherine Helwich is here.” Marty loved everything about being a father, loved everything about his children, was extremely proud of all of you, and, I’m sure, knew how much you all adored him.
It’s a horrible thing to have your father taken at such a young age. But I know there are people whose fathers lived to 100 who didn’t experience nearly the love you received in these 29 short years.
Which brings me to the love of Marty’s life. I’ve always known he and Suzie were a great couple. They truly enjoyed each other’s company and worked together as a team, while allowing each other to be individuals. But if I was impressed with their relationship before, I am in awe of it over the last six months.
Both Suzie and Marty have exhibited such grace during this, the worst of challenges a family can face. Knowing their time together was limited, they made the most of it. When Marty was in the ICU, and neither of them knew if he was going to make it, they talked about a lot of things… the kind of talk that most couples don’t get to have. It comforts me to know that they could do that, and that he could express his final wishes.
It also makes me think of the movie Phenomenon. John Travolta plays a nice guy in a small town that everyone knows and loves. Sound familiar? He and Kyra Sedgewick fall in love, only to find that the strange abilities he has acquired are coming from a brain tumor that is going to kill him.
When the end is near, he asks her, “Will you love me for the rest of my life?” And she says, “No. I’ll love you for the rest of mine.”
You know, the younger sister is supposed to learn from the older sister. And I know you all know I’m the older sister, because Suzie never misses an opportunity to point that out when she introduces me to people.
But I have learned so much from Suzie, watching her navigate this difficult path. She worked hard to take care of the practicalities of the situation while still being caring and loving … all while trying to keep things as normal as possible for the sake of Marty and the family.
When people would ask me how Marty was, their next question was always, “How is Suzie?” My answer was always the same: “She’s amazing.” I love you and I couldn’t be prouder.
Now Suzie will probably not be happy I called attention to her like this, but I know if Marty had been able to tell me what he wanted me to say, this would have been at the top of the list.
And I figure I’d rather have her irritated with me today versus Marty haunting me for the rest of my life.
In the movie Philadelphia, Tom Hanks is terminally ill. Much of the movie shows the ravages of his disease, but there’s one sequence where he goes to his parents’ house for their anniversary party. He’s in a bit of remission, and not suffering any ill effects. His whole family is there, and he’s thrilled to see everyone and be at his family home. It allows all of them to forget, if only for a few hours, that he is dying.
He greets his mother, and she says, “How are you?” He looks at her with unbridled joy and says, “Oh, Mom, today’s a good day!”
I thought of that scene after Suzie called me last Saturday to give me the devastating news. We talked for a few minutes, and then she said, in an effort to comfort, well, really both of us, “He had a really great day yesterday.”
Marty was thrilled to be coming home after a month in the hospital and rehab. On the way home, they stopped at their favorite restaurant, where he was able to enjoy a meal he’d been longing for, and even have a beer. There were friends and family there to celebrate his homecoming. Margaret even timed her call from Africa perfectly, so that he got to talk to her in the car on the way home. And later that night, with his faithful dog at his feet, he laid his head down under his own roof in the home he loved.
But the more I thought about it, I think every day was a good day for Marty, because he made it so. All through his illness, he talked about side effects, but I never really heard him complain. And if his talk started bordering on complaining, he’d correct himself, and show gratitude for being here.
When we saw him a week before he died, he talked about resuming chemo and continuing to fight, so he could check things off his bucket list. We got in the car and Mike said to me, “Marty has one of the best attitudes I’ve ever seen in anybody.”
Whether he was digging a ditch, sitting through chemo, watching a John Wayne movie, or bouncing a baby on his knee, for Marty, it was always a good day. Maybe this enduring example is his way of offering a coping mechanism for all of us who are going to miss him so terribly.
I think it’s fitting that I end my remembrance by recommending a classic, Oscar-winning movie from the 50s. I know Marty liked it, and it’s one of my favorites, too.
It’s a story about an average guy. Friendly, genuine, hardworking. Lives at home with his mother and takes good care of her, and who automatically helps with the rest of the family without being asked.
He has a close-knit group of pals, and it’s easy to see they have all grown up in the neighborhood and will be friends forever.
Partway into the movie, the guy meets a girl. She seems like any other girl, but he sees that she is kind, quiet, intelligent and a little independent. They fall for each other, and even though the movie doesn’t take us this far, you know that they have each found the love of their life, and will live happily ever after.
This may not sound like a very exciting movie, and it isn’t. There are no car chases, super heroes, or special effects; no mysterious plot twists. It’s not even in color – it’s black and white.
It’s just a simple tale of a likeable, decent, gentle guy, who works hard, loves his family, is a good friend, and who is lucky enough to find the love of his life.
The name of the movie?
My heart is broken for you and your family. What a beautiful tribute to Marty. I wish I knew him better. I pray for you to find healing and peace. Also from one who has been there don’t let anyone dictate to you how long that grieving should take. You are amazing and you will get through. Love to you, Nancy Preston Combs Birr
Laurie O'Connor Stephans
Thanks, Nancy. I will pass your message along to Suzie.
Debbie Bertulis Will
Blessings of peace and prayers to the whole family. Marty’s life will continue forever I’m the lives he touched of family and friends!❤️ Love to all of you!
Laurie O'Connor Stephans
Thanks, Debbie. He will never be forgotten!
Laurie I didn’t know Marty but after reading your eulogy I felt like I had known him for years. Wonderful tribute. As usual your writing is amazing. I am sorry for your loss. You and the family are in my prayers
Laurie O'Connor Stephans
Thanks, Patti. He was a tremendous person.
Beautiful tribute to a great guy
Laurie O'Connor Stephans
Thanks, Kerrie! Marty was fantastic!
Beautifully written. Your heartbreak shows.
Laurie O'Connor Stephans
Thank you for taking time to comment.