Office of the Governor Rick Perry

Gov. Rick Perry's Remarks at the Heather Burcham Memorial Service

*Note - Gov. Perry frequently departs from prepared remarks.
Monday, July 30, 2007  •  Speech

I am honored to stand before you today in remembrance of Heather Burcham. I am not here because I knew Heather for very long, or because I spent a great amount of time with her like many of you here today, but because in the short time we spent together she touched my heart. To those who knew her well: her mother and her sisters, her amazing surrogate family, the Wilsons, her many friends that in these final months became her support group, today each of you knows the great sorrow of saying goodbye to someone who can never be replaced, and I mourn with you for your great loss.

I met Heather in February, long after cancer had begun ravaging her body, and after the doctors indicated there was no hope. She came to Austin to be a voice for every woman who has ever suffered from cervical cancer, and for every young girl who might one day be exposed to HPV, our nation’s most common STD, and the cause of all cases of cervical cancer. Recognizing there was nothing science and medicine could do for her, Heather could have stayed home that day, seeking the solace and comfort of her own bed, and the privacy of her own personal battle. But instead she made the three hour drive from Houston, she attended hours of a legislative hearing until she was too physically exhausted to stay, and she shared her very personal story with the press and the public. It was an act of courage and an expression of love, so that young girls some day would not have to suffer what she has suffered.

Though Heather’s cancer was incurable, she was not without hope. She had the greatest hope a person can have: that she would one day rise again with her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and on that day there would be no more pain, no more sorrow, no more cancer. Though cancer stole her energy, it never robbed her of her spirit. I could hear the words of the Apostle Paul as I looked in her eyes: “O death, where is your sting.” As Paul declared near the end of his life, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Heather Burcham lost her life. But in the process she gained everything. She has been embraced in the arms of glory of a gracious God, who loved her before she was ever born, and whose love for her never wavered even in the darkest of days, as cancer spread throughout her frail body.

When you meet someone like Heather, your first reaction is this is not supposed to happen. Mothers were not meant to bury their daughters. Young women in the prime of their lives, who have not lived their dreams like getting married and having children, are not supposed to die. But God’s ways are not our ways. His plans are not our plans. And God had a plan for Heather that packed a full life into 31 years. Her suffering had a purpose, and that purpose was to shine light on a groundbreaking vaccine that can protect our wives, sisters and daughters from a deadly cancer. And even though her voice has been silenced by cancer, her spirit echoes from the grave to parents and families across Texas urging them to inoculate their daughters and protect them from the harm that could come to them even if they make right decisions.

I spent a day with Heather this spring. We went hunting, and took a ride on a motorcycle, basking in the beauty of God’s glorious creation. I did not see in her a spirit of resentment, nor an attitude of remorse. I saw in her the clarity that comes from knowing you have but a few months to live. When death knocks on our door, we come to realize that the only thing that matters is love. Everything else we ever strived for, a good career, a nice house, the world’s definition of success, none of it matters when our life is over. But love matters, and people matter. I know of only two things that will last forever, the God who created us, and the people made in His image. And so it follows that a life lived for the glory of God and for the good of our fellow man is a life that isn’t lived in vain.

I think Heather would tell all of us that strive to live a successful life that, more than that, we should strive to live a significant life. Success is measured by the world’s standards, significance is measured by God’s. Heather’s life was short but significant. Many of her dreams were not realized, but because of her, I believe others’ dreams will be realized. She has only begun to symbolize the importance of preventative healthcare for millions of young girls. And though some could not see the benefits of the HPV vaccine through the prism of politics, some day they will. Someday they will recognize that this could happen to anyone’s daughter, even their own. Someday they will respond with compassion when they once responded with ignorance. And, someday, they will come to a place where they recognize the paramount issue is whether we will choose life, and protect life, without regard to what mistakes, if any, have been made in the past.

A compassionate society is not one that says, “do you deserve mercy?,” for who can earn God’s grace? A compassionate society is one that says we will love you because God first loved us. We will value your life without regard to your past. And we will walk with you, as your brothers and sisters, as long as we both shall live. When the New Testament figure Stephen stood before the masses, full of grace and power, they were not ready to hear his message, the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. And as they stoned him, right before he breathed his last, he pleaded with God, echoing the words of his savior, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” You can hear in his heart the notion that “they know not what they do, so please forgive them Father.” I don’t think Heather harbored ill will for those who opposed the widespread use of the HPV vaccine. Instead, she thought if they could only know what it is to suffer like she had suffered. If they could only know that the issue here is not the cause, but the cure. And that love covers a multitude of sins. But one day Heather, and all the women who have suffered from this terrible disease, will be heard. And their suffering will not be without a purpose.

Today Heather rests in peace, safe in the arms of God. To those who loved her unconditionally, especially Craig and Lisa, Lauren and Demi, and MaryClaire and Ava, Heather wanted you to know how grateful she was for opening up your home to her. You were like family to her, and your outpouring of love sustained her through the worst of her battle with cancer. As we remember Heather today, let us mourn, let us grieve, and let us cry. But let us also celebrate her life. Let us take joy in her smile, and the moments we shared. And let us give thanks to God for the 31 years He gave her to us before He took her home. Our lives have been enriched by her singular life, and we will never again be the same. Thank you, and God bless you all.

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