She had hospitality of spirit that knew no strangers; her life embodied her values of humor, kindness, inclusive and nonjudgmental openheartedness.
When someone dear and beloved to us dies, grief sometimes insists that we try to impress upon others the importance of that person in our lives. I've been on the privileged listening side of a friend's or co-worker's stories of the one she's missing, as waves of urgent detail comes rushing toward me like a dam's water unleashed. If I'm decent and compassionate, I allow myself to be drenched and remain silent while she tries to cross the great gap between memory and the newly-vacant place at the table.
And so, here I am in the unenviable position, once again, of needing to tell stories about someone I loved quite a lot, who died nearly two summers ago. I know already that the words won't stretch far enough, or root deeply enough to match the friendship we shared, but I'm going for it anyway. Some things you just have to do for yourself.
We met in college, in a theology class. I had just changed my major from Accounting/Finance to Theology/Philosophy, and was looking for kindred spirits with whom to celebrate the transition. I found one in her. Our common ground was rich: social justice, silliness, bunnies, creation spirituality, working at a health food store called The Raisin Rack, and writing limericks. As I write this, I can't recall the details of our early conversations, but evidently, one led to another and many more. We were inseparable.
My parents and siblings claimed her as a new member of the family rather quickly, and she became tucked into all those great family jokes and mannerisms that any large family tends to create and cherish. I recall one New Year's Eve at my parents' place. We lit candles at midnight, stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, and sang joyfully into the cold darkness.
After I graduated and moved back to Columbus, she followed a year later, and we decided to share an apartment just a few blocks from where I grew up. We stocked the pantry with way too much pasta and rice cakes, and the freezer always--always--had ice cream. I introduced her to her former husband and sang at their wedding. When the twins were born, Anthony and Andrew (one on March 1, the other on March 2. How cool is that??), I accepted the invitation to become Andrew's godmother, and of course claimed Anthony as well. Then Rebecca was born, not quite two years later, on my 30th birthday, because Jeannie's due date was just two days before, and I asked her if she'd mind waiting. Only a powerful and content soul would agree to such impertinence from a childless friend and giggling partner. Rebecca's middle name is Elizabeth; a bonus birthday gift I still get to treasure.
The years and our friendship unfolded around our life experiences, growing deeper roots, ebbing and flowing, always connected. We talked a lot about the Important things--love, playfulness, the vastness of the Creator and the universe, Andrew, Anthony, and Rebecca. When Patrick and I were married, she led me to the altar with the beat of a single drum as my parents smiled on either side of me. And every time we talked, she always understood. I remember most of our conversations closed with laughter.
A breast cancer diagnosis in her 30's didn't claim her; she pushed through it with a startling self-compassion and love, setting aside the customary "warrior-and-battle" approach, insisting that she couldn't fight any aspect of herself, and enjoyed life cancer-free for several years after her final treatment. When it returned nearly a decade later as metastatic breast cancer, she embraced it once more (from her obituary), "as a challenge in the adventure of life, engaging it with compassion, optimism, and a student's mind." It never occurred to me that she would die.
There's more to say, as there usually is with a friendship such as ours, and I realize that this blog post will "end" with lots of unfinished business. That's ok. It wasn't ever my goal to tell the entire story, probably because it's not over yet. Jeannie is deep into learning new things on the Other Side, and I try to listen for her voice in my life. Sometimes I hear it as I meander my way around some dip in my self-confidence, or shop the "Manager's Special!!" section at Kroger's (I swear, it would have been really cool at her memorial service to have had a blank roll of those stickers to use as nametags. She shopped for bargains with an unparalleled passion, I can tell you). I haven't written any limericks since 2016, but when I do, she'll be my muse, I know it.
Until then, I will continue to want you, and so many others, to know the depth of what she meant to me. 34 years is a long time to know someone, and, to let yourself be known as the circumstances of your life change and evolve. She was there for all of them, a hospitable spirit who knew no strangers. If you'd have met, she would have loved you too. Of that, I am certain. I wrote to her on Christmas Eve, 2016, in a cabin not far from these acres...
I miss you.
I feel like I took more than I gave where you and I were concerned, and even as I write this, I can hear you saying, "Oh Liz, of course not". And I agree. If it was that uneven a relationship, you wouldn't have hung around as long as you did.
Thirty four years.
How'd we do it?
I recall your eyes, your voice, when you said goodbye, that I didn't know was goodbye, remarking on the remarkable nature of our friendship. How incredible it was that we remained friends for so long. How unique it was--our words, our shared interests, our mutual respect for and silliness with each other. You used the word "rare".
And I got it. I understood.
And then you hugged me from your command post of a bed, where you made your final "on this side" decisions and shared your "don't forget this" feelings and thoughts with others.
And you didn't let go. For a long time.
Later, Andrew would tell me in an email that watching us say goodbye was the saddest thing he'd ever seen.
You just kept on giving, right up until our final moments together on this side.
How can I possibly thank you for that?
I will continue to love your children. Andrew. Anthony. Rebecca.
I will dance and be silly in your memory and your honor.
I will take risks that help me grow.
I will pry open the cage around my heart and let others in.
I will hug more.
I will cheer people on in their efforts to be good and decent and fun.
I will not let go. For a long time. I will join hands with the people who share this planet with me, and all God's Critters who have a Place in the Choir.
I will sing out loud with my own voice.
I will laugh deeply--throw my head back and let it out.
I will love deeply--throw my arms open wide and gather in all those who are broken and unsure like me, and all those who are confident and happy, like me.
And have wine with dinner.
And pumpkin cake with a thick blanket of cream cheese icing.
And eat all of it.
May her way of being in the world inspire your own growth, creativity, and kindness toward others. Jeannie would be delighted to know she encouraged you in this way.