Thursday, July 22, 2010

Jennifer's eulogy

The hardest part about writing a eulogy isn't the words -- although they're frequently no picnic -- it's getting it right. You don't give a eulogy for yourself, but the person you're eulogizing is the one others know too, and you don't want to end with someone wondering if you're talking about the same person they knew. And you want people who didn't know a person, to have a clear idea what they missed.

The best part about being able to write an obituary and a eulogy -- as I did this week for my niece, Jennifer -- is that it's something I can do. We often say to people, "I wish there was something I can do." It's very satisfying being able to do something.

A few people at Minnesota Public Radio covered for me on very short notice this week when my brother asked me to handle the task on Monday.  I needed all of Tuesday to think about all the possible ways of putting it together, and most of Wednesday to start writing.

I spent a fair amount of time this week talking to my twin brother, Bill, trying to be sure that Jennifer came through properly in the final words. I hope she did. She was a heck of a kid. He's a heck of a father and brother. And I never want to give another one of these again.

One of the last times I saw Jennifer was at the Cape. She asked me about writing. I think she was just getting interested in poetry. And she said "I know what I want to say, but I have a hard time getting started with the words."

I was tempted to give her the advice a colleague gave to me once, which was "all good writing begins and ends with a great cigar," but, you know, that really didn't seem to fit the occasion. So I gave the answer I've given to others who have asked me a similar question over the years.

"Don't worry about the words in your head. Think about what you have in your heart, and the words... will take care of themselves later."

This is a time, of course, when words fail. Thirty-one year old women aren't supposed to die. Our heart says life should be more fair even though our head knows that it's quite often not. Things are the way they are.

So we look instead to what's in the heart and we hope that the words take care of themselves... later.

Jennifer was born with spina bifida, and there was no getting around it. It deprived her of what many of us would consider a normal life; it certainly deprived her of a long life. It was hard, of course, on her. It was hard on her parents. It was hard on her brothers. It was hard on everybody who loved her, and it was hard on everybody who love the people who loved her.

In many ways, though, her affliction is what sewed the threads that bind many of us to the point where we're here today. It is a part of whom many of us are -- and what many of you still will turn out to be.

Her affliction might have prevented her from doing some things, but it did not keep her from being a better friend than most people have. It didn't keep her from laughing or needing to see you laugh too. It didn't keep her from being honest in her thought.

In an e-mail during the time she was in the hospital most recently, my brother relayed the story of an intensive care unit nurse who said she was having a hard time sleeping thinking about Jennifer. On the one hand, that was no doubt terrifying because ICU nurses see things fairly regularly that most of us don't, and if they're staying up at night worrying, what are the rest of us to do? At the same time, it was indicative not only of the compassion she had, but also of Jennifer's ability to sew a thread into the heart of those who knew her... even for a few days.

Jennifer's life was short, but here's the thing: As smart as we like to think we are, we really don't understand the concept of time very well. When we're very young, 31 seems old. When we're 56, 31 seems young. Same age...both young,and old. How can it be both?

When they were young, my brother took Jennifer and my other niece, Sara, to DisneyWorld. Thirteen times, they rode through the "It's a Small World" ride. Thirteen times, Bill reported to me, it was as wondrous for Jen as the first.

For Jennifer, time was passing so quickly -- so wondrously -- that it took 13 times to make a moment. I guarantee for everyone else on that ride, by number six or seven -- or maybe sooner -- time had never moved so slowly.

My brother told me that Jennifer did not have the same sense of time passing that the rest of us do. That's a luxury she had that we do not because it allowed her to live her life in her happiest moments.

She loved Christmas; she loved Christmas lights. She loved driving with her mom, and her brother, Will, to look at them.

But she was afraid of Santa Claus. She instructed her parents to leave a window open and leave him a note. "Just throw the presents through the window," she said. "Don't come in the house." The Easter Bunny was equally suspect.

Jennifer loved planning to give gifts. She sent me a note on Facebook last fall. "What's your favorite color and what do you like most?" she asked, a question she often asked people. "Blue, and airplanes," I said.

She was kind of bossy because her next message said that she had selected me to be in charge of getting the list from everybody in the family. She wanted to make a quilt, I guess, with the squares with everyone's favorite color and some design or illustration about their favorite thing.

So I did, because if nothing else, Jennifer is a Collins woman and you don't want to get on their bad side. But when I reported everyone's results back, there were too many people with a favorite color of blue. "Go back and get their second-favorite color," she said and I did before she decided she'd wait on the quilt project until people could get it together and diversify their favorite colors.

She loved to crochet and one of her proudest achievements was the blanket she made for her brother, Erik, when he was born. And there are pillows and blankets in many of your homes, each with your favorite color.

She loved games as anyone on Facebook with a bucketload of Farmville messages from her will attest. She loved puzzlebooks on the beach, playing Yahtzee,and cribbage. She loved playing the games with Dan, and Will and Erik, and all her cousins. She loved winning.

She did a lot things, thanks to the people who were around her. She caught a fish the size of Connecticut once, she bounced around Provincetown in a dune buggy. She'd build a sand castle as long as you did all the dirty stuff, like touching wet sand. Or carve pumpkins as long as you got the gross junk out of it. Then she'd tell you you could've been quicker about it.

She'd float in a pool and then in the water of the Cape Cod Bay with her grandparents.

She loved dogs, especially Zelda, Domino and Nute. Dogs know certain things. Dogs know the goodness of people's souls, and Jen understood theirs. Zelda, Domino, and Nute put themselves between Jennifer and whatever could hurt her.

For someone who was so good at listening, she sure loved to talk. She loved the family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas, mostly because she could spend the time with the other kids. You've never heard such noise as when the Collins and Stickney kids got together.

But she was a listener, too.  You can tell a lot about people by the way they listen. When you talked. Jennifer smiled.

So it was only natural that she volunteered as a companion at a nursing home, she volunteered at the Gardner VNA. She was taking online courses with the notion that someday she might be a psychologist. Not only would she have been a good one. She WAS a good one.

Jennifer was what so many people are not.

Jennifer was authentic.

My sister, Cheryl, wrote the other day that she wishes she'd spent a little more time visiting with her; that she -- perhaps like you, is feeling a little guilty about that. Sometimes Jen would call four times on the same subject, she says, and sometimes you just let the phone ring through on the fifth time.

"The fact that she called us at all was testament that we were important to her, even if she didn’t say so," my sister wrote. "It is not important whether you answered the phone that 5th time. So remember you all did make a difference in her life," she said.

Jennifer was our granddaughter. Our daughter. Our sister. Our niece. Our cousin. Our friend. Our companion.  She was my god-daughter.

You are pieces of all the people you encounter in your life. In each of us there are threads that the life of Jennifer Collins stitched, some of which have yet to reveal themselves to you. But they will. You are somehow different because of those threads. You raised her, you protected her, you played with her, you argued with her, you laughed with her, you sacrificed things in your life for her, you lay awake at night worrying about her, and because of all of that, you are different -- you are better -- than you would be if you had not.

Those threads she sewed, you are now sewing too.

Jennifer didn't make that quilt of everyone's favorite colors. But she's not done yet. Because neither are you. Even now, at this moment, you are creating new chapters, because Jennifer has brought you all here today.

When the words fail, just think about what you have in your heart. The ache you feel, the happiness you feel, the satisfaction you feel, the guilt you feel, the anger you feel, is the voice of Jennifer Helen Collins saying, "I will be a thread in you. Always. And my favorite color is purple."

On behalf of her family, thank you for being a celebration of her life everyday for the rest of yours.

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