A Eulogy I Never Got To Give

On February 14, 2016, my sister Denya died at age 47. After my mother’s tearful call, we went into robot mode and made plans to get back to central NY for the funeral. It’s always a trial to get packed, organized in the van, and on the road. It was more trying this time, though, thinking about the reasons for our trip. Part of what I was trying to work out was just what to think about losing Denya.

I was asked to speak a eulogy and I had been thinking about it during the drive – I had a good chunk of it formulated in my mind. So after the calling hours on the 17th of February, we went back up to our hotel room and I began writing down what I’d say.  At least that’s what I have been informed happened, because I had a heart attack in the hotel room fairly soon after arriving there that evening. I forgot much of what happened over the previous few days, with only brief snippets remaining.

Providentially, my wife was right there, as were the many EMTs, nurses, and healthcare professionals who were in our family or friends with my sister. Within minutes I was being worked on and transported to hospital. Though I am nowhere near 100%, every day feels like a bit more has returned.

So now I want to share the eulogy that I never got to give.

**

Denya was the definition of determination, clarity of vision, and kindness of heart. At 16, seeing that our stepfather was abusive, Denya decided to leave home and make her own way. She stayed with friends. She got herself to school and work. She did not allow this provisional stage to define her; she aimed toward college. She didn’t let herself get tripped up by small thinking. She didn’t fall into a spiral of foolish actions and relationships; she was wise. Continuing to work and support herself, Denya went to nursing school, eventually rising through the EMT ranks and working in the intense world of Emergency Room trauma.

imageDenya, age 4.

She grew in faith. She grew in family. She had seen her way through difficult situations at home. She worked toward a vision of education and work and made it happen. She found love in the stability and thoughtfulness of a strong, gentle, honorable man – a man who shared her vision for work and family, for faith and clarity of purpose. In marrying Timmy, Denya truly became an iconic example in my life.

imageDenya and Tim on their wedding day in 1993.

She had already been a great example of hard work and applied education, but now she was living out the sort of teamwork marriage to which I could aspire. Together, Denya and Tim built a home that was hospitable, secure, fun, and a stage for dreams. When I think back on Denya, that’s what I see: faith, family, and fun.

I also see someone who persevered through periods of intense physical and emotional pain – losing Cassandra; struggling with the effects of lupus constantly; and nearly dying when Cassilyn and Elisabeth were young. It was not merely going through these and other things that were important. It’s that she went through them with grace, strength, acceptance, and transformation. These qualities were already in her, and they were focused and made more potent through her experiences.

She – along with Tim – modeled long-suffering of physical pain like no one else I’ve known. She – along with Tim – showed us what good parenting could be: parenting with grace, fun, and high expectations. She – along with Tim – demonstrated gentle guidance, constant availability, and true enjoyment of their girls. She – along with Tim – lived life with joy and thoughtfulness. She – along with Tim – crafted a home life that nurtured not only their own family but also the families that touched theirs.

imageDenya with her girls.

So while her death is horrible and sad, and we wish we could have had many more years with her, in a very real way – at least to me – her death is not tragic. What I mean here is that nothing was wasted. She had no dead years, no years of lost potential. She redeemed the time. She made the most of what was given to her. There were no excuses in her life, no regrets. She didn’t live in anger or sorrow about what might have been. That is a triumphant life – a life full of meaning. It’s a life we can be thankful to have witnessed and been a part of.

Denya’s death is a huge loss. Yet each of us has been allowed to bear witness to her example, to her grace, and to her laughter in some way. Seeing her working at the Super Duper. Seeing her pursue her nursing education and succeed at it. Seeing her Camaro with the airbrushed roses on the sides. Hearing her infectious laugh. Watching her play the Red Queen in a high school production of Alice in Wonderland. Maybe you’re even one of the lucky ones who experienced her jumping out of the twilight shouting “I’M DA BREATHER!!!” at you, scaring you half to death.

imageAn airbrushed rose from the side of Denya’s Camaro.

I will miss you, Denya. I’ll miss your love and faith. I’ll miss your sense of humor and your grace. But I know that these things clearly live on in those who knew you, loved you, and built lives with you. We are so thankful to have had you with us for this time, and we know that you carry on.

imageA recent note from Denya.

**

Advertisements

Dying and Living

    

I am still in a danger zone, but resting with friends and family today, especially my Alison. 

 
Hospitals are certainly not perfect, but I would have died without one and without the actions of my wife and my cousin Mechell who acted so swiftly. So many important moments we never remember – but others do, because they acted when we could not. Our lives are not our own only. 

We live on to love and make art and ask great questions, even if only for a short time – and even the longest life is a mere half-half-breath of the universe. We perceive our realities through such feeble – yet remarkably robust – senses. That contradiction is what makes us know and dream of God, or find great joy in Keats, or learn to (start to) understand Nabokov, or sing in protest with Miss Nina Simone.
Living on means recognizing the value in every human life. It means rejecting the thinking that sees that sentiment as merely sentiment and not a life value. Living on means understanding privilege and working against it when it creates enclaves of inequality. Living on means looking for of gains for everyone – from the streets of Cidade de Deus to the house next door. And if you don’t believe that, maybe you’ve not lived and lived close enough to death. 

 
Untitled Work in progress, oil on panel, 24×24 inches. 

Living on means paying attention. My students at all levels learn that my classes are about awareness and attention, far more than they are about specific skills.

Many thanks in these hours close to death goesto my wife, Alison, my cousins Chris and Sarah and Mechell, and my Aunt Beth, Aunt Cathy, Aunt Sue and Uncle Roger (who helped coordinate things and met Alison at the Hospital). 

Of course, my Mom and Pastor Dan have been there nonstop taking care of my three rambunctious kiddos. Couldn’t recouperate without that vital help.  

  

Also, the example of Jake and Ali Gonzalez of how to live honorably in proximity to death. And the dedication and passion of Deborah Huelsbergen, who has taught me to love me students more than grades or curricula.   

There are so many more I could shout out to, like my brothers Daniel (and fiancée  Sharon!) and David (that’s his knitting above) and my sisters Stacey and Denya… Denya knew how to live and love close to death most of her life. And when death took her last Sunday, it could not take the values she gave to her daughters, to me, or to my kids. 

We live close to death. Do we believe it? Do we seek to redeem the time? Let’s make the most of it. 

 

PS: it also helps to keep Mr C nearby with random hamburgers….

  

Barry Gealt’s Graduate Orientation Document, 2003

At Indiana University back in 2003, I began graduate school with an amazing cohort of artists and learners. We found a fiery mentor in Barry Gealt. The first day that we met as a group in a restaurant in downtown Bloomington, Barry gave us an orientation document full of questions and assertions. I present it below for posterity (and because Matt Choberka‘s request caused me to go dig it out of my long dormant graduate school notes).

Page 1

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 11.59.36 AM

Page 2

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 11.59.44 AMPage 3 – my first caricature of Barry…

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 11.59.49 AMAnd here’s a PDF of the whole thing if you’d like to save it: BarryGealt-GradOrientation2003.