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Eulogy for my Sister.

Delivered at Kisselburg-Wauconda Funeral Home, January 18 2011.

How can one family bear such tragedy?

On Friday night we came to the funeral home to make the arrangements, and I had a sudden and sick sense of deja vu as I realized in an instant that the last time I'd been here was 22 years earlier, when Melissa died. The next year, Julie was diagnosed with her brain tumor. That was truly a crap time for our family.

And what gets me, what I continue to struggle with, is the senselessness of it all. Melissa died because of an accident. We still have no idea why tumors develop at all. There are theories as to why the tumor turned cancerous nearly twenty years after the problem was supposedly treated, supposedly over and done with, but cancer continues to be the great medical mystery. No one knows for sure where it comes from, nor why some treatments work while others don't. George Carlin called the medical profession "guesswork in a white coat", and nowhere else is this more appropriate.

I just can't wrap my head around it. We're living in an age of unparalleled human achievement. When my mom was a kid, listening to Jethro Tull on vinyl, she could never have imagined that I'd be able to carry thousands upon thousands of songs in the space of my pocket. Information on almost any subject imaginable is available at our fingertips to any degree you desire; if you've got a question as to how something works or where it came from, just pull it up and find out! People who were born ten years before me have never really known a world without the Internet. Hatred and bigotry are still things to be fought against, but the unbounded proliferation of media means that minority groups have had a voice and representation they lacked in decades past, and the younger generations are growing up with an instinctive understanding that different does not mean bad. In so many areas, the progress of humanity seems nothing less than staggering.

But then we get to cancer, and it's still guesswork in a white coat.

And this bothers my mind because in the face of loss, we want answers. There's a part of us that can't stop asking the questions, that could know some semblance of peace if the senselessness of loss could make some sense, if the pain of separation could just be understood. For even a moment.

Julie had her answers. Ever since she was a little kid, she knew she wanted to grow up to help people. And you can see why: When the tumor was first discovered, she was in and out of hospitals and doctors' offices, working with various nurses and physical therapists, all doing what they could to help her with her problem. And she clearly saw this help, and was grateful for it, and as she grew up she sought a way to give back to the world, to help others in the way she was helped - first by her desire to study nursing, and the volunteer work she did in that regard, then in recent years when she began to study ministry.

We could debate the merits of nature vs. nurture, of course. Did Julie become this way only because of the treatment she herself was given as a child? Or was this sweetness and selflessness always part of her nature, a part of her genes? Others have gone through such experiences and come out with a more cynical bent, so I suppose it was a little of both.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that Julie touched so many lives, and was the nicest, kindest person anyone could hope to meet. You sometimes hear talk of a person who greets every trouble with a smile, but nowhere else have I actually seen that in action. And in all her years, I don't think I ever saw a single spiteful or vindictive thought from her - which is, frankly, unheard of. Because we all have bad days, and we all have times when someone has disappointed us or hurt us, and we become angry and petty for a moment. If we're lucky, it lasts only a moment, and if we have the strength it's something we can resist acting on, in either word or deed. But never once did I see such a struggle from Julie in the face of adversity, even for a moment. It's like she instinctively understood that we all have things we're working on, and things we're struggling with - and so, sympathizing with us, how could she be angry?

Clearly we still have so much to learn from her example, and by following her lead. And through all of this, I've had so many people tell me how Julie was such an inspiration to them, and how grateful they were to know her. When faced with loss, the problem I struggle with time and again is one of perspective, for what I focus on is invariably how much I miss the person who's gone, rather than focusing on the time that we've shared. Coming to terms with such loss is always just a matter of finally accepting that perspective, and appreciating the profound effect that person has had on you, no matter how long or short that time may have been.

My mom already knows this, for she's quick to point out that we could have lost Julie when the tumor first manifested itself - but instead, we got 21 more years with her. 21 more years that we wouldn't have had if she'd been born ten years earlier, before the very recent medical advances of the time. We could have lost Julie just a year after we'd lost Melissa. But we didn't, and we got to see Julie become a young woman, and an inspiration to so many. And that truly is a blessing.

When someone leaves us, we always wish we'd had more time with them. It's human nature to always want more. But we should endeavor to treasure the time we did have, and treasure the time we still have with each other. A graphic novel I once read called Exit Wounds has a character ask, "Do you think that every time we meet a person we should treat it like it was the last time we were ever going to see them?" And there's a lot of wisdom in that. After all, the other inescapable lesson here is that no matter how many years you live, life is still too short. And so it's absolutely vital that you spend your time wisely. Don't put off saying till tomorrow what you want to say today. Don't spend your life working on things you don't care about, for reasons that aren't important. Julie knew what she wanted to do, and why she wanted to do it, and she never gave up or let any of her hardships get in her way.

We're all looking for answers. Julie had hers, I'm struggling to find mine, and I expect you are as well. But Julie understood the communal aspect of humanity, and viewed everyone as part of a great big family. Embrace that sense of community by talking to each other, and supporting one another. It may turn out that someone else has that answer we're struggling to find. And only by talking with each other, through good times and bad, can we hope to find out.

Talk to each other, and always keep one another in your hearts. It's what Julie knew, and it's both the best way to honor her, and the best gift we could give.

Thank you.


Jan. 19th, 2011 07:25 pm (UTC)
I feel like for a week I'd been hearing people offer you their sympathies but somehow I couldn't figure out what had happened...somehow the crucial detail wasn't appearing in the conversation. And I was terrified, to my shame, of asking.

So sorry, Don. This is a beautiful eulogy and I wish you'd never been given the reason to write it.

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