Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Eulogies at Jean's memorial, February 24, 2013

Jean's vault
[See for a revised version of this blog post]

As sad as it was, the memorial seemed to end to soon, as if we could keep Jean around as long as we kept talking about her.  And the occasion had some 21st century problems that would have greatly annoyed her: technical difficulties at the mortuary prevented showing the digital photo album on which Jean's sister Anne had worked long and hard, or playing the songs which Jean had selected when she went into the hospice.

But the traditional music provided by John Gregorin and Susan Torngren worked wonderfully, especially "Two Rivers," the first waltz played at Matt & Jean's wedding almost 15 years ago.  And there was a magical moment at the end, when the Unitarian chaplain, Nada Nelimirovic, led the assemblage in huming the Dick Van Dyke theme song.  It was a song Jean had learned last March when her sister Anne took her to Maui on one of her all-time great vacations, and she often hummed it herself over the next months when her spirtis flagged.  For those of you who only know the instrumental version of this American classic, here are the lyrics:

So you think that you've got troubles? 
Well, trouble's a bubble, 
So tell old Mr. Trouble to "Get lost!". 

Why not hold your head up high and, 
Stop cryin', start tryin', 
And don't forget to keep your fingers crossed. 

When you find the joy of livin' 
Is lovin' and givin' 
You'll be there when the winning dice are tossed. 

A smile is just a frown that's turned upside down, 
So smile, and that frown will defrost. 
And don't forget to keep your fingers crossed!

These were the speakers, in order of appearance. Matt, Yao, Derek, and Tara have provided provided written versions of their remarks, see below for the text.  The others will be added as they are received.

Matt Pico  husband

Yao Louis  old friend of Jean since they were classmates  at Huron High in Ann Arbor [read by Nada Velimirovic]
Derek McCulloch colleague of Jean's at URS

Tara McCulloch Derek's wife and also a good friend of the family

Pam Cory  Jean's colleague dating back to their Dames and Moore days in the early 1990s.

Gregg Lowery rosarian and editor of Rosaumdi, the journal of the Heritage Rose Foundation.
Phil Cushway first folk danced with Jean when she was at Huron High.

Mary Ann Koory  led the novel writing workshop in which Jean was enrolled at the time the tumor was discovered in April 2011.

Matt Pico

We're here to celebrate Jean's life, and a few people who knew her well will talk to you about what made her a wonderful person.  Remarkably, it will all be true.  Her family and friends did not decide she was intelligent, creative, and compassionate when it came time to write her eulogy.  And these were not qualities that Jean would ever brag about it in stories she told about herself. We had to discover them for ourselves, and once discovered, that understanding stuck. We showed what we thought by keeping close through the last difficult days of her illness.  Jean had a constant stream of visitors at the hospice, gathered around her bedside in what often felt like impromptu parties.  Her sister Anne was with her when she passed, holding her right hand while I held the left, making sure she did not suffer.

My debt to Jean is one topic I can't leave to the other speakers.  The short version is - I lucked out.  People tell you don't rely on someone changing just because they're in a relationship; count on the opposite.  But somehow we brought out the best in each other, and for 15 years we flourished, beyond any expectation I had of what the world could offer.

There's an anecdote I like that shows what our marriage felt like.  Jean the editor heard it often enough to insist I stop repeating myself, but hopefully she'll tolerate one more telling.

Soon after our wedding, we were working together in the garden, Jean troweling around a rose bush.  Suddenly she squealed in delight, and held a squirming something into the sunlight for me to see: she had discovered that earthworms were iridescent.

For me that image captured her, captured us.  Jean loved her roses, but she also found beauty in the everyday, the overlooked, humble creatures doing the work of the world.  To us we were two such creatures, quiet, undramatic, allergic to pretense, a good time often meaning a good conversation.  Always happy to be married.  The kisses stayed hot until the very end.

We're also here to mourn Jean's passing.  At times many of us will be pulled under by grief, but a few of use will need to struggle to make it back up to the surface.  That type might say "sure" when you tell them to take care of themselves, with no intention of doing anything so utterly pointless.  It was a type that marked Jean's life with some painful losses, and for whom she always had a special concern; they were the theme of the novel she was working on when her tumor was discovered.  For anyone here today feeling overwhelmed by sadness, I have something to say, especially for you, from Jean.

I want to recite one of her favorite poems, one that we always thought would be perfect to read when the occasion was letting go of grief. But thinking about it lately, it might help at the entrance to the tunnel too, holding out hope.  Whether it actually does, whether anything could, who can say.  But try to listen, it will be over quickly, and if you're saying to yourself "poetry!  forget it," you may be surprised.  This one goes down almost as easily as prose.

The Change 
  Denise Levertov

For years the dead
were the terrible weight of their absence,
the weight of what one had not put in their hands.
Rarely a visitation--dream or vision--
lifted that load for a moment, like someone
standing behind one and briefly taking
the heft of a frameless pack.
But the straps remained, and the ache--
though you can learn not to feel it
except when malicious memory 
pulls downward with sudden force.
Slowly there comes a sense
that for some time the burden
has been what you need anyway.
How flimsy to be without it, ungrounded, blown
hither and thither, colliding with stern solids.
And then they begin to return, the dead:
but not as visions. They're not 
separate now, not to be seen, no
it's they who see: they displace
for seconds, for minutes, maybe longer,
the mourner's gaze with their own.  Just now,
that shift of light, arpeggio 
in iridescence -- 
not the accustomed bearer 
of heavy absence saw it, it was perceived 
by the long-dead, long-absent, 
looking out from within one's opened eyes.

Note: In preparing for the memorial, I misheard two lines near the end, apologies to the poet.  The actual version that Levertov wrote was:

...that shift of light, arpeggio 
* on ocean's harp -- 
not the accustomed bearer 
of heavy absence saw it, it was perceived 
by the long-dead, long-absent, 
* looking out from within one's wideopen eyes.

Yao Louis

I have been friends with Jean since high school. We reconnected in college and have been close friends ever since. It was Jean that had the idea to take a month and hike on the Appalachian Trail, and to form a rock band, learn how to play instruments, and have a party to showcase our talents. We also became known among our friends for giving dinner parties that included homemade ice cream and champagne. She was so smart, with many talents. She loved music and we fell in love with various bands, and got to see some of them in person - The Clash and Boy George among them. I have so many wonderful memories of Jean.  But the remembrance I treasure most is her compassion for me. During a tragic time, she seemed to know how I felt and supported me through it. I would have been adrift if not for her. Thank you, Jean, for being the best friend that I could wish for. I love you very much.

Derek McCulloch

Jean and I worked together at the same company for a long time.  So long I’m not even sure how long…we went away and came back three times between us, so it’s hard to figure out all the overlaps.  But more than 15 years, fewer than 20.  And in that time, we made the transition from work acquaintances to family friends.

If you don’t know, Jean worked as a technical editor at a multidisciplinary consulting engineering firm.  What that means is, she took prose written by engineers and planners and scientists – written, often, by people who would tell you themselves had no business writing prose of any kind – and she would help make that prose comprehensible to the lay public, or really to anybody who relies on such niceties as verb-subject agreement.

Jean was very good at her job.  She would untangle illogical constructions and disordered thoughts, and take poor, abused, misused words and restore to them their clarity and purpose.  She improved every document she read.  Or more simply, she made things better.

I’ve been thinking about Jean a lot lately, and it’s struck me that “she made things better” is a pretty good summary of a recurrent theme.  She would take plants that wouldn’t grow, and make them thrive.  She’d take in lost and sick animals, and care for them, and as much as possible she’d make them well.  If her friends were in difficulty, she would try, however she could, to help make things better.

I’m hardly the person here most qualified to comment on this, but Jean always seemed to me to be an extraordinarily sensitive person.  I think the troubles of others weighed on her more than they would a less empathic person.  If her friends or family had pain and unhappiness, it caused her pain and unhappiness.  And she would try, however she could, to make things better.

Jean set an example I know I, for one, don’t live up to.  But my feeling now is that the best way to honour and keep her memory would be if we were all—all of us—resolved to always try, in the ways we know how, to make things better.

Tara McCulloch

The poem I will read was written in the late 18th century by Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, who is known for writing in Scot's dialect.  It is simply titled Jean, and is a tribute to Burns' wife, who bears the same name.

This poem reminds me of our Jean Mary Lewis because of its vivid imagery of flowers and plants -- things that Jean loved very much.  It is also meaningful to me because Jean and Matt were regular guests at our annual Burns Night parties, held in late January, where everyone would eat haggis, drink Scotch, and read Burns and other poetry.  Jean was always a wonderful presence at Burns Night.

I feel so blessed for having had Jean in my life, as a close friend, over many years -- we had grown especially close in the months since last July.  Jean's love of life, her unending optimism, and her gentleness have taught me so much about love and life, as well as about pain and suffering.  Thank you, Jean, for being my dear friend.  May your graceful and loving spirit live on in all of our hearts forever.

And now, the Burns poem:

JEAN by Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Of a' the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonnie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo'e best:
There wild woods grow, and rivers row,
And monie a hill between;
But day and night may fancy's flight
Is ever wi' my Jean.

I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair:
I hear her in the tunefu' birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There's not a bonnie flower that springs
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There's not a bonnie bird that sings,
But minds me o' my Jean.

1 comment:

  1. I think Jean would have been very happy at the love shown at her memorial. And I am glad she received many visits and lots of love before she went.