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.

**

The Places I Keep

For as long as I’ve had an iPhone I’ve kept a number of locations in the Weather app. One might think it strange to find the city of Luoyang in Henan Province, China or Essex Township, NY in my phone when I’ve lived in the American Midwest for many years. For me, however, this little gesture of keeping my eye on these locations is important. I use that Weather app as a way to remember and connect to the spaces and times that have shaped me.

imageLuoyang, China. Where my second daughter was born. Where we witnessed so much. One of the places where we learned to love China.

imageEvanston, IL. Where my wife and I learned how to love kids before we were parents. Where we learned so many great lessons.  Where we worked and played as newly-weds. Where we received counsel. Where we were changed and made ready for a life together.

imageGrove City, PA. Where I – as a little kiddo – got my first taste of academia. Where I watched the Challenger explode. Where I dropped my Skeletor figure in polluted water. Where I learned to love reading. Where I gained many levels of imagination and learned about the evocative power of objects and spaces.

imageEssex Township in the central Adirondacks of New York state. This is the closest Weather app location to Keene, NY, which is the town nearest Mt Marcy. It was on the side of Mt Marcy, the highest peak in NY, where my cousin Chris and I found ourselves almost trapped by flooding one camping trip; it was an epic and transformative series of events.

imageGlen Arbor, MI. In some ways this little town represents much of MI for me (I’ve had so many amazing experiences in that state). Located at the base of Leelanau Peninsula, it sits in the midst of really beautiful country. This is a place where I had a wonderful artist residency and found space for contemplation after struggling to get my mind around full time teaching.

imageBloomington, IN. Where I went to grad school. Where I found my voice as a painter. Where I learned that I would love teaching. Where my wife and I had our first struggles and triumphs in marriage. I love this place, and going back to visit is like going home.

Photo Mar 01, 9 22 43 AM (1)Florence, Italy. Where the lessons of graduate school were catalyzed – in the coolness of cathedrals and musty halls of museums. Where Pontormo presided over a leap in my visual IQ. Where we learned that international travel was doable for us.

imageColumbia, MO. Where two of my children were born. Where I’ve found a place as an educator and mentor. Where we’ve found community.

What ways do you use to celebrate the places that have made you who you are?

 

The Log Cabin, 1991-1992

In the summer and fall of 1991 my cousin Chris and I constructed a log cabin in the woods outside of Camden, NY. Click here to see the area where the cabin existed.

Chris and I constructed a number of shelters and cabins while growing up. This one was perhaps our most ambitious attempt. The images below trace a path from my childhood home to the cabin. They start at the old homestead on Wolcott Hill Road (a home that no longer exists) where I lived between 1976 and 1995 or so.

…moving on to the Road itself…

…along the hills and ridges (the cabin is in the distance)…

…and right up to the front door.

As you can see, we we didn’t finish the chinking and other weathering materials before the storms of the winter came. Later on in the year the landowner found the cabin and instructed us to remove it.

We did… and built another one a few miles away. But that’s another post.

It was a great thing to be a part of, this cabin construction period of ours. Lots of life lessons learned, brother.

A Note on Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy functions as an artist in a continuum of what I would call shamanistic principles: permeability, density, liminality, derivation, change, and transformation. That is, he manipulates and transforms the materials of the environment in some dynamic sympathy with them. This sympathetic approach is one that makes him keenly aware of his communication with and orientation toward the world. Because of this the work is in a very real sense suggested by the environment, the work’s parameters of possibility defined by the environment, and the artist’s intuitive making directed by the environment. There is very little “manhandling” going on here, very little ham-fisted, blundering action. His art is not an image of mankind dominating or playing flippantly with the world, but rather one of the sensitive investigator being moved forward by suggestions from within the investigated schema. His message is his articulation to the environment, not in some sort of neo-pagan hippy vagary, but in action, physical touch, biological aesthetics (i.e. basic 2D design and shape dynamics, which extends beyond the 2D into the 3D via his spatial and sensation-based investigations). The message isn’t linear like literacy or mathematics. It’s kinesthetic and alchemical. Zero irony, total being-ness. Awesome.

Get more info on Goldsworthy here and here.

The sketches I post here are ones I made during a visit I and my cousin Chris (a photographer) made to the Storm King Art Center in New York State to see Goldsworthy’s Storm King Wall. The trip was inspirational; I highly recommend making a stop at SKAC if you’re in the area.

Update (December 17, 2009): There’s a great piece on the ART21 Blog about Storm King that discusses the history of the place, how they think about acquiring/installing new work, and other interesting tidbits. Check it out.