In July, 1998, my sister, Colleen, was driving with our parents when their car was struck, head-on. Our parents were killed instantly. Colleen suffered a head injury so severe that she was left in a persistent vegetative state. She remained in the coma, never regaining consciousness, until her death in 2003. What follows is a eulogy I gave at her funeral and I am sharing it today, on what would have been her 68th birthday.
Nearly five years ago we were a family, much like other families, going through the motions of life – rearing the next generation, working through marriage, divorce and issues of commitment, loving, usually without conscious effort and frequently with a struggle. Then came the day of the accident. It was a day that began with a ripple, not unlike a pebble dropping into a pool of water, only this was a boulder and the ripple that resulted grew to engulf nearly everyone it touched.
Mom and Dad were gone in a slip of a moment and Colleen, our beautiful, blonde-haired, fiercely independent and oh-so-cosmopolitan dreamer of a sister stayed behind to show us how it should be done. Friends became family and family became friends as we huddled together for love, support and reassurance that life would go on – even if we weren’t entirely certain we wanted it to.
There is a lesson in all of this and I believe it is our last and final gift from her.
Throughout her life Colleen embodied independence. She was intensely proud of the fact that she didn’t need anyone to survive. She was woman; hear her roar. Collie could bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan and she didn’t suffer wimps easily.
From the time we were small children, Colleen would gently (ok, sometimes not so gently) coach those of us without her style, wit or wisdom to become our best selves. Depending on the occasion, Collie could be counted on to help us dress, comb our hair, quit our job or kick an errant boyfriend out of our lives. Though sometimes her zealous manner was overwhelming, her heart was always in the right and proper place.
And, true to her nature, even in this most dire of situations, when perhaps she herself could have taken her leave. She stayed behind, just a little longer, to help us understand what to do. Colleen kept breathing.
But here’s the part I think she wouldn’t want us to miss: this most independent, self-sufficient woman, didn’t -- no couldn’t -- have done it alone -- neither literally nor figuratively.
From the moment of impact, when each beat of her heart was a gift, she needed someone else for her survival. Her husband, Ron responded with unwavering grace and love, standing by her side, becoming her constant caregiver, in a way that says more about love than most of us can ever hope to know. Siblings, family members and countless friends, formed a trail of friendship and love that allowed not just Colleen, but all of those around her, to continue breathing. To continue living.
Over the one thousand, seven hundred and sixteen days of her coma, as if in response to our private prayers and questions WHY? Colleen’s unwavering, consistent, repetitive inhales and exhales, like the sounds of waves against a beach, let us know that the real lessons in this very personal tragedy are this: True strength means being vulnerable enough to accept help from those we love. Love is demonstrated best in the connections we share. Life is precious and love really is, all there is.
I believe, during these tumultuous and fear-filled times, there are valuable, spectacularly beautiful lessons that we can learn. These trying and stress filled times can offer gifts from the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected ways. And my question for you today is this. What opportunities for connecting might be waiting for you in the Coronavirus pandemic? What are some ways you might serve, even virtually? What are some of the lessons that you might be able to hear more clearly with this forced slow down in this "new normal?" I would invite you to find your quiet place, whether by meditation, contemplation or prayer and ask yourself this: What can you learn from this grand tap on the shoulder that will make you, your family, your community or your world a better place when all of this is all just a distant memory?
Peace and love,