I met Janet four decades ago when my oldest/best friend, Blake, fell in love with her in the line for a thrill ride during a high school trip to AstroWorld. I accompanied him back down to Houston to visit her in the intervening years, whenever we had gas money, until they married. She's been an important part of Blake's and my life ever since that first roller-coaster (and planetarium exhibit where I think their first kiss occurred).
Through the years I've written a letter to each of her children--my nieces and nephews--as an Uncle-esque contemplative address and as an homage to Blake and Janet. She's struggling now, invaded by a disease she fights tooth and nail, prayer and chemo every rough day, so I felt it time Janet got her own letter. Please join me in celebrating her life, offering a prayer, lighting a candle, passing along good wishes.
I think it’s about time for your own letter. I have a story…
Years ago I was assigned to investigate the death of an old man in a downtrodden part of the city. He was found on the floor by his neighbor, and a wound on the man’s head was suspicious enough to warrant a homicide investigation. It turned out he’d succumbed from heart disease, and that he’d fallen and hit his head when his heart gave out. His death was, thus, unremarkable, as was his life with one stunning exception.
You see, the man was a hoarder, but instead of accumulating “stuff” he hoarded cash. Hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth stuffed in hundreds of coffee cans hidden all around his one-room dilapidated shack constructed of dark brown paneling and floorboards so cracked you could see the dirt foundation beneath. It was cold the day he died, but he’d not had heat in the shanty for years. His refrigerator contained a partial jar of jelly, a few slices of white bread and American cheese, an empty jar of mustard. There was no running water, so his bathroom had been in a convenience store two blocks away. He walked because his 70’s-era Lincoln was on blocks.
No family, little food, cold; that is how he lived and died, despite being surrounded by a life-changing amount of money. He left no legacy, and I’m perhaps the only person who remembers him. For all the coins and gems at his disposal in life, it was, in fact, no life at all.
I’ve seen others, so many others whose souls left their bodies as I arrived. On a few occasions I held their hands while they took their last breaths, on many I attempted CPR, and on most I went about the duty of learning how they died and why. After a while I began to see patterns, a look and a feel that told me how they’d lived and how they faced death when it came. Some had furrowed brows, looks of concern or fear, and the tragedy of their lives and what they faced was self-evident. Others, though, were serene with a Mona Lisa smile and an aura about them of perpetual peace.
It became clear to me over time that there is more, something beyond our physical shell, something valuable and real. Your faith has allowed you to see that all your life, while I spent chunks of my time in doubt. You’re fortunate in that regard, believing so strongly in something I had to see to believe. But because of what I’ve seen, I go beyond believing to knowing. There is more, and a heart devoted to goodness in this life counts in the next.
I’ve never known a woman to love her family as fiercely as you love yours. Your husband is the finest man I’ve ever known, and you made him better, stronger, more passionate than he ever would have been without you. Your children have grown into amazing young adults, full of purpose and drive, love and compassion, moxie and talent. They owe that in large measure to your devotion, your faith, and your example. You raised outstanding human beings who make a difference every day, and there can be no finer legacy than that.
To be honest, I’m heartbroken about things I suppose have caused you sadness as well: Thinking about missing weddings and births, babysitting just long enough to get tired of grandbabies and then handing them back to the parents (grandparent privilege, I’m told), school plays and athletic events. I want you to experience all of that, now, in this body, with us, and it is painful to imagine you not being right here for those moments.
Yet, if we’re right, if we continue to live beyond mere mortality—and we are right—we realize you WILL, in fact, be right there no matter what. I hate your pain, and I hate that the doctors believe time is limited, but I rejoice in knowing you’ve earned something more, something extraordinary.
Janet, you live a spectacular life, filled with friends and family who love you fully and endlessly. You’ve created a worthy legacy in the children you bore and raised to be exceptional, and whether your time on Earth continues another season or another century, you will always be loved and remembered.
You’ve made my best friend happy over the years, and in so doing you became my friend as well. Rest a while, dear friend. Stay as long as you like; close your eyes and smile when you’re ready, knowing great things await beyond. Perhaps I’ll earn the privilege to join you and Blake there someday.
I’ll bring the Whataburger.