I know the tone of our blog has taken a downward turn as of late. Unfortunately, in spite of great joy in most aspects of our life, we have had more than one instance of bad news. My last post about our dear friends moving was sad to write. But even sadder still was the news of the passing of my sister Brittany at the age of 29. This is our family blog, so we document the thoughts, experiences and happenings of our family. Even though I debated much about adding anything to the blog about her death, it is one of the most affecting events in my life and can’t be excluded. I’m not ready to write much detail about the actual passing, and perhaps I never will be. But I do want to include the eulogy which I shared in Akron at her memorial service in front of at least 100 friends and family members who have known us since our earliest days. I also want to share a letter which she wrote me to accompany my birthday present two years ago, but that will be saved for another post. Below you will find what I wrote for her memorial service:
My Dad gave the eulogy for Brittany at the service we had in Austin. There were over 300 people at there and I hugged each of them, which was hard at first but got easier as the hugging went on. My dad wrote out every word which I don’t normally do when I speak in front of people, but this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say to a room of people so I’m going write the whole thing out. I’m going to begin with the poem he read on Thursday. It’s not a poem I would have picked, but when he read it in that room it just made sense. Here it is:
Not, what was her church, nor what was her creed? But has she befriended those really in need? Was she ever ready with a word of good cheer, to bring back a smile, to banish a tear?
Not what did the sketch in the newspaper say, But how many were sorry when she passed away?
We can keep a record of how each person dies. A lot of people have died in the past few years. Every person in this room is going to die, but are we all really living? Brittany was truly alive. I had the privilege to go through each of the photos that many of you sent chronicling the 29 years she walked here on earth. She dove headlong into every thing she did. She used to crack our family up with her jokes when she was little. She was so bright and had the best sense of humor. When she was two she would point her fingers up in the air and scoot back in these little hops to do the “butt dance.” We would be in stitches laughing at her. Most people agree that her most immediate draw is her humor. She cracked everyone up.
And speaking of diving headlong, I’m sure you saw the many photos of childhood broken arms… or maybe the meaty nasty hand wound photos in the slideshow (I’m not sharing it here because it is really gross). I wasn’t there for the gaping flesh-wound incident, but the story she told me was that she was dancing so hard at a punk show in Kent and she dove into the crowd and landed on the floor right on a broken bottle. I would not be surprised if a few of you here tonight saw it happen. She took that tiny little body of hers and was a match for any guy in the bar. With a mohawk so high she couldn’t put it up herself. It’s not exactly kosher to say in these moments but this adjective keeps coming up… she was a badass.
Maybe I should change the subject to something more appropriate? Here’s another story of Brittany excelling at diving in headlong and thusly breaking her arm. When we were kids we had a long straight staircase into the living room. Our neighbors would come over to play at the house with me when Britt was just 2 or 3, and we older kids would compete jumping from the steps onto the floor to see who could jump from the highest step. “I jumped from the fourth step today!” “Oh, yeah?! I jumped from the fifth!” We one morning my mom and Brittany were walking down the whole flight of about 16 steps. Brittany stood at the very top, didn’t say a word to my mom who she was standing next to. She just jumped off the top step with every intention of getting all the way down. Mom grabbed her by the arm, narrowly escaping a tumble down the steps, and snapped Britt’s arm right on the growth plate. Brittany dove right in.
Brittany and Ryan lived in this small apartment in Austin after they moved. They didn’t have a lot of stuff they gained even though both of them were extremely hard workers. Their dog Casey Jones and cat Tee, their friends, their family and their marriage were more important to them than aimlessly collecting things. They do have a lot of art. Art made by Brittany and art made by people Brittany and Ryan loved. And they also had a lot of books. Going through Brittany’s shelves this week was hard, but also amazing. Since she moved to Austin shortly after marrying Ryan, I haven’t gotten as much a chance to know adult Brittany as I would have liked. We talked on the phone a lot, but we didn’t have the chance to pop in and grab lunch or have a coffee together like I would have loved. But we would have had a lot to talk about on those coffee dates if we could have had them. She’s the only person I know who loved the short stories of T. C. Boyle as much as I did. Ryan let me keep her collection of short story paperbacks.
Just as the poem says though, it not what she gained, but what she gave. Brittany was literally the most giving person I’ve ever met. And her giving spirit was immediately knowable by all the people around her. People who needed to be loved gravitated to her because she would freely love them. Outcasts, hurting people, ill people, wealthy people, and “normal” people alike all trusted Brittany with their hearts. What our Akron tribe here might not know about Brittany is that since she moved to Austin she discovered a place she could thrive while being truly giving. I bet you saw all those cats in the slideshow. Those were her ringworm kitties from Austin Pets Alive! a no-kill shelter where she first volunteered, then worked as a paid employee and finally was the manager of the whole ring-worm ward. You may not know that in most animal shelters ring-worm renders a pet unadoptable and they will be euthanized, even though it is a simple fungal infection just as dangerous to humans as athletes foot. Austin Pets Alive! would bring in these cats from other shelters and do their best to treat the cats with Lime dips to rehabilitate them so they could be fostered and adopted into forever homes. Dipping angry feral cats into a tub of stinky water is as glamorous as it sounds. Brittany didn’t own clothes without bleach stains and everything about her smelled of sulphur. Ryan and I were sitting on her porch last week and he smiled and said, “I’ll never be able to go to the fourth of July fireworks and keep from smiling.”
At the Austin service I stood in line as one person after another hugged me, hugged my father, my mother and my brother. “I’m Gordy’s mom.” Gordy was the naked yellow fur ball in the slideshow. “Brittany fostered my cat.” “Brittany convinced me to foster a litter of ringworm kittens.” Brittany’s compassion for these beautifully adoptable cats drove her to learn everything she could learn about veterinary care. She had a bachelors of fine arts, she graduated from college having only earned straight As since kindergarten. But when she changed careers to work with these shelter cats she didn’t go back to school for veterinary medicine or to become a vet tech. She made her own path. She knocked on the door of the clinic office and asked the vets if she could watch them do emergency cat c-sections. Soon she was helping deliver animals in the clinic. Can they show her how to administer vaccines? Can they show her how to use the microscopes so she can diagnose ringworm and other bacterial infections without having to bother them at the clinic? That curiosity and intelligence lead her to develop groundbreaking processes for rehabilitating ringworm cats in high density shelters. Her personal strategies are being implemented across the country in no-kill shelters (donate here to help her work continue!). But she is so humble she rarely talked about her achievements. We’d have to dig them out of her. She would talk about her cats, all by name. She would talk about how they were almost on their 1000th cat through the ward. She wouldn’t go on vacation during kitten season. She regularly contracted ringworm but it was worth it because to her those cats were lovable. She embodied the notion of vocation. It’s inspirational.
Ryan and Brittany aren’t religious people. They didn’t want to have a church funeral. I understand that because I know them and where they stand. But I am the one standing here, so I can’t help but speak from my own faith which comforts me. And I don’t think that Brittany would be offended that I share this. Brittany’s love was more like the love of Jesus than most people’s. She strove to listen to her family and friends and truly know them. She didn’t seek to gain for herself, she sought to love, validate and serve the person she was with. She didn’t judge people for their choices or their afflictions. She befriended the outliers, like cats with infectious diseases. And even befriended me, her sister who could at times be less-than open. She forgave me completely for the strained years of sisterhood that often put up a permanent wall between members of a family. My only regret is that our forgiveness became complete after we lived in different states and could only enjoy our friendship over the phone. But when we did speak we were at ease. She and I promised we would never let bitterness tear us down, our friendship was too important. It didn’t last long enough.
When news of her passing began to spread, people reached out to our family after years of distance. It’s been ten years since she was in high school, but her old friends stopped everything to remember her. And we all miss her like you can’t believe. The reason we miss her so much is because she had a way of making us know ourselves honestly and to know we were loved. I think she would want us to know that she loved us because we are lovable. We aren’t unadoptable. We are all worthy of a loving family and snuggly friends. Even if we accidentally give someone ringworm, they will think it is worth it because they love us. So look around at this room of people, these are lovable people. You all basically planned this whole memorial, volunteering what you could give freely out of love for my sister, and love for each other. All I had to do was pick a date and show up. These are lovable people. You are lovable people. Brittany was and will remain a lovable person, so let’s honor her by keeping that love going.