The Eulogy for Joanne Taylor
I first met Joanne twelve and a half years ago when, in typical Joanne fashion, she was conscientiously planning for the future, and in particular, planning for the future of her daughter Alexi. Joanne had not yet brought Alexi home from Guatemala, but she was determined that when she got here, there would be a faith community waiting for her to grow up in, and so Joanne had set out to interview prospective religious leaders to get a feel for the sort of spiritual community they would have to offer her daughter.
I am proud to say that I won the Joanne and Alexi sweepstakes. And a great prize it was indeed, for it has been a truly great privilege and blessing to know both Joanne and Alexi. Joanne was one of the most Christ-like people I have known.
She had this way of encountering each person she met as an individual rather than as a member of some sort of social group. Joanne was remarkably blind to the sort of markers of race, religion, social class, or educational background that so often color the interactions of human beings. Joanne had friends who were rich and friends who were poor; friends who were highly educated, and others with little formal education. As in Martin Luther King’s dream, she judged people not by the color of their skin or any other superficial identifier, but rather by the content of their character.
As a young child going to elementary school in Illinois, Joanne experienced first hand the cruelty of being pre-judged. She and her brother Jon endured some pretty awful anti-Semitic prejudice, leaving her with a life-long empathy for those who found themselves similarly excluded.
Joanne had a keen sense of justice, and a willingness to speak out when she came across injustice. I remember her describing to me the outrage she felt in relation to some of the parents on Alexi’s soccer team who had lost all perspective about what really mattered, and were being abusive to children and coaches in their pursuit of soccer glory for their daughters. She let them know it in no uncertain terms.
Wherever she went in life, Joanne made friends who treasured her friendship. There were two reasons I think that we were so drawn to Joanne.
The first was her authentic delight in, and concern for other people. There was remarkable amount of room in Joanne’s heart for the people she came to know and care about. Even if you hadn’t seen Joanne in a while, she would still remember the details of things that were going on in your life, and ask about them.
It was pretty awe-inspiring in the midst of her battle with terminal cancer to witness Joanne’s capacity to hold others in her heart. If I were dealing with what Joanne was going through, I can easily imagine myself feeling as though I had no time for other peoples’ problems. Not so for Joanne. For example, my wife Sarah was briefly unemployed a few months back, which is a pretty small problem compared to the burden of dealing with terminal cancer, but Joanne would ask me how Sarah’s job search was going, and when I told her that Sarah had found a job, the genuine happiness she expressed moved me pretty deeply.
Her delight in people was just so genuine, and this delight continued right up until the end as a steady stream of people came to Joanne’s bedside in the last days of her life to say goodbye.
Joanne’s last spoken words may have been the ones she spoke upon awaking three days before she died and discovering that Pam’s husband Michael had come by for a visit. “Oh Mike!” she cried out with such child-like delight, reaching out for one of the countless hugs she gave in those last days of her life.
So we were drawn to her for the heart-felt delight and concern she expressed towards us. But there was something else that also drew us to Joanne, and that was the fact that she was simply the most grown up person we knew.
The Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
It’s not easy to put an end to childish ways – to really grow up and become an adult. There is something inside all of us that wants to remain a child, wants to avoid taking responsibility for our lives, wants to let somebody else carry the responsibility. Joanne must have felt such a desire, but I never saw her act on it.
And so we sensed in Joanne someone who could mentor us in how to be a grown up. She didn’t set out to do this; far from it. It’s just who she was. She was always honest, so truthful. There was no BS about her.
Joanne endured some pretty awful turns in the course of her journey through life — times when she got a truly raw deal. She was not inclined to talk about these experiences, and I won’t either, but the truth is that she suffered things in the course of her life that might well have crushed the spirits of many of us.
Joanne consciously chose, however not to dwell on these experiences. Joanne didn’t complain, although Lord! she had reason at times to complain. She simply chose not to expend her energy in that direction. She chose rather to focus her attention on the ways that her cup overflowed with love and blessing.
Thinking about Joanne’s life I am reminded of the writings of Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived one of Hitler’s concentration camps, and afterward wrote about what he learned there about life in his classic book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.“ This passage in particular made me think of Joanne:
“He who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Joanne exercised that “last human freedom” – the freedom to choose one’s way. She carefully chose the attitude she would take towards life no matter what the circumstances she found herself in. She chose to be a beacon of light in the darkness — a gift kindness and courage by which the rest of us could find inspiration.
Another way to express this is to say that Joanne showed us how to live by the serenity prayer:“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things which I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
In her fight with cancer, Joanne researched every possible treatment, courageously pursuing every viable option in her quest for if not a cure, then at least an extension of her life – more time with Alexi — and in this she succeeded, living longer than the medical literature would lead her to expect.
But Joanne was never under any delusions; she accepted the fact that in all likelihood this insidious cancer would take her life, and so, even as she fought the good fight, she conscientiously planned for her beloved Alexi’s future without her.
And she was determined to really enjoy whatever amount of time she was given; especially her time with Alexi.
Joanne mentioned to me that she was invited by a counselor she knew to come to a women’s cancer support group the counselor was leading, and she did. Joanne described being surprised by some hostility directed her way from other group members because her focus was consistently to accentuate the positive in her life. They wanted her to share with them in their railing against their misfortune, and they seemed to be accusing her of repressing her darker emotions.
But, no Joanne was clear that she had darker emotions; she was simply choosing not to indulge them, choosing not to live out of a victim’s identity, and using that freedom which Victor Frankl wrote to choose her own way. As we talked, it seemed likely that the leader of the support group had invited Joanne to come in part so she could model for the other women another way to respond to the challenge of their cancer diagnosis than the one they were acting out.
Carl Jung wrote that, “Wisdom begins when we take things as they are. Otherwise we get nowhere.” And that’s the wisdom Joanne lived out to a greater extent than anybody I’ve ever known.
So months ahead of time, Joanne began to plan for her funeral. Her initial notion was to hold a brief service in the funeral home. I suggested she consider holding the service here instead, partly because I think this light-filled sanctuary is a preferably setting to unavoidable gloominess conveyed by a funeral home, to which she agreed. But even more so because, I told her, I thought there would be a whole lot of people who would want to come, and many would want to speak of what she had meant to them, and there would be more space here for this to happen.
In her typically humble way, Joanne doubted that there would be that many people, but after talking things over with Alexi, Joanne decided that this would indeed be the right place for her memorial to be held.
Joanne was humble; her goals in this life were modest: that she leave the world a little better than she had found it — to perhaps make a difference in at least one persons’ life. She quietly ended up, however, making a very big difference in a great many peoples’ lives.
We talked of death from time to time, and it was clear that Joanne wasn’t afraid to die. The singular difficulty Joanne had with death was that it meant she wouldn’t be here to care for Alexi.
How she loved you, Alexi! You gave her such happiness. You are, without a doubt, the best thing that every happened to her.
Over the years, Joanne has carefully nurtured a great network of love that would always be here for Alexi, and it has been a truly wonderful thing to witness.
Alexi, you have a great many people who love you, and that is a gift your mom gave you. But I think you know that.
When we gaze into the mystery that is death, there is little we can say for sure about what awaits us on the far side of the veil. “Now we see in a mirror dimly,” the Apostle Paul said. “We see only in part,” but a day will come, he declares when on the far side we will know fully, even as we have been fully known by the one who made us.
A week before Joanne died, we sat together for a half hour while the hospital bed was being set up in her bedroom. It was clear that it would only be a matter days. She was tired, so very tired. I told her that I believed that the One who had given her life – the power that brought the universe into being – has the quality of great love, and that she would be in good hands as she passed into the mystery that is death. To this Joanne responded with some passion, “I believe that 1000 per cent.”
Joanne was the connector of this family and network of friends. The way to honor Joanne is to now make it a point to nurture those same connections in the manner she would have if she were still among us.
Though Joanne was always so intentional about planning for the future, she also knew how to not get so caught up in the future that you miss the present moment. Joanne savored the good things in life while she had the time. She knew how to keep balance. I love the picture of Alexi and Joanne in the ocean with the dolphins. I love the fact that she took that trip last summer to walk with Alexi and Pam through the streets of Paris.
The time in Paris was wonderful, with one exception. One night they were walking along a street near the Louvre, when a man accosted Joanne, reaching for her pick line in an attempt to distract her from his real object, which was Joanne’s pocket book. With pocketbook in hand, the man ran off into the darkness.
He would have gotten away but for the fact that Alexi had inherited from her mom a refusal to be a victim. Alexi wasn’t going to let this sucker get away with it, and so she chased after him, caught up to him, spun him around, and snatched that pocketbook back from the thief.
I know that your Mom told you afterward never to take such a risk again – it was only money, after all. It wasn’t worth risking your life for.
But she was proud of your spunk. Your mother lives in you, of that you can be sure.
The Apostle Paul speaks of the fundamental truth that unless our lives are about love, they don’t really mean anything. We were put on this earth to love deeply, like Joanne has done among us. And love is the only thing that never ends.