|Patricia June Stewart Merrill 1950–2014|
PJ's eldest son gave a eulogy in the form of a letter he had written to his mother, which he read to us while interjecting little asides that usually brought us to laughter. Then we were treated to a slide show with pictures of her life, pictures we all contributed, with the addition of a hilarious video that her son Joey took many years ago of PJ and her husband Stewart, who didn't know they were being recorded as they sat in a photo booth mugging for the camera. The venue for this event, Lucas Funeral Home, was packed, standing room only, with people from PJ's life who began to come forward to share their favorite memories of her. I have been to other events like this where a half dozen people might share, but a long string of people whose lives PJ had touched or changed walked up to the podium and told stories about her for over an hour.
I already knew that PJ had a strong Christian faith and that she always took the side of the downtrodden and unfortunate, but I didn't realize how it all played out in her life, until yesterday. Before she got sick, she had worked for the past eleven years at Hub International Insurance, and her wonderful boss Anita came forward to tell us what Pat meant to her. (She was Pat to the rest of the world and PJ to her family.) She also gave us a copy of her remarks afterwards, with an excerpt here.
Pat started working for me at Hub International as my assistant April 15, 2003. ... She often stated that we must have been searching for each other for many years, and I felt the same about her. She obviously had the gift of gab and was a storyteller at heart, which reminded me of my dad. We were a little hesitant to hire Pat, thinking she might not be productive, considering how much time she would spend talking. We took our chances and found that she could be one of our most diligent workers, especially when it involved spreadsheets.She said that PJ's initial interview lasted more than three hours and only stopped because it was late and time for dinner. PJ wanted to continue their conversation and suggested that they go out to eat together. This was their first meeting, and it was a job interview, which might give you an idea of how personable she was. The words "gift of gab" and "storyteller" were repeated over and over by those who spoke. That was PJ, all right: she could meet a person and become their best friend instantly.
Years ago, she and a lifelong friend, Belinda, started an organization, Head and Heart Foundation, to provide computer facilities for the disabled. I remember when they began this, because PJ had discovered a paralyzed young man, Travis. From the website:
Travis Bigham had been a young singer/ songwriter when he suffered a brain stem stroke which left him paralyzed and speechless. He had been given a life expectancy of just six months but lived on for twelve years with minimal mental stimulation. He had virtually turned his face to the wall, given up all hope and was relegated to the hospice program. With the help of Head and Heart founders [PJ and Belinda] and the financial backing of others, Travis acquired a computer system. He was then able to write short letters and poetry, express his most basic needs to his caregivers and even write music again. Subsequently, he was taken off the hospice program and, exceeding all expectations, lived five additional years!When I think of the difference she made in just this one person's life, I know that her relentless persistence in the face of all odds is a hallmark of my sister's legacy. In family gatherings, she was able to persuade those of us who didn't particularly like to play games to participate, and there were many times when playing one of those silly games that I remember laughing uproariously with my siblings. I learned that she was still recruiting people to play "Scattergories" when confined to the hospital.
She loved to tell stories and jokes, and it was obvious that it wasn't just with her family, because friend after friend came forward to share their favorite memory of PJ. I didn't know that PJ liked to dance and sing to Greased Lightning and managed to get shy people to perform karaoke (where you lip synch to songs). One family gathering a while back I think I was persuaded to play. It was fun.
That's the thing: it was fun, and PJ wanted everyone to have a good time, being very tuned in to the importance of laughter and levity in one's interaction with others. I am so glad she was my sister, and we will all suffer from the lack of her presence in our lives. Tonight the remaining siblings will gather here at my brother's house, before Norma Jean and Markee return tomorrow to their own worlds. I know that if PJ were here, we would be playing a game together. Maybe we will anyway, in her honor.
I will travel back home to Bellingham on Wednesday, when I would have been returning from Florida, but that was simply not to be. This interlude has been very healing, and I am grateful to be here with my family. You will never be forgotten, PJ.