I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, February 9, 2014

My sister PJ

Patricia June Stewart Merrill 1950–2014
Yesterday we held a Celebration of Life for my sister PJ. I learned many things about her that I didn't know, and was reminded of other aspects of her life that although I did know, I had forgotten about. My two sisters Markee and Fia, along with PJ's sons Joey and Jason, arranged this event and I have to say it was just about perfect in every aspect. We laughed, we cried, we shared, and we began the healing process.

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.


KH said...

Wonderful tribute to your sister. Savor your remaining time there with your family while you're there. Precious memories.

Anonymous said...

What a fun loving and caring person your sister was. Just look at all those people who came forward to speak on her behalf. This is as good as it gets. I am glad she enriched the lives of so many.

Gigi said...

PJ sounds like she was a beautiful person and it sounds like the memorial was a perfect way to honor her memory.

Keicha Christiansen said...

I'm so glad the memorial service for PJ was so perfect. She was obviously an amazing person who was loved by many. Enjoy your remaining time with your family.

Jackie said...

Beautiful tribute and blog post about your sister.
"To know her was to love her" is the impression I get after reading about P.J. What a lovely testimony her life was.

Retired English Teacher said...

P.J. was truly an amazing person. I can only imagine the fun personality that she must have had. Did she have your same sparkling blue eyes?

Your tribute to your sister is very honoring and beautifully written. Enjoy the time with the rest of your siblings. Hugs to you.

Red said...

Your sister was a very strong character and contributed much during her life. You will remember PJ for being such a strong person and all the good she did.

Linda Reeder said...

Do you ever think about your own legacy? About who would come and speak of you at your passing? I do.
I am in awe of people like your PJ, such a gregarious, fun loving, caring person who acted on her positive impulses.
We never know what other lives we touch. PJ obviously touched many.

BLissed-Out Grandma said...

What a wonderful tribute to PJ, and what an exceptional memorial service. When my brother died seven years ago we met more than a dozen of his former co-workers, all of whom told us how much they had loved having long conversations with him on a million different topics. It gave us a whole new picture of him. I'm sure your time at the memorial service will continue to be comforting and uplifting.

Linda Myers said...

Isn't it interesting to hear the stories other people tell about those we think we know? All those different perspectives!

Sounds like your sister PJ was a lovely person.

Joyful said...

What a loving tribute to your wonderful sister. She obviously made a huge difference in the lives of those she touched and they were lucky to have her. Hugs.xx

Weekend-Windup said...

Nice to hear about the sweet memories about your sister.

The Broad said...

What a wonderful sister and how wonderful it must have been to hear how loved and appreciated she was by so many people. You have written so beautifully and movingly about her -- it is a testimony not only to her but to you and the rest of your family, too.

Dee said...

Dear DJan, from your eulogy, I believe that your sister PJ was an exceptional human being who brought light and laughter, joy and hope into the lives of many. How blessed all of you have been. Peace.

Deb Shucka said...

What an amazing woman she was! It sounds like this was a perfect tribute and the beginning of the healing process. Safe travels home, my friend.

Rita said...

She sounds like a wonderful human being and just plain fun to be around. It had to be nice to hear and see all the people's lives she had touched in such a positive way. What a wonderful tribute to a positive lifeforce! :) Have a safe trip home.

Friko said...

I am so sorry for your loss. Your sister was a great lady and she will leave a hole in your life. If there is anything good about this sad death it is that it was quick and not a long drawn out illness.

I know that gives little comfort to the family just now but it may yet, in the future.

Sorry that this sad event stopped your holiday. I am sure you will be able to go away another time.

Glenda C. Beall said...

I know how much it means to the family to have people come forth and pay tribute to our loved ones. When my Barry died I was delighted with the wonderful stories people told about him. Your P.J. was one special person and my sympathy to all of you, her family.

Rob-bear said...

What a wonderful story you have written, DJan. PJ sounds like a truly wonderful person. I'm glad the memorial was such a good experience for you.

Blessings and Bear hugs!

Hilary said...

Your lovely sister will be sorely missed by so many who knew her. What a joy it is when people like PJ is a part of your life. I'm sorry for your deep loss, but glad you have so many wonderful memories of your sister.

Far Side of Fifty said...

What a wonderful tribute to your sister. I am certain it was a bittersweet day for you, happy and proud and sad all rolled into one:)

fiftyodd said...

I wss born in 1950 so this post resonates with me. What a marvellous person your sister was.

Arkansas Patti said...

What a beautiful memorial for a beautiful person. She didn't just glide thru life, she left her mark. How she helped Travis was just amazing. That poor man. That is until she came into his life and gave it back to him.
I am so glad you got to witness this wonderful outpouring.