Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Sisters

Eulogy for Sister #3 – revisited

Diane, Sister #3, is on my mind today. Diane died from ALS in February 2006. Her death was a mixed blessing. A release from imprisonment in her physical body, and a reminder that the ‘good’ life is about more than being free of catastrophic illness. Including Covid-19.

Houston, Texas – 17 February  2006

Diane directed that my remarks today be “personal, with no preachy tones.”  As I thought about what to say, I came up with only one topic that guarantees I’m being personal—that I’m not avoiding the subject Diane knows none of us can avoid when we talk about her.

Remembering Diane’s Body

Diane had a human body—loved by God
A female body:
—The body of God’s beloved daughter child
—Known to Jesus Christ as a sister for whom he died
—A female temple of God’s Holy Spirit on this earth

A one-of-a-kind body:
—Created and sustained by God
—Loved and nurtured by God’s ministering servants here on earth:
——Her husband, two sons and one daughter
——Her large, extended biological family
——Her church family
——Her nursing family
——Even the family collection of dogs

Diane’s life was shaped by bodily infirmity.
—She would hate that I just used that word!

Diane refused to think, act or behave as a person identified by an “infirmity.”
Yet the truth is simple:
—Diane’s life was shaped by loss in her left arm due to polio.

From a parental point of view, Diane’s weak arm was cause for protective measures.

From Diane’s point if view it was cause for excelling in whatever she supposedly couldn’t or shouldn’t do.

Not only would she do all these things,
She would do most of them better than any of us, things like
—Riding a bike, swimming and playing basketball
—Sewing dresses and suits
——not hankies and curtains, but fancy dresses, and suits with tailored blazers
—Then there was photography, not with small, lightweight equipment,
——b
ut with the best possible equipment and attachments she could afford and lug around!

Diane developed an uncanny knack for figuring out how to carry out activities like these without compromising quality or expertise in the slightest.

She also developed an uncanny knack for taking advantage of our parents’ desire to protect her.

Only as an adult did she confess that her habit of disappearing from the house to do yard work (and not housework) was not motivated chiefly by her pure desire to help Daddy.  Rather, she knew neither Daddy nor Mother would send or call her back inside the house for the latest instruction or practice in vacuuming, dishwashing, dish-drying, table setting, ironing or putting clothes away.

To us, Diane’s body was both normal and different—though it all felt pretty normal most of the time.  Certainly not life-threatening.

Then each of us, her three sisters, got a telephone call from Diane in January 1996.
Diane had ALS.  She was direct and clear:
—There is no cure.
—The disease is terminal.
—I’m going to need help.  Lots of help.

Diane’s left arm shaped her as a child, as a young person and as an adult.
Now Diane’s entire body began shaping her and her family,
beginning most painfully with her husband, two sons and daughter,
and reaching out to all of us gathered here today.

For the last 10 years I’ve flown down to Houston about 4 times a year to visit Diane.  But not just to visit her.  I’ve come to witness a journey—Diane’s very personal journey with ALS.  A journey that relentlessly put Diane’s physical body at the center of attention.

As young girls we weren’t encouraged to pay much attention to our bodies. 
Bodies were a necessary but usually uncomfortable necessity—especially female bodies.  Now, with ALS, Diane was consumed by what was and was not happening in her body.

She suffered losses beyond comprehension—most in fairly rapid succession over a period of years, starting with physical losses such as mobility, ability to care for her own personal needs, eating and swallowing, ability to speak on her own, and breathing. 

She also suffered loss of her position here at the church:
—Loss of her dream of being ordained
—Loss of work and personal relationships as her body more and more seemed to intrude as a difficulty or a problem to be solved
—Loss of time for herself or her family and friends, as personal care began gobbling up hours out of each day
—Loss of privacy:  total and absolute, with only one exception—the thoughts in her mind, which included her life with God
—Loss of little things such as swatting at a mosquito feasting on her neck (as she put it); scratching where it itches; singing in church; being in the middle of the action and making wisecracks

More painfully, she suffered loss of other things such as giving her children a hug, or embracing her husband face to face.  As a female she suffered what most women dread—loss of control over personal presentation of herself:  hairstyle, makeup, body language.  She became the subject of stares and quickly averted eyes.

Diane’s body seemed to be calling the shots.

True to who she already was, however, Diane kept showing up—fully with and in her body marked more and more by ALS.  It was as though she were saying

  • I’m still here—in my body
  • I’m still Diane—in this body
  • I am not whatever you think a terminally ill person should be
  • I am not predictable
  • I am not a saint
  • I’m still Diane!
  • I’m still here and I’m still fully engaged in living–living with ALS
  • I will be who I am—angry, frustrated, filled with anxiety, filled with human longings and everyday needs; direct and clear without being mean
  • I’m dying
  • We need to talk
  • Now

As always, nothing was too sacred for a good healthy laugh.  Especially about her body with its unpredictable body parts, behaviors and small crises:  facial movements, biting her own lip, laughing uncontrollably, head falling over from time to time, drooling from time to time.

Diane continued to be who she already was:
—Determined to speak for herself in her own words, not yours or mine
—Determined to be heard and heeded

She was still directive—now in ways that boggled the mind:
—To-do and Do-not-do lists for family, nurses, friends and strangers
—Rules for how Mom is to be driven in her new van and who gets to say when the rules are being broken (Mom, of course).
—She was still a masterful strategic planner—only now she had to figure out how to get you to do what she could no longer do, but somehow knew must be done.

As always, Diane wasn’t about to fade into the woodwork.  She kept showing up in the flesh—in her ALS-shaped flesh:  at church, in shopping malls, at weddings for her daughter and one of her sons, and even—one month ago, believe it or not, to inspect her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter’s new home.

Diane remained insistent that she be given choices, and that her choice was the final choice:
—Clothes and accessories for church
—Medical options
—What to keep and what to discard from the kitchen cupboards
—Which movie to watch
—And how this service today would be shaped,
——including the names of all active male pallbearers
——and the names of all 25 honorary female pallbearers!

Diane made her concrete mark in, with and through her concrete, ALS-shaped body.
To deny she was among us in the flesh would be to deny her existence.

To some extent, each of us gathered here to honor and grieve her passing has been a witness.  So many of you are so full of memories.  I can’t speak for you and I won’t get preachy, but I will be confessional:

  • I’m listening, God, for what my relationship to Diane means for the rest of my life in this world you love so much.  Amen.

Eulogy delivered 17 February 2006, © Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 February 2006
Blog post © Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 April 2014

dawn

a mirage shimmers
beckoning from eastern skies
through misty shadows
clouds of soft fleeting colors
float on water’s silent breath

Thanks to Tarryl Gabel for this evocative painting. It captures how I’m feeling today, even though rain is pouring down outside, and wind gusts are rolling in.

I’ve been feeling disoriented for several weeks. Also relatively helpless since I got the call on Christmas day about my youngest sister’s health emergency. I’ve already written about some of my internal struggles.

Today I’m moving on–doing what I can to stay connected with my sister in healthy ways, without leaving myself behind. Especially when it comes to writing and taking care of my own daily needs.

The painting above caught my eye this morning. It’s a lovely capture on canvas of how I’m feeling right now–enticed by possibilities for my life today and in the future, whatever is left for me.

Thanks for visiting!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 25 January 2020
Dawn of a New Day, by Tarryl Gabel, found at artworkarchive.com  

Disorder claims the winning hand

With breathless speed life takes us away
And back again to this grieving space
Where time stands still but not quite
Unfolding our own demise and deaths
One wrenching sorrow after another
Seen through the mirror of our likenesses

I thought being oldest was dangerous
When it came to death and dying
Surely I would go first followed in orderly
Succession of eldest to youngest with
Time to laugh and cry and grieve together
Built into the inevitable equation of aging

Yet disorder claims the winning hand
Changing landscapes forever through death
Or in life made more challenging through
Unforeseen clashing of genes and unexpected
Gifts of generations and the heaviness of being
Afflicted with maladies we never expected to visit

On Christmas Eve my youngest sister had a health emergency that will likely change her life, not for the better. I feel as helpless now as I did when Diane (#3) called in the late 1990s to tell us she had ALS.

As a writer, I’ve asked myself this question over and over: What is mine (and not mine) to write about?

I came up with several beginning ideas, including the theme of the poem above. That is, how strange it is to be the oldest, watching any of my younger sisters going through life-threatening health crises. In this case, Diane, who died of ALS in 2006, and now Sister #4 facing unexpected health challenges.

Thanks for visiting today. I’m slowly getting back to blogging regularly. Blessings to each of you and your families with whatever you’re facing today. Especially if it’s something about which you can do nothing but be present, supportive, and aware of what’s going on inside you.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 3 January 2020
Family photo taken in 1961, Savannah, Georgia

Shaming and Punishing Women

One of my longtime followers, Fran Macilvey, left the following request in response to my recent post, Voices long silent.

I’d like to hear more about your view on “….shaming rituals and periodic public displays of what happens to strong women…” because I’m sure it doesn’t just happen to women, and I’m curious to consider why we do it. What are we frightened of? Disapproval??

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, especially about how things like this happen to men. At the same time, from my childhood on it seemed women and girls had to be kept in their places. My personal fear wasn’t disapproval. It was harsh punishment. Not just as a child, but even as a professional. It was important to ‘walk the line’ and remember that I was not in charge. Today I might simply walk out. But that freedom didn’t happen overnight.

In a recent telephone conversation with one of my sisters, we talked about ways young boys shamed us at school when we were in the 5th grade. Our father also shamed us at home every time one of us was beaten. I was the prime example of what would happen to my three younger sisters if they dared to live ‘outside’ the lines of what my father considered proper behavior for females.

So we shared our experiences in the 5th grade. Both involved shaming by a male classmate. There was no one safe to talk with us. Not at school, and not at home. Each of us lived with the burden of believing we were the problem. The truth, however, is that our young, developing female bodies were the problem. Not to us, but to the boys who tormented us.

Silence about things like this, when carried for decades and magnified by repeated body shaming is like carrying a dead weight in one’s body and soul. Still, the only safe way to get through was to keep our young mouths shut and just keep going.

I can’t begin to describe the feeling of release I felt because my sister and I had finally dared tell each other about this insult to our souls and bodies.

Then there’s the companion side of this dilemma. Often when women stand up and report harassing behavior, they become the subject of investigation. Maybe it was your clothes, your tone of voice, the look in your eyes, the perfume you wore to work today. Hence the silence of women afraid to report abuse of any kind on the job, at home, in schools and universities, in churches, or even in friendship circles.

I’m not saying all women are as pure as the driven snow. Instead, I’m saying that experiences like this need to be unpacked. Perhaps we can change our behavior. Not because what we’re doing is ‘wrong,’ but because it isn’t putting our own safety first. Often we need trusted friends and qualified psychotherapists to walk with us.

Reading books about how to survive various forms of shaming or PTSD isn’t a bad thing to do. We can learn a lot. Yet there’s that internal stuff that isn’t going to go away because we read a book. Sometimes we need a safe person to hear us out and help us examine our feelings and behaviors without blame or judgment.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 June 2018

Dethroned

The winter Olympics are upon us! So just for today, here are a couple of old photos from my past that tell a bit of a story about my family of one father, one mother and four sisters. Nothing profound, unless you’ve been there and understand the dynamics of being dethroned.

First: I’m the oldest, 10 years old judging by the shape of my body parts. An early bloomer as they said back then. Sister #2 is 8 1/2 years old, and Sister #3 (Diane) is 4 years old. Sister #4 is still a baby. And yes, my hair is in rubber-hive curlers. An attempt to make my hair look pretty.

It’s bad enough to be the first-born dethroned three times by the arrival of baby sisters who suddenly grab all the attention. But to be forced to give up my rightful seat on my brand new adult-size bike when I was 10 years old got my goat. Not that I let it show very much in the photo, but I guarantee you, I’m not happy in photo #2.

Nor is Diane, Sister #3, the youngest in the photo. She has totally checked out of the happy sisters mode and is enduring the shame of having been booted from her larger wheels to this ridiculously tiny baby tricycle. I love her for her honesty. She has her hands defiantly clasped in her lap–not on the handlebars as requested by my father. Sister #2 is being as cooperative as possible, having given up her two wheels for three.

And there I am, boiling with indignation on the inside (yes, I remember this well) but ‘calm’ on the outside, while my mother poses for my father on MY new bike! I wonder what was going through her mind?

Small stuff, you say? Not to me. Which is already more than enough said.

For now, Happy Friday and Happy Winter Olympics! May the best women and men win, and those dethroned be gracious and appropriately distressed.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 February 2018
Photos taken by my father, Fall 1953, in our front yard near Savannah, Georgia

PIT or Carrom, anyone? | Story #4

1967 Jun Game time Elouise and Diane

Elouise and Diane (Sister #3) playing Carrom in Savannah, Georgia, June 1967.

When I was young, I became addicted to at least two ‘parlor’ games. They may not have been the greatest games going, but neither was on my father’s list of R-rated games. Besides, Read the rest of this entry »

The Most Important Truth I’ve Learned | from Diane

God Loves Me to Pieces

Sadly, this is the last of Diane’s children sermons. It’s dated 11 February 1996–just months before she left her position at the church due to increasing ALS challenges. I’ve put off publishing it–partly because I don’t want to stop hearing her voice.

As one of her sisters, I know how difficult it was for us sisters to ask for help. You and I aren’t little gods or goddesses, sent to live perfectly serene and lovely lives. We’re God’s beloved daughters and sons, sent to live in the muck and mire that comes with mountaintops and valleys. We won’t make it by ourselves. We need each other, not just God.

We also need to know the most important truth Diane has learned. So here it is–in case you haven’t already guessed.

11 February 1996

Well….Good morning, folks! This is a special week! There’s a big day coming up Wednesday. Do you know what it is?

…Right! Valentine’s Day! After first worship somebody told me that’s an awfully sneaky way to remind your husband of Valentine’s Day! But what can I say? It works!

Tell you what. This week has another special day. At the early service Clay [Diane’s husband] nearly fell out when I said it’s our anniversary today!

He knows very well that our wedding anniversary is in June! [laughter] June 12! [more laughter] 25 years this year! [more laughter] Okay! Let’s see if he forgets…! [even more laughter]

Actually the anniversary today is special for me and my husband and our family. Ten years ago today our family joined this church. How about that? So it’s an anniversary for us today.

I’ve been thinking about important things that have happened during those ten years. And especially about the most important thing I’ve been learning the last ten years. I thought of something that reminds me in some ways of Valentine’s Day.

On Valentine’s Day we like to tell people that we love them, and make sure they understand how much we love them. Guess what? For the past ten years the most important truth I’ve been learning about is how much God loves me. That’s a super important thing to be learning.

In fact, when I think about the most important thing I want you boys and girls to learn about when you come to church, it’s that God loves you. Each one of you, and all of us together!

God loves each one of us. I’m learning it doesn’t matter what I do; there’s nothing I can do that will make God stop loving me. And there’s nothing that can happen to me that will separate me from God and God’s love for me.

When you come to church and to Sunday School week after week, you learn a lot of things. I think the most important thing that you could learn is that God loves you. So when you think about Valentine’s Day and about coming to church, I hope you’ll remember that it’s not just people who love us. God loves us, and God loves me no matter what. Let’s pray together and tell God thank you for that.

Thank you, Father, for these boys and girls who are here with me this morning. Thank you that they’re in a place today where they can be learning how much you love each one of them. I thank you for the way that you’re teaching me that truth as well, through this church and through other experiences of life. I pray that each of us will understand more and more the truth that God loves each of us, and that nothing any of us does can change that love. Even better, nothing that happens to any of us can separate us from you and your love for us.

These things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 26 September 2015
Image from http://www.partiallyperfection.com/god-loves-me-to-pieces/

Faculty Wife | Part 6

1970 May Newly Arrived Sherry in the hospital

It’s late May 1970. I’m sitting on the edge of the bathtub, giving Son a bath before he goes to bed. The house is full of my family members, including my parents. They drove up from Savannah to attend Diane’s commencement.

We just finished an early supper. Mom and Sister #2 are cleaning up the table and kitchen. Tonight is Diane’s baccalaureate service, and D is leaving early to be part of the faculty processional.

He comes into the bathroom to tell Son and me goodbye. He’s all dressed up, carrying his robe. I feel a little left out of the fun. He gives us goodbye kisses.

I hear D going out the front door. Suddenly I feel something. Surely it was just another false contraction. They’re the pits! Besides, I’m in no position to go into labor right now.

My water breaks. No doubt about it. I’m still sitting on the edge of the bathtub. I holler for someone to stop D! Sister #2 races out the front door and catches D just as he’s backing out of the driveway.

It doesn’t take long to figure out I need to get to the hospital pronto. D and Sister #2 help me get to the car. I stuff a towel under my seat and D drives straight to the hospital. The time between contractions is frightfully short.

Things have changed since our son was born. In South Carolina, husbands are now allowed in labor rooms. There’s one small requirement. The husband and his pregnant beloved must have a certificate showing they successfully completed a Lamaze course for couples. We have the certificate! We’re ready!

1968 Pre-Natal Classes_getty

We were expecting something like this. . . .

When we get to the Baptist Hospital, they take me via wheelchair, with D this time, to a labor room. It’s small and private. Just a table for me to lie on, a chair for D, and a button to push if we need help. The nurse assigned to monitor me has an abrupt, take-charge, no-nonsense manner and a voice to match. My heart sinks. I’m glad D is with me.

Nurse immediately checks to see how far along I am, while telling me to stop complaining so much! When I hear how far along I am, I ask for a pain-reliever. The same kind I had when our son was born. It’s important not to wait too long, or it won’t be very effective.

Nurse is reluctant to give me anything. This is nothing! I’m not nearly ready to give birth! I insist. Firmly. Where I found the strength to talk back to her is beyond me. I’m sure I said things I might regret if I remembered them. But I don’t.

I do remember, however, that she told me to stop being such a sissy. Then she begrudgingly gave me the pain reliever. Her better idea was to put me out completely right before I gave birth. No way! I wanted to be awake for this event, and relatively pain-free. Is that too much to ask for?

Unfortunately, after giving me the painkiller, there was no time for D to help me breathe, much less relax between contractions. Only 5 or 10 minutes max after getting to the labor room another nurse came to check and immediately took me to the delivery room. No overhead mirror this time so I could watch what was happening. It didn’t take long for our beautiful daughter to arrive, only 1 ½ hours after my water broke.

D felt disappointed and deprived of his role as my coach. So did I. He also loves to remind me of all that time he spent in those training classes, learning to time my contractions, help me breathe and get comfortable, etc., etc., and all for Nothing!

Still, nothing takes the place of how happy we are that we now have a daughter and a son! Here we are, soon after delivery, looking at our new daughter through the nursery window.

1970 May the New Parents seeing Sherry in the baby ward

We don’t have a clue how much life just changed.

To be continued….

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 August 2015
Photo credits: DAFraser (top photo), Getty Images from bbc.co.uk (prenatal class in England 1968), Unknown (bottom photo)

All My Cousins? | Family Reunion 1958

 

Renich Reunion 7/20/1958 at Athletic Park, Newton The grandchildren back: Sharon, Ruth, Yvonne w/Cindy, Jenny, Elouise, Dennis, Rodney, Becky, John B, Roger, David B front: Bruce, Jan w/Lyn, Diane, twin, twin w/Carol, Maurice?, Suzie?, Freddy, Tom, Jerry, Steve, Rosie on ground: Tim B?, Juanita?, Sheryl, Rick

Renich Reunion 7/20/1958 – picture taken at Athletic Park, Newton, Kansas

All my cousins? Nope! There were 30 first cousins at this first-ever Renich family reunion in July 1958. If I’m counting right, we’re all there in the picture. That includes one babe in arms–back row, third from the left. Our newest edition was born only 12 days before the reunion. The grand total, Read the rest of this entry »

Getting There | Family Reunion 1958

1949-1951-nash-airflyte-4

1949-51 Nash Ambassador – similar to ours

It’s nearly midnight in July 1958. I’m 14 1/2 years old. We’ve been on the road from Savannah, Georgia, driving to the first-ever family reunion on my father’s side. Read the rest of this entry »

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