The following is the eulogy I wrote and delivered following the death of my sister, Jennifer. Today marks one month since her passing and it hurts as much today as it has every day since. I miss her terribly and I love her more than I can express.

August 9th, 2013

Thank you all for being here today to help us celebrate Jennifer. As I look around at the room I am reminded at the wide variety of ways that she touched those around her. Preparing for this moment gave me an opportunity to look back at our lives and reflect on how important and special she was to me, to our parents and to all of us. In the process I came to realize how much she impacted who I am today and based on the tremendous outpouring of friends and family contacting us in the last week I can see that some of her positive outlook on life has rubbed off on those around her as well.

Jennifer was born with her vision impairment and developed her facial paralysis and hearing impairment around the age of 4. As an adult she never knew life without these setbacks yet from her perspective she had no disability whatsoever. She once told me that an obstacle existed only in so much as you believed it to be an obstacle. Several doctors told us that Jenny would have a rough time functioning in society but neither she nor my parents ever once let that slow her down.

We and I grew up in what seemed to us to be a normal American family. We have the most incredibly loving parents and grandparents and at one point we had more grandmothers and great-grandmothers still alive than pretty much anyone I have ever known. I even remember offering to share them with friends of ours that weren’t so fortunate. In addition to that, our vast network of aunts, uncles and cousins upon cousins is something that we have always cherished. Between Mom running a small daycare out of our house for years and some close childhood friends we even had en extended network of siblings.

We lived in a household filed with love, respect, hard work and strong values. We practiced all of these throughout every one of the many wild family vacations including camping all the way to Canada and back, 9 days of camping from a boat on Lake Powell, summers with our cousins Marisa and Seth and of course all the time we spent at Grandpa’s cabin in the Davis Mountains. One of those values was a deep understanding of working hard for what you want to achieve in life. She never felt that she deserved a hand-out and she was always willing to try and do anything. She loved to go hiking with us and would lean on us only when necessary. She was fiercely independent and she had the scraped knees to prove it.

Like any good big sister, she taught me my letters and colors. Hopefully she got them all correct, if not that might explain a few things about me. We would sit together on the floor of the living room for hours at a time looking through Mom’s old Good Housekeeping magazines while she quizzed me on my reading.

She worked hard at her studies, eventually earning a bachelors degree in English and studying abroad in college. During the interview for the exchange program she was asked to provide more information about her “vision handicap” to which she replied, “I don’t have a handicap, I just don’t see very well.” She was immediately awarded the scholarship. What others perceived to be life-altering disabilities, Jenny only treated as minor inconveniences. That’s the way she lived her life, with a level of optimism and enthusiasm that few of us share. I do my best to live each day of my life with the same level of positivity as she did and I can undoubtedly say that it is because of her example.

The mobility training she received starting at a very early age gave her the practical skills to overcome many day-to-day life challenges. Traveling on busses, taxis, trains and planes didn’t phase her one bit. She was a great cook and regularly brought her cookies to family functions.

She tackled every challenge life threw at her under circumstances where most people would have given up. Despite her vision impairment she was a prolific reader, often finding herself in the middle of several books at a time and always took suggestions and offered up many recommendations. She also loved knitting and amassed a great collection of yarns over the years. She volunteered with Austin Free-Net helping others write resumes and teaching computer skills. She loved music, was active in choir through high school and was a very good piano player having started playing very young.

Jenny and I grew closer over the years. In the last decade or so we developed a routine of checking in with each other almost daily. We would instant message each other every morning, often trading silly puns or sharing book and movie suggestions. In fact the last instant message I received from her was a recommendation for a book that’s a mixture of Star Wars and Shakespeare, something quite typical for her especially given that she could quote both equally well.

She had a witty sense of humor and loved a good pun better than anyone. I think she inherited that from our father. Mom and I would groan when the two of them would get on a roll. Just a few weeks ago she joked during a haircut that she had one good eye and the other one was “just for entertainment”.

Jenny never married but she has had two great loves in her life. Sadie and Burke. The bond she had with both dogs was hard to quantify. She raised Sadie from a puppy and as close as they were she knew that adding a service dog was more than her little apartment could handle so my parents adopted her. Jenny received Burke as her service dog a little over 3 years ago and they were instantly bonded. Between Jen being a wonderful handler and Burke being a fabulous worker, they made a great team. She coined the term “Labra-dorable” for him and it is quite appropriate. In the last week I have received offers from half a dozen friends and family to give him a loving home. My parents will be adopting him now that he is too old to return to service and I know that every time I see him and hive him a hug I’ll think of Jenny and I’ll know he’s thinking of her too.

Jenny lived her life through a lens of positivity. Every day she woke up and decided how she was going to tackle the world and I hope we can all learn a little something from that. Through the hundreds of emails, phone calls and Facebook messages I have received since she passed away, the overwhelming majority of people all mention this positivity. Jenny, I think you have made your mark on the world.

We all love you and miss you.

“Roads Go Ever On (excerpt)

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

4 Responses to “Tribute to Jennifer”
  1. Jean Smoot says:

    Dear Nathan,

    You wrote a beautiful tribute to your sister. I am very sorry for your loss.
    I lost my oldest sister in 1990. I still miss her and think of her often. When I think of her, I feel connected to her loving spirit and know she wants me to feel joyful. And so, I do, most of the time.

    Jean

  2. Ana Holland says:

    Dear Nathan

    I am so sorry to hear about your sister passing.
    My love and prayers are with you and your family.

    I too lost a sister, and she will always be with me.
    The bond you have with your sibling is never lost.
    Your heart will always smile with all your fond memories
    and love, and Jennifer will forever live on in your heart.

  3. Nathan, thank you for sharing this here. I think of Jenny every single day, and her presence there in my thoughts informs my actions in the most positive of ways. You have represented her so beautifully and accurately. It’s hard to feel such profound sadness at losing her alongside such extreme joy at having known her – I hope at some point, for all of us but especially for you and your family, that the sadness will fade and we’ll be left only with the joy.

  4. Amy Shelbourne says:

    Thank you so much Nathan for sharing this. Just when I thought I was not to be saddened by her passing, i read this and expected to be sad again, surprise, I am happy! I love how you talk about her and I am passionate to keep the positivity going. I will never forget my first friend in Austin and one that touched my life in a soft, loving, and very funny way. She will not be forgotten and this is how she lives on. Thank you again, Nathan, Debbie and all of her family and friends. It is so clear how she loved and it is a reminder to do the same in our own lives. I will see her at the bridge. Rest in peace, my friend. Always loving you dearly, Amy Shelbourne.

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