Grace and Courage in Life and Death
Grace and Courage in Life and Death
"I'm going to be 60!"
"I'm 90 years old!"
So said our daughter Moira, her lovely mom and my mom. And each of them added a variation of:
"I can't believe I'm this old."
"It happened so fast."
"I just don't feel like I'm this old!"
This is what I heard at my mom's 90th birthday party recently where family and friends gathered to celebrate the big birthday. We sang, we skipped backwards and we laughed often and loudly with Mom, friends and family.
"I am the matriarch of the family," Mom noted. "Of course, that's what happens when you outlast everyone! I'm glad I'm still here, but I sure miss my sisters and brothers and friends. I'm just about the last gal standing."
And so it goes. Life is messy and we don't get to pick when and how we go out feet first. It seems that at every age we feel younger than the birthday we're celebrating and we get reminders of not just saying the words "make every day count," but really, really, making every day count! I'm not kidding!
Here are a couple of poignant examples.
You may remember a few columns back I highlighted Mr. Brancheau's life and how the large and loving Brancheau family celebrated and mourned him at his wake and funeral. I met up with Mrs. Brancheau a few weeks ago at the wake of Joe Colombo the eldest son of another large and vibrant Royal Oak family.
As we talked, I noticed Mrs. Brancheau's eyes still had the same wise sparkle, but there was a touch of sadness and pain in her eyes as she mentioned how difficult it was to wake up every morning and know her husband wasn't by her side. But that only lasted a minute and the vivacity returned as she said, "Now wasn't that a great funeral for Ken? We sent him out in style, didn't we?" Oh, yes you did, Mrs. Brancheau!
Mrs. Brancheau was known as Jonny but her real name was Janavice. Her son Pat told me there are two versions of how his mother became Janavice.
"The first one is that my Grandpa Caren had a dream where an angel told him to name his next daughter Janavice," Pat said. "That is the story I had always heard until my Aunt Peg told a story at the funeral home where my Grandpa had had enough of girl babies. (Mom was the fourth in a row.) He worried that he wouldn't have anyone to carry on his name, John. Naturally, the next born was a boy."
About a week later, Mrs. Brancheau was visiting her vacation cottage with some of her children and it was another bittersweet moment as she walked to the lake for the first time without her beloved husband. Her children asked if she wanted company and she told them she would be alright. She made her way back from the lake and it was as if Ken was somewhere nearby.
Not very long later, while at the cottage dinner table, surrounded by her children, Janavice Brancheau suddenly left this earth and joined Ken in heaven's version of that very same lake.
It was exactly two months to the day after her husband passed away. She was 88 years old.
The Brancheau family is pretty certain that there must have been a negotiation of some sort with the heavenly powers, with father Ken arguing logically that this would be a pretty good time for Jonny to rejoin him.
Pat also thought that his brother Mike, who predeceased his parent's, might have used his pool playing skills to seal the deal.
However it came to be, it was as it should have been. Ken and Jonny are walking arm-in-arm down to heaven’s version of their lake.
Joe Colombo's passing at age 61 was a different story. In his mid-50s, Joe was diagnosed with ALS known also by the name Lou Gehrig's disease after the fabled New York Yankee slugger.
You can't get around that ALS is a very tough, fatal disease. What Joe decided to do when diagnosed, was to continue to live his life to the very fullest every damn day. Which is exactly what he did.
Joe is the oldest brother of the Colombo clan from south Royal Oak. Growing up around the two Dixon families, the Herrons, the Cooks, the Connells - and other large families I'm sure I'm forgetting - it was pell-mell sports pretty much from the time he could walk and he blazed the way for his brother's and sisters.
He was a leader, a salesman, and a successful businessman. He married the girl of his dreams and he stayed friends with his childhood pals throughout his life. Joe was a guy's guy - fast with wit and a bet and loyal to friends and family.
When faced with short stick of ALS, he shrugged and stepped forward with grace and courage. He didn't hide and he continued every activity he loved for as long as he could. A large group of St. Mary's alumni from our era golf once a year as an excuse to tell cringe-worthy stories only we could enjoy. Joe played until he couldn't, and then careeened around in a golf cart to join in on the general mayhem. When he couldn't attend, he communicated with email banter. His emails continued with the same humor right up until weeks before he passed.
His family rallied around him and wife Pam as only a family can, helping him through each phase of ALS. Joe’s bravery can be summed up simply: No one ever heard one word of complaint during the years the disease progressed. Not one word of complaint. That's remarkable and the true meaning of courage.
I've given up believing there are coincidences. I now see serendipity in symmetry and seeing a vibrant Mrs. Brancheau at Joe Colombo's wake is a case in point.
Each had their own path of life and death. Both left little undone with the time they had. Both gave unselfish examples of how to live and how to die.
I'll try to honor them both by really, really living each day like it's my last.
The link below is to ALS Michigan, an organization dedicated to those with ALS and their families. It's worth a look and a consideration of a donation.
It's Monday, let's go!