How do you sum up a life in words — the laughter, the pain and all the growing and learning that has occurred during that lifetime? And how do you make sense of that life when it is derailed by unexpected circumstances?
My sister, Norma Joy Steed, died a few weeks ago. I was asked to write her obituary and then deliver the eulogy for the funeral. Writing and delivering it and making it meaningful were emotional and hard because it took looking at the past.
Growing up, Joy was a happy, healthy, fun-loving child. Two years younger than me, she was my best friend when we were alone. When my friend, Nancy, came over, I resented Joy for following us around — typical sibling stuff.
She didn’t need to rely on me very long as Joy was an intelligent and talented girl who charmed others with her blonde beauty and vivacious personality. Musically talented, she was an accomplished pianist and continued to pursue music throughout her life, adding voice and the violin.
During her late teens she changed and became moody and difficult at home but seemed to pull herself together and manage her school life. What our parents didn’t realize was this was the beginning of a mental illness that would eventually change the fabric of her life.
She married young, and as she had her four children and her marriage frayed it became more evident to us what was happening. She would not accept the truth, which is typical when a person is not diagnosed early. The illness takes over their reality.
Her story is one of how life is not fair. Without that illness, life would have been very different and so very much easier, especially for our mother who sacrificed greatly to keep her on an even keel.
Joy and her son and three lovely daughters went to live with our parents after her divorce. Having others to help with the children made life better for her until once more fate intervened. Her cherished son, fresh out of college with his wife expecting her first grandchild, died of accidental asphyxiation.
Her life was up and down, but through it all she remained a loving mother to her children and grandchildren. She survived her many setbacks and with the help of her now grown-up daughters, managed to meet them with pluck and a joyful spirit that lived up to her name.
Writing the eulogy, I pondered the unfairness of it all. Why was her life so difficult when it could have been so much different?
Looking back there is that truth. Yes, her life was hard. Yes, it was hard for those who surrounded her. Would we have wanted not to have her? Absolutely not! It made us all more caring and understanding. Would she trade health for those children and grandchildren? No way!
She died with a body full of cancer, and though fortunately still able to get around, she was not comfortable. We went to see her the Saturday before she died. She had Grit laughing the whole time and was so charming and accepting of her situation. We were awed by her resiliency.
Our son Jim, who is living in Michigan and could not attend, summed it up in an email he sent in reply to the obituary: “Wow Mom, reading that really struck me how much Joy has a marvelous posterity of strong, loving children and grandchildren. And is there really anything greater that we can contribute to this world than that? Despite all her physical and emotional troubles that really is a testament to her amazing spirit that now lives on. All is well, all is well.”