By lex, on January 24th, 2006
We’re heading back east at the end of the month. The funeral mass is long over, and now we’re to have the celebration of life. She spent a long career working on Capitol Hill, and interacted with many powerful people. Most of whom, in their own way, want to participate. So now we few who gathered together as a family and braced outboard, will clear a lane and let them in, these politicians. These strangers.
Fitting, I suppose.
I was asked to put a few words together for the ceremony. Below the fold is what I wrote.
I’m a captain in the United States Navy, and Ann was my oldest sister. I’ve had a full career flying fighters off aircraft carriers in the daytime and at night in all kinds of weather. I’ve led young men in combat, accomplished complex missions with high technology weapons systems and returned home successfully, with my wingmen by my side, all safe and sound, ready and willing to saddle up and do it again. Whenever two paths were offered up to me, I’ve almost invariably chosen the harder way. But now I’ve got a few minutes to try to tell you what my sister Ann meant to me and to our family, and I do not know that I have ever felt quite so inadequate to a task.
Ann was the oldest of our generation; she was already a headstrong, high-energy teen when I was just an infant. I grew up behind her and in awe of her, and to tell you the truth, growing up behind her made my life so much easier. No matter what trouble I could find a way to get into, Ann had been there first to blaze the path, and mark the boundaries. Any flashes of teenaged angst I had were merely weak echoes, like a thunderstorm at a distance compared to the domestic artillery duel that was her coming of age – after Ann, my parents were sufficiently worn down from epic clashes of will to overlook what were in any case my somewhat more tepid offenses. In this, as in so many other ways, she broke the mold. It seemed her destiny.
In writing this, I close my eyes and look back at her as she was then, seeing her through memory’s lens in the eyes of a child, but seeing her actions now for the first time through the eyes of a middle-aged man, with children of his own. It is a kind of revelation.
Ann was a tweener. Our parents were of the “Greatest Generation,” those who had fought World War II, who had, from the wreckage, dust and turmoil of the Great Depression, crafted with their bare hands and through force of will the country that their grandchildren now inhabit. She inherited their passion for accomplishment, their almost savage enjoyment of hard work to do, and a day to do it in.
But she also grew up watching James Dean rebel, and Elvis shake his hips. So she took a pint of our parent’s work ethic, and mingled it with an ounce of rebellion, and set out to remake the world on her own terms. She was an extraordinary woman.
Like all older siblings, she seemed to me somehow larger than life, almost immortal. I could not imagine a time when she would not be there, full of beauty, and flash, movement and intensity, seeming even when relaxed to be only gathering her strength for the next thing she’d hurl herself into. And always there was that twinkle in her eye – you who knew her know exactly what I mean – the ever-present hint of a mischievous child looking for any opportunity to run outside in the rain and splash in the puddles in her best Sunday shoes. Ann was always looking to do great things, but it’s fair to say that there was at least a part of her that was also probing the boundaries, a part of her always looking for trouble, a part of occasionally finding it. These twin characteristics were inextricably interweaved. They were also integral to all of her many successes in life, as well as her occasional heartaches. It was this admixture of energy and impishness that made her who she was, and it was clear to all of us right from the start that we’d best get used to it. As a sailor and a witness to the shocking power of the ocean sea, I have often had the opportunity to reflect upon the sailor’s advice that “We must deal with the sea as it is, and not as we would wish it to be.” And although we would not have changed her from the woman that she was, perhaps in the end that was because she too, was like a force of nature; powerful, mysterious even, but more than anything else, inevitable, irresistible. Like the sea, we all dealt with Annie as she was.
As a child, growing up, and even as an adult I could not imagine a time when I wouldn’t for the asking of it have of her anything she had or could get her hands on, she was the most generous and giving soul that I have ever met. So far as I could tell, there were only two things in life that meant a thing to Ann – her work and her family and friends. Indeed, those circles of friendship and work were so closely intertwined and overlapping that it is still not at all clear to me where one started and the other left off. Ann enjoyed being in the great game, with all of its stresses, and all of its opportunities and all of the high intensity, high-energy people that shared that world with her. In her own way she was a warrior too, in a different field of battle. In the trenches of politics and government service she made fast friends, lifetime comrades in arms. She was a fighter.
She lived life as fully as one can that loves friends and family and work but has no hobbies, no real interests apart from those things that fascinated her. To bring a smile to anyone who knew her, paint the picture of Ann puttering in the garden, or joining a bridge club – it just wasn’t her. Certainly she enjoyed the fruits of her labors, but to me those finer things she surrounded herself with were not so much to be enjoyed in themselves as for what they represented – a lifetime of achievement and expertise, and an opportunity to share of her hard work and good fortune with those she loved the best, her family and friends. There simply wasn’t anything that Ann liked more than a fine meal in a quality restaurant surrounded by those she loved – so long as she got to pick up the tab. I can see her now in one of her Saint John’s suits, the gold glittering on her forearm, reaching for the check with her credit card in hand and saying, “Hey! Turkey! Don’t even think about it!”
I couldn’t imagine not having her love. I couldn’t imagine a time when I just didn’t know for absolute certain that I could give her a call at any time and tell her anything, anything at all and not have a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, a wise ear to listen and an open heart to depend upon. You just always knew you were safe inside her love, that you were family. And that that meant something, being family. That it was important. She kept us all together after my parents died, in the wonderful and horrible year of 1982 when everything we knew and were sure of changed suddenly and utterly. She told us she had promised our dying mother that she would keep us together, and she did. Every year we came home from whatever part of the world the Navy had flung us to, to rejoin at Ann’s house and celebrate Christmas. For military children especially, who often have lived in more houses or maybe even countries by the time they reach adolescence as their peers might do in their entire lives, it’s so very important to have one thing that doesn’t change – for my kids, that one thing was coming home to Virginia, to Ann’s love and hospitality. Her house was a kind of shrine to our family, with pictures on every floor of every generation. There a father might take his daughter into any room and say, “There was your father when he was your age, just eight years old. And there’s grandmom and granddad, whom you’ve never met, God rest their souls, but who would have loved you to death and spoiled you terribly. And there’s your sister when we brought her back to the hospital, and remember how happy that made you?” Every year we would rejoin and the kids would go from room to room, finding themselves, seeing their part in the pattern. She was our center of gravity, our rock, and our harbor.
I’m still having a hard time imagining all of this. I cannot believe that she is gone from us. It’s hard not to be a little maudlin, thinking of the light that has gone out of our lives, of the loss that we’ve taken. But then I hear that voice again, saying, “Hey! Turkey! Don’t even think about it!”
Because this is exactly the way that Ann would have wanted it. She left us on Christmas Eve, to make sure we wouldn’t ever forget the date, the scamp. She left us at the top of her game, and on top of the world. Not for her the muted pleasures of retirement, far less an anti-septic nursing home in a dark future filled with machines, and nurses and shuffleboard on “good days.”
And the last thing in the world she would have wanted was that her friends and family might be sad. She’d want us to have this party, and think of her, and maybe raise a glass in her honor while telling some fond story of the time that Ann said this, or did that, or otherwise saved the day. And maybe thank God for the blessing of having walked the world for so brief a span with someone so very, very extraordinary.