Tuesday, August 17, 2010
My friend Eileen.
I actually remember her in High School, which is funny, because I don't think that she would have thought she was memorable back then (along this line, I actually once had a friend's employee ask me to borrow the tape from my 10th H.S reunion. This request I found very odd, until he said that he had graduated with me. I had no clue). The Eileen I remember was small and mouse-like. She clung to the walls with her books clutched to her chest and seemingly the back and forth motion of them in her arms pumped her legs forward propelling her from class to class. Or so I saw it. We didn't have a class together, I thought she might have been special needs. Back then in my town, there was no mainstreaming, so my notion wasn't illogical, it was just wrong. Eileen was special, but she wasn't special needs.
We became reacquainted when we started meeting as a group to plan our 20th reunion. Eileen came to every meeting, she vigilantly hunted down our classmates, she had thoughtful and insightful input. She did all this while battling cancer. She did all this with half a face. Her cancer and the subsequent and frequent surgeries had taken a large portion of her jaw. She couldn't chew solid foods, or drink alcohol as far as I knew, but each time we met in a bar, having cocktails, potato skins and mozzarella sticks, there she was. She never complained to me, and she was more vibrant than the rest of us seemingly healthy adults. She simply amazed me. The reunion was a much heralded success, and I remember mid-way through someone pointing out to Mike Riccio and I that we had charged Eileen for a full ticket, and she could neither drink nor eat. You tended to forget her disability when around her, and I offer no apology for it. We shame-faced presented her with a refund which she graciously accepted.
I next saw Eileen at the planning of our 25th reunion 2 1/2 years ago. She had lived a cancer free life for a while, but had just found out that there was a recurrence. She was impactful, and insightful and contributory at the meetings, except that she had no voice. She had lost the ability to speak, so she either wrote on a pad or typed on a machine that spoke for her. I was once again amazed. I like to give presentations in front of large groups, but could I do my job with 1/2 a face and no voice? Eileen could. She continued to work regularly at her job, and I have since met many of her peers, who she impacted in the same manner as me. I, for the second time, was able to look beyond the disability and see her for the amazing person that she was. I liked to take her machine and type lewd things into it, like "Bill you are so hot!!". I would then feign embarrassment and ask her to try and keep her impulses under control, while we conducted our business. Most times she would type back a zinger and set things right. She searched for our classmates dilligently, and was single handedly responsible for the great turn out for the 25th.
My friend Eileen passed away on February 17, 2009. We met as a reunion group and attended her wake together. I remember feeling uncomfortable at one point because her parents, and brother and I got laughing so hard at a recollection, that is seemed inappropriate for the venue. It wasn't. Eileen lived with laughter, and fun, and I even found out that night that she was an accomplished clogger! We met back at Eddie O's to commiserate some more, but unbeknownst to me, my wife had planned a large surprise party back at home for a sales award that I had recently earned, so I was dragged away too quickly under false pretenses. I don't think Eileen would have minded. Another friend got to spend the last few days with her, and she said she remained playful right up until the end. What a gift they both got. I'll close with that thought, what a gift Eileen was to me and to so many. God gave her struggles and adversity, and she gave back a strength and courage not seen in her life prior to her illness. She made a difference in the world, and in her friends's hearts, even those of us who only knew her for seven short years.