Monday, April 11, 2011
Eulogy for Heather--New Jersey funeral service
Some of you may have been surprised that Heather chose a church for this service, because although she grew up as a Protestant and a Quaker, she wasn’t really Christian. On the other hand, Heather believed in reincarnation, but wasn’t a Hindu; she worshipped nature, but wasn’t a Shintoist; she wasn’t Jewish but when her cat José died we sat shiva for him for a day (it was a beautiful ritual); she admired the Dalai Lama but wasn’t Buddhist; she participated in many goddess-based rituals with the Radical Faeries but wasn’t Wiccan. Heather was spiritually, as in other aspects of her life, a great synthesizer. She developed and pursued her own faith, and she would say right now that she has returned to the Source.
Our neighborhood friend Jackie, when she found out about Heather’s worsening health said, “I know I’m not supposed to ask, but ‘why her?’” When someone dies relatively young it’s natural to ask why, but none of us are ever privileged to possess that information. But I would like to address the question of How—which I didn’t write about much or at all in my many email updates. How did this come to happen to Heather?
It begins with the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. In the wake of that horrific event, Heather volunteered to help the people who were involved in the clean-up by offering her hands to give Jin Shin Jyutsu—the Japanese healing art, a form of acupuncture without needles, by which she made her living the past nine years. The workers came to her directly from Ground Zero, covered in dust, and Heather worked with them in that state. At the end of one of those sessions with a firefighter her arm had a large rash on it, and she knew something had happened to her. Recently she said, “I guess I made a mistake going down there.” I told her that wanting to help people was never a mistake, but that the people in charge of the clean-up and of the bodywork program to assist the workers should have protected her. And that she should have protected herself more. In the days immediately following the towers falling she was worried about me being outside all day breathing in the toxic air, and lent me her respirator so that I would be safe. I, in turn, didn’t want her traveling to Manhattan, but when it came time for her volunteer effort, even if someone had told her the danger she was placing herself in, she wouldn’t have stopped, any more than a firefighter would hesitate when informed that the building they were rushing into to get people out was in danger of collapsing.
She is a litigant in the World Trade Center class action suit, which the city has settled and we are awaiting approval of the ten thousand people involved in the case. The defendants (chiefly the City of New York) are fairly anxious to settle this case, as I believe Heather and the thousands of other plaintiffs are only the first to suffer the results of this gross neglect. I’m afraid there are many more who will endure pain similar to Heather’s. In contrast, the workers who cleaned up the Pentagon after its 9/11 attack wore hazmat suits. It’s clear to me why these two sites were handled differently. In New York City the image of clean-up crews wearing this cumbersome equipment would have been a detriment to getting our citizens to believe it was safe to return to work downtown.
Leukemia, like other cancers, has a better prognosis when discovered early. A key factor is determining the outcome is the size of the spleen. By the time she was diagnosed Heather’s spleen was two and a half times its normal size, and doctors by the dozen were being called in to palpate it, because it was so rare for them to have a chance to feel a spleen from the outside of the body.
After 9/11 Heather left the corporate world and had no health insurance. A routine blood test would have revealed the disease, but she felt she couldn’t afford regular check-ups. National Health Insurance, if we ever get it, will come too late for Heather. There were other missed opportunities to discover her leukemia, but I’d like to describe just one more. We were in Vermont at Faerie Camp Destiny and Heather had tremendous pain in her abdomen. There was a physician’s assistant in the community who gave her an informal exam and told her it seemed like appendicitis and that she should get to an emergency room soon. The nearest hospital he recommended was a two-hour drive, but he said we had enough time to return to Brooklyn. Our friends helped us pack our tent and camping gear and I drove. Heather didn’t want to go to the hospital. I told her she had to, but as we approached New York she felt better and better as she administered Jin Shin Jyutsu on herself, and by the time we arrived she had completely resolved the pain, and over my strong objection, she did not go to the ER. This was in 2007, seven months before her diagnosis. If she’d gone to the hospital, she’d have received earlier treatment, her spleen would not have swelled and she’d probably be alive today.
But when we spoke about this, even to the end, Heather never regretted not going to the hospital, because if she had, she believed that she would not have been able to compete with Women In Sync, a synchronous ice skating team, because some of the moves they did were too dangerous. It was that important to her. Heather was not a morning person by any stretch, but she set her alarm for three a.m. so that she could practice with the team in Central Park at six a.m. Just three months before her diagnosis she traveled to Richmond, Virginia to compete in the Eastern Sectionals, the highest level for her division, and her team placed fourth. She did this with her undetected leukemia, with an enlarged spleen which if she’d collided with another skater could have burst and killed her instantly, and with only a 65 per cent oxygen level. The bliss she had while skating was enormous, really indescribable. She was fulfilling a childhood dream that she didn’t realize she’d had until she was 42, after I’d bought her a pair of skates for Christmas.
If I had a choice, I would have chosen for Heather to go to the ER, but in the thirteen years I knew her, Heather consistently chose quality of life over quantity of anything. She again made that choice when she came home for hospice care. She probably could have lived a few more months had she stayed at the hospital. But we had a glorious two weeks at home before she began to decline. I do believe that whenever possible life is meant to be lived in glory and joy, and though she had a hard life before I met her, I am very grateful that she had so much happiness since then.
Thirteen years is a long time, a nice chunk of one’s life, but I expected to live with Heather for at least another twenty or thirty years. But I don’t feel cheated, I don’t, because Heather and I spent so much time together. You know how when love is new, the lovers will sequester themselves away from the world, because they want to spend every moment in intimate connection. Heather and I never really moved past that “phase” and we organized our lives so that we spent all but a few hours in a given day with each other. If we didn’t get out to see our friends as much as we could have, it’s because we were always desperate for each other’s company. We were together probably three or four times as much as a typical couple, so I figure our relationship was the equivalent of having spent 40 or 50 years together. And that’s not bad at all.
One of the things I truly liked about Heather is that whenever I asked for her opinion, I never knew what she was going to say. Most people, including myself, have certain parameters of thought within which you can guess where they might come down on any given issue. But Heather was a reliable source of surprise.
Heather was a gentle soul, but as our friend Donna Minkowitz wrote on her Facebook page, she was also “unrepentantly angry at abusers.” And she had the fierceness to stand up to them. Heather had a tremendous gift for empathy, making her more sensitive to people’s needs, and greatly in touch with their pain. She was easily hurt, but not easily defeated; delicate, but not fragile.
Before I met Heather I wrote, but her encouragement and passion for my writing made me truly consider myself a writer. Anything I have written and anything I will write, for better or worse, is also part of her legacy.
I’d like to share with you the song I wrote for Heather for her birthday, this past July 10th. It’s not the best song I've written for Heather, but it is the last. I sang it to her in the hospital, and I sang it to her a few times since, including her final day. I’ve got so many songs constantly running through my head that I never know if the tune I’ve chosen is original or unintentionally borrowed. This music seems very familiar to me, though I don’t know what it might be, but if you recognize it as another song, I’d like you to think of it as homage rather than theft. It’s called “Shine and Rise.”
Shine & Rise
© Copyright 2010 by Vincent Collazo
I’ve known you for a thousand, thousand seasons
Made love to you a thousand, thousand times
And if you need another million reasons
I’ll line ’em up for you & make ’em rhyme
And shine, shine, shine
Your lovely amber light
Every night I’m with you I’m all right
And when you climb
Up to the highest height
Look around you’ll find me by your side
For you spark my energy
When my batteries are runnin’ low
And you light my destiny
When I think I cannot see tomorrow
For you I’d carry water ’cross the desert
Or swim the English Channel once or twice
No monsoon earthquake twister flood could ever
Stop me, can’t be bought at any price
And fly, fly, fly
May brilliant purple plumes
Carry you where health is always nigh
And when you do
Stand steady on that site
You’ll find that I’m still right next to you
A thousand thousand seasons I have known you
A thousand thousand times have we made love
A thousand million reasons I have told you
a million million rhymes are not enough
a million million rhymes are not enough
(fading) And shine, shine, shine
Your lovely amber light
Every night I’m with you I’m all right...