[Written the day after Mari Ellen passed away on Easter Sunday, 2012]
I don’t know how to begin.
I wish there were a word to describe the shift of a universe at the exit of a kindred soul.
I just went diving into my paper-recycle bag, frantic to find the card I received two days ago, blinded by tears I can’t seem to stem. And there it is, an ode to donuts on the cover and a sweet note inside ended by the usual all-caps “LOVE YOU!”
My friend Mari Ellen Reeser joined Jesus for a heavenly Easter celebration yesterday afternoon. It was utterly unexpected. And I am devastated by this loss. My fellow MK, my partner in ministry, my accomplice in travel, my video-watching and Caesar-salad-eating companion, my hiking buddy whose commitment to missionaries’ kids and BFA mirrored mine… The woman who for 20 years inhabited my daily life is gone. I am grateful—so grateful–that I was gifted with so lengthy and intertwined a friendship. We were both keenly aware of how rare those are in the life of an MK.
It’s her laughter that echoes in my mind on this day in which memories, joy and tears have intimately mingled. That unrestrained, larger-than-life laugh that would get us in trouble as we sat at school in her office or mine. How many times did someone pointedly shut their own door to try to dampen the resonance of her chuckle? Fruitless endeavor – it could pierce walls. There was something gratifying about that laugh. It made me feel like a prime-time comedian, though I know my material was late-night-mediocre at best.
On the first performance of each play I directed, I gave Mari Ellen a free, front-row seat. My generosity was self-serving—I needed her to get the laughing started. She never—NEVER—failed me in that role!
Mari Ellen learned the art of (literally) hugging trees from her sweet father, a lover of nature. We were on one of our many walks one day, just above the school, when she stopped and burst into tears. A tall, gnarled tree had reminded her of the man she still called “Daddy”—she went over and hugged it. And she held on for a while.
Paris, Cinque Terre, Nurnberg, Heidelberg, Nice, Cannes, Freiburg, Basel, Interlaken (for the free Ketchup packets at McDonald’s…not kidding), Venice, Milan and nearly every small town in Alsace… Her love of exploration and my love of driving were a pretty unbeatable combo. And when we weren’t driving, we were hiking in the Black Forest. I don’t think there’s a path in the Kandern area that hasn’t seen our plodding and heard our retelling of life’s majorest and minorest events. During my last year in Germany, she found us a quaint chalet in Switzerland and dragged me up the steepest mountainside for the view and Ovomaltine at the top. She nearly lost me in the first quarter of the hike. I would have so gladly turned back, as my calves were begging me to do. But she kept on prodding me along. She was the best of prodders. Oh, and the view from the top…
Mari Ellen and I were inseparable at BFA. Every banquet, every concert, every staff conference… Where one was, the other was too, most of the time. We loved the Colmar Christmas market, The West Wing and Funf Shilling’s mixed salad. (Her last card to me reads in part: “I miss our rides across the countryside to Funf Shilling. I miss laughing with you!”) She laughed at my rough German and I laughed at her slow processing. Every phone call was followed by her patented “second call”—a callback to deal with the items she’d forgotten to discuss before hanging up the first time.
Most of all, Mari Ellen loved people. She loved the students of BFA in a life-defining way. There was no pain so deep that she wouldn’t dive in with them to listen and comfort. Counseling was a calling she received later in life, one so strong that she left BFA for two years to immerse herself in studies, returning to the school emboldened by the knowledge she’d acquired and committed to making a difference in every way she could. A safe and healing place. I saw her begin to advocate for others in a way she never had before, her dedication to the hurting surpassing her fear of conflict. She was courageous and relentless in her defense of the voiceless. On more than one occasion, I was one of those.
When I decided to leave BFA in 2010, she started her grieving process early. Those last few months for her were the embodiment of one of my favorite quotes: “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” She did plenty of both, and my imminent departure fueled a heightened understanding of the “limitedness” of time. (She’d like that word…)
MKs aren’t supposed to have long-lasting friendships. Our world spins too fast for anyone to hang on for long. But Mari Ellen and I had 20 years. That’s an astounding number on Planet MK. I’m grateful for so much more than the time we had. I’m grateful for the steadfastness of her love and the authenticity of her spirit.
A couple years back, she sat on my couch in tears, telling me about something that was painful to her. In typical “me” fashion, I started to enumerate steps she could take to resolve the problem. She looked at me and said, “I’m not ready for that yet. Can’t I just be sad for a while?” I must admit that I didn’t understand that statement then. I’m coming closer to doing so today.
In recent years, Mari Ellen had started talking about Jesus a lot more. Not God. Not “the Lord.” Jesus. She savored that name. It’s as if her faith had taken a more intimate turn, a more personal meaning. She loved Him—she loveS Him—so much. He was the central motivation and direction of her life. You couldn’t know her without hearing about Him.
I’m so glad I sent flowers to her hospital last week. I’m so glad she received my package of zebra-print socks and a book she told me we’d discuss when I called her on Easter evening. I’m so glad we were able to have one final conversation before she entered the hospital for what was supposed to be a fairly routine hip-replacement surgery. I’m sorry our call got interrupted by her doorbell before I was able to pray for her… Who could have foreseen the embolism that ended her life? Most of all, I’m thrilled that she got to spend Easter with her resurrected Jesus in her own resurrected body, free of pain and unhobbled by the burdens of life.
As I’ve muddled through the grief today and tried to commit to memory the myriad images of 20 years in my mind, I’ve had to pause and consider how I can live to honor the lessons she taught me by living alongside me. It’s simple, really:
- Care for the helpless.
- Have faith for the hopeless
- Love without reservation
- Laugh with abandon
- And say the name of Jesus as often and fervently as you can
“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” The tears are flowing. And I can hear her laughter through them.
[More pictures and a video of my eulogy below.]