Dec 25, 1958 – June 5, 2015
56 years were not nearly enough
Good evening and welcome.
To those of you whom I have not yet met, I am Michael’s daughter, Jess, or, as both he and Noelle have always called me, Jessie. Although I am not in the least surprised to see so many of you here today to honor Noe, I am filled with gratitude by your presence. Just as we all have been these last three years.
So many of you have, and continue to be, so incredibly generous with your time and your hearts for Noelle and Michael. When I’ve tried to thank you, you’ve made it so clear that nothing you could do could come close to what Noelle did for – and was to – you.
When my dad asked me to speak today, I was daunted by the task. Especially because he said, “Jessie, I need you to write the best eulogy that’s ever been written for my girl.” So, ya know, no pressure. “I need you to speak my heart,” he said.
The truth is that it’s an impossible task. There are no words that could stand a chance of conveying what Noelle meant to us, how we feel in the wake of her devastating loss, how she touched our lives and the effect that she will continue to have — will always have — on the world she leaves behind.
And as much as we want this to be a celebration of her life, and I assure you, it will be, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge our anger. Our anger that she was taken so young, so soon, that she and Michael and all of us were so perniciously cheated out of more time with this delicious human being who meant so much to all of us.
I think it’s ok to be angry. It’s natural. It’s human. How can we not be angry? Angry at the travesty of illness, the fundamental unfairness when one so young, who has lived life so well, so virtuously, so healthfully, so lovingly, is struck down? It is nearly, no, it is simply, too much to bear.
We comfort ourselves with the idea that it’s all (whatever it is that we cannot understand) part of some greater scheme that we are too small, too meek, too human to fathom. But then we find ourselves asking, “Does it not then stand to reason that the schemer is unthinkably cruel?”
I asked Noelle about God. Not asked, perhaps, but opened a door to the conversation. She told me that she believed that God is a vast collection of spirits. It was – is – an overwhelmingly beautiful and comforting thought.
As I chewed on the idea over the following days, I thought of Christmas. Of the crossroads that we reach when our children ask if Santa Claus is real and we tell them, yes, my loves, he is, but he is made real by all of us. And now that you know the secret, you get to be part of making the magic for those who have not yet crossed over the same threshold. You receive the magic until it’s time to BE the magic.
What if God’s magic, his omnipresence and his power, are made real by US? By an ethereal web of souls who have passed over to the other side of God – who have learned the secret. What if each of us, once departed, finds one another and, in so doing, becomes part of God?
My dear friend and sage, Barb Rentenbach once wrote,
“People are flecks of God. Each God fragment dispersed through space-time has a slightly different shape. One shape is not superior to another. All are necessary to complete the perfect, infinite, God puzzle. To be proud that one “tolerates”diversity is ludicrous. The whole system is the sum of its parts. Be your part. Connect with other parts and the God puzzle is revealed.”
Is that not the God that Noelle described?
We pull at the threads and cling to the contradictions, bigger and smaller than anything of which we can make sense. We trust that God’s chest is broad enough to absorb the blows of our fists, his arms strong enough to fold us into his embrace no matter how far we go in screaming our angst to the heavens, to him.
I recently dug up my tattered copy of an old book called Mister God, This is Anna. In it, I found the following passage. I have clung to it for dear life these last few days.
Her inner fires had refined her ideas, and like some alchemist she had turned lead into gold. Gone were all the human definitions of God, like Goodness, Mercy, Love, and Justice, for these were merely props to describe the indescribable.
“You see, Fynn, Mister God is different because he can finish things and we can’t. I can’t finish loving you because I shall be dead millions of years before I can finish, but Mister God can finish loving you, and so it’s not the same kind of love, is it?”
That’s it, isn’t it? We hadn’t finished loving her yet. We feel cheated and angry and powerless because we didn’t get to finish loving her.
But we never could finish, could we? No amount of earthly time with our beloved Noelle ever would have been enough, would it? It couldn’t be.
In another recent conversation, Noelle and I talked about time. I told her that I firmly believe time to be no more than a human construct with which those of us still tethered to our bodies and all of our earthly worries are preoccupied.
She took great solace in the thought that once she was no longer tied to her body, time, for her, would cease to exist.
So while those of us who so deeply grieve her passing might feel it an eternity, it will, to her, be no more than the blink of an eye until we are reunited. Just as she found solace in that thought, I hope that we can too. That as hard as it will be to live a life that will forever have a Noelle shaped hole in it, she will not experience a moment without us. That she is now, just as she was here, surrounded by boundless love and infinite care.
And so it is that with these thoughts, with the memories and stories of what we know she viscerally believed to be true, the anger gives way to something else. Not quite understanding, perhaps, but faith that it may someday come.
And so we set aside the anger and the unbearable pain of loss and we allow ourselves to revel in the gift that was Noelle’s life.
The beauty and care, the grace, gentility and poise that were her hallmarks. And the unexpected mischief and ribald sense of humor that snuck out when no one was looking – or perhaps better said, when only the right people were looking.
As many of you know, I am extraordinarily close to my dad. And what that meant was that I loved Noelle. Because anyone in my dad’s life knew that Noelle was his world.
To love him, well, it was a package deal, you loved her too. And never, not for a single moment in the last nearly thirty years, was loving Noelle an obligation to me nor anyone in my family. It was simply what anyone who came into contact with her did. It was impossible to know her and not adore her.
Noelle was the epitome of class. She was quiet, understated, and elegant, her bearing nothing short of regal. Everything was always, as my dad would say with a smile, “just so.” She was enviably, hell almost infuriatingly, unruffled no matter what was churning below the surface.
She was, as the Mah Jong ladies liked to tease, always perfectly pressed. Even in her last days, her outfits were coordinated and, defying not only reason but the laws of physics, unwrinkled.
But what was so much fun about Noelle was the seeming contradiction that underneath this nearly regal countenance was a wholly unexpected sense of mischief.
The first time I saw it was when she and I went to a concert together many years ago. When we got to our seats, we looked at each other and said, “Well these suck,”
She looked around and said the last thing on earth I expected to hear. “Okay, we’ve got a security guard at your 4:00 and another at my 11. Start walking. If 4:00 stops you, duck into a row and I’ll distract him.”
We wound our way from the nosebleeds to the front row, from where we watched the entire show. I still have the guitar pick that Toby Keith tossed to me with his signature smirk. That was Noelle.
There wasn’t a lot that she couldn’t do or hadn’t actually done at some point in her life. She sold boats, copy machines, phones, did Christmas sales at Macy’s.
By the time she met my dad, she was working at Sportset and wiping the floor with anyone who challenged her on the racquetball court, most notably the men. He loves to tell the story of how they met there. How when he saw her for the first time, he declared her the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen.
How he’d chatted with her and her friend, Liz, then asked for her number. How she’d said, “I don’t think so.” How, when he’d later asked why not, she’d said, “You looked too hungry.” How grateful he was that she was persuaded otherwise.
While that’s his story, the one that I remember was him coming home and gleefully telling me about the woman who’d beat the snot out of him on the racquetball court. I knew it was love.
The two of them had something that defied description. I want so badly to do it justice, to wrangle it onto words and deliver it to you in some way that makes it plain, but the truth is that no words can possibly be big enough, broad enough, deep enough to convey what they had.
Their love for each other was a rare and precious gift, the breadth and depth of which, while never in question, was never clearer than over these last three years. His care for her was meticulous, his oversight fastidious.
There was no aspect of her care in which he did not participate, regulate, oversee. Nothing was more important to him than maintaining his beautiful bride’s dignity throughout a process in which it could so easily have been compromised. Thanks to him, it never was.
He grew to love the things she loved – to care for their dogs, Flash and Gordon as if they were his babies. To love her horses, first Cayuse and then Jasper, as if they were his own. All because he loved HER. Because their lives were, as he described them, interwoven like a beautiful Persian rug.
He loved nothing more than doting on her. Than hunting down the perfect bauble, the most elegant clothing, the most ornate, beautiful traditional furniture and objects of interest and art. He’d hide them around the house for her to find, love notes attached to each and every one. For Nothing Day, he said, so that every day could be a holiday. Since her passing, he’s been finding those notes, quietly tucked away among her most cherished possessions.
And in all of that time together, she never asked for anything, not once, but instead she quietly and genuinely appreciated everything that was given to her or shared with her.
When I asked my dad to describe their love he said simply, “Never has a human being been loved so well, so completely, so beautifully, so infinitely.”
Noelle cherished the simple pleasures shared with him by her side – their long walks in the woods and their endless ambles on the beach, their quiet time with the dogs on their heavenly back patio.
She took great pride in the fact that she had a husband who cooked her meals, maintained their house, who loved her as wholly, as completely, as deeply, as she loved him.
While she was still working at the racquet club, she told Michael that she wanted to put her geology degree to work. They put their heads together and two weeks later, she was working as a field geologist. But even then, she knew that something else was calling her.
While still working in the field, she began to go to school at night. She became certified and, 25 years ago, became a science teacher. She started in the high school, but it was middle schoolers who stole her heart.
She loved going to work each day. She adored Mark across the hall who started her days with opera and Ethel Merman and, well, their own special, if not really appropriate for mixed company, greeting in the morning.
She was the consummate professional, one that no one would ever have suspected of, well .. So let’s just say that there was a small mercury spill in the science lab one day. And since the school was focused on nothing more than the safety of the students, it was treated quite seriously. And let’s just say that someone, we can’t possibly fathom who, decided to lighten things up a little and had a kid lie on the floor so that she could trace a chalk outline around him that would sit halfway in the office and halfway in the hallway. And, well, let’s just say that when she was finally ask, “Why would you do that?” she said, “Because it was funny.”
Or the time that she punked Mark ahead of the district’s evaluations by mounting a fake security camera in his room, red recording light and all, leading him to believe for days that his every move was being watched. Word has it he held a grudge.
Shenanigans aside, she excelled in the classroom. She became a team leader. She loved the work and thrived on the interaction not just with her students, but their parents as well. She liked the challenge of meeting parents who were used to saying no, not being told no. A skill, my dad likes to say, that she honed for 30 years with him.
And no matter what, no matter how frustrating an interaction may have been, she never spoke ill of any of them, nor anyone else for that matter. After a tirade, she’d famously say, “Yes, and your point is?”
From the time she was a kid, her hands made art. From embroidered clothing to painted silk to hand beaded Western buckskin. And of course, there were the hand-decorated thongs that she made for the Fandango with her friends. You know, the ones they all donned – outside their clothes – and wore for the entirety of the party.
Later, she took those magic hands to the kitchen, where she baked and meticulously decorated not just treats but architectural wonders made of flower, sugar and love. She’d buzz around the dream of a kitchen that Michael had designed specifically for that purpose.
She’d sing and hum and fill it with the essence of joy, the essence of Noelle. And her purpose for all these delights? To give them away.
How many of us received the art of her kitchen, of her heart? The elaborate cakes with spun sugar flowers, lovingly fashioned petal by petal for those she loved. The cake pops, the cookies, the love.
She loved animals. All animals. When we first met, I took to calling her Dr Doolittle because I swore she could talk to them. She adored her beloved Appaloosa Cayuse, her gorgeous Fresian, Jasper, and of course, their Havanese fur babies, Flash and Gordon, who saw their mama through some of the darkest days.
Mammoth animals walked around her like little puppies. The horses would ever so gently set their noses into her shoulder blades or rest their muzzles on her shoulder as she talked. She could make Jasper dance with just her fingertips in the saddle. As soon as she approached the gate he’d whinny so loudly I swear we could hear him in Boston.
But above all, it was you, all of you, she loved the most.
Her friends from the barn, her colleagues, her Mah Jong Ladies, her family. She came home to Michael with your stories, your children’s stories, your trials, your joys. They became hers. Even in the end, when people came to visit and she could barely speak, she’d ask, “Did your daughter get that internship? Is your mom feeling better?” She cared so deeply about those she loved, and who loved her so much in return.
All of her colleagues, who were so very much more, her principal, Jack Palmadesso, her superintendent, Dan Brenner, the entire board of education, all of whom gave her everything she needed and more so that her first love, the kids, would have what THEY needed. And Eleanor Russell who was so incredibly helpful and supportive at the time that both Noelle and Michael needed it most.
Annette, for whose sacred promise to continue her loving care for Noelle’s beloved Jasper gave her such comfort as her days grew short.
Nancy and Wayne. Nancy, who cared for the boys for months on end knowing how important they were to Noelle, getting up at 5am and then coming back to cover doctors, to run errands, to sit and share a smile. You were, are, our angel.
Noelle’s sister, Tracy, who dropped everything for her sister when she needed her. Who came in with a magical elixir of sisterhood – memories of childhood hijinks, of that delicious cocktail of sisterly rivalry and intense sibling love. Who cared for her so gently, so tenderly, so perfectly.
My girls, Katie and Brooke, who loved their Grandma Noe so much and who were so fiercely loved in return.
I asked the girls if there were any favorite memories they wanted to share. For Katie, it was their trips to the art store and the sweet shop – the two places that Grandma Noe would take her every time she visited because she knew they were her absolute favorites. When I asked Brooke, she answered with one word: Everything.
For years, I have said that even in the darkest night, there is light if you look hard enough.
Early in this horrific process, I decided that I’d been full of crap. That my view of the world had been naive and my optimism quaint. But now, even in the center of this horrific storm, I can say that I had been right.
The endless parade of people who came through the house to tell Noelle how much they loved her.
The grace, elegance, humor, generosity, and love with which she received them despite the Herculean effort that she’d never let them know it took to do so.
The dignity and poise with which she walked this road. The pure, unfiltered intimacy born of walking it with her, for as long as we could.
The laughter – the moments in which the memories bubbled up and overflowed and the stories of her delicious mischief and joy filled the room and her beautiful face lit up and the Hard, God, the HARD, was coated, eased, lightened as the laughter lingered.
The middle of the night when she stirred and my dad immediately materialized by her side and said, “I’m here, my love. I’m right here.” The tremendous comfort she took in his presence.
The gratitude – so many people thanking her for making their world better and brighter, funnier, more beautiful.
Above all, the love. The moment when, in the depths of grief, at the epicenter of this unimaginable pain, my father hugged his granddaughters and, through his tears, said, “I wish for you a love like this.”
Yes, even in the darkest night, there is light … if you look hard enough.
And so it is that even as we grieve, we ask you to celebrate with us. To bathe in the light that was this incredible lady. To rejoice in the indelible memories we made with her, the ways in which she so deeply and fully impacted each of our lives, and, as we leave today, to carry with us not the darkness of our pain, but the light that was Noelle.
Thank you so very much.