I've been saying good-bye to a lot of things lately. Tomorrow my family and I take off for a new home and a new life a few thousand miles from where we've been living for the last four and a half years, and the good-byes have been multiplying as time has grown short.
But I have another good-bye to say, one I knew was coming, but one that hit me hard nonetheless. My beloved grandma Jeanne passed away yesterday. I don't know the details yet, but the details don't matter. Jeanne had been sick for a very long time, so I am happy that her suffering is over. I am also grieved, deeply grieved, and today I hope to be able to express why.
I have known Jeanne all my life. I called her Jeanne even as a kid, for the term "grandma" made her feel old. I was one of dozens of grandchildren in a very large extended family. It wasn't until I was fifteen, though, that I really "knew" Jeanne. I spent two weeks that summer with the Three Musketeers--Jeanne, Aunt Sue, and Aunt Leilali--and I believe that was the first time I felt unconditionally loved. Certainly, my older sister had always made it clear that she thought I was great, and even then we were close, but I was a shy child, and it was all too easy to be overlooked and ignored. I didn't really think I was much of anything. My little light burned inside me, but I couldn't really see it.
Jeanne--and my two aunts--saw my light from the moment I walked in the door. I wasn't just a teenager, or just a granddaughter or niece. I was a beautiful little candle, barely lit, but shining out just the same. Jeanne focused on that little light of mine and did all she could to encourage it. She bought me my first pair of glasses when she realized I was pretty much blind. She spent that week telling me how beautiful I looked with glasses. And I felt beautiful, perhaps more beautiful than I ever had before.
Another year she bought me fabric on Mother's Day, telling me, "Every girl should get a Mother's Day present. You'll be a mother some day." And she was right, for I did become a mother. She told me stories, encouraged me, listened to me, watched movies with me, and gave her smile to me over and over. She'd had a hard childhood--far harder than mine--but she smiled every day, and when she smiled the whole world lit up, warm and comforting and encouraging.
I visited Jeanne's house every summer for six years, and my flame grew and grew, glowing brighter with each year, with each word of encouragement. I held onto that flame through the rest of the year, as I hold onto it now, and I have learned to let it shine on my own. Now that she is gone, I know I can keep my flame alive, that I can be strong, that I will do well even if she is not here to encourage me.
But that is precisely why I grieve. Jeanne helped me so much, but I know there are so many out who need a Jeanne of their own--someone to make it clear they are loved and supported, someone to help their flame grow--and she cannot help them anymore.
And so the candle is passed. I have learned from a master, and it's time for me to take up the task in earnest. My two children need the same unconditional love from me, every single day. My students need it, too, as do my friends. The girl who bought my minivan yesterday needs it, so that she can complete her GED and support her three young children. My neighbors need it as they raise kids, work, and pursue their own goals. My new town will need it, so it's my job to keep my candle lit and use it to encourage the lights around me to glow as brightly as they can.
I can't promise to do it well. I've already made some huge mistakes. But it's my job, my task, and I am grateful that I had Jeanne to show me how it's done. Jeanne, the light of your candle will never die, for it lives in me now, as it does in every person you have touched.
I will love you forever.