(My friend Jane died last week. Her family asked me to give the eulogy at today's funeral. Here's what I said...)
My name is Aron Head and it is my great honor to speak to you today about my friend, Jane Clevenger.
Jane and I met almost fifteen years ago while we were both working for the Texas Department of Human Services. I was a case worker and she was our unit’s administrative assistant. I quickly learned that Jane was good company.
We became friends.
She made peach brandy. I pickled peppers. We traded goods. All the time.
Best brandy ever. I actually used to keep a bottle of it in my desk drawer at work. You know, for medicinal purposes. To prevent scurvy, you know. I’m sure I had a doctor’s note. Somewhere.
As the years went by, Jane would always mention the peppers. Like a crack addict, she would start our conversations with, “Got any peppers? Can you score me a jar?!?”
We talked about movies – both of us sharing an abiding love for Star Wars. I dubbed her Obi Jane Kenobi. She was after all my Jedi Master and I was her young apprentice padawan. From that day forward she would sign memos, notes, and cards to me simply as “Obi.”
Jane didn’t care for most of the music I listen to. If I was rocking out to Oingo Boingo, she’d ask me to turn it down. If The Talking Heads were on the radio, she’d ask me to turn it off. But one day, I was listening to Tom Jones. She stopped, tilted her head, and Smiled.
“You can turn that up,” She said.
We shared an appreciation for Mr. Jones. On particularly rough days at the office, I’d play that CD just for her.
Jane was encouraging. She always had more confidence in me than I did in myself. She prompted me to apply for promotions even when I wasn’t sure I was qualified for them. But she was sure. She was my biggest fan. Through her encouragement I eventually moved from being a case worker to a unit supervisor. And as a supervisor, I was fortunate enough to have Jane work on my team.
Jane was the kind of employee a supervisor loves. You always knew that when you provided an assignment to her that it would be done right and on time. An even more valuable tool in her kit, was Jane’s ability to identify problems before they matured to full blown catastrophes. She was very much the canary in the coal mine, the first to warn of trouble.
If you read any of the performance evaluations I wrote about Jane, you’d see clearly in official State documents that Jane hung the moon.
Jane was one of the most nurturing and supportive people I’ve known.
I remember this just like it was yesterday. About seven years ago, my mother was sick and hospitalized. I had just taken a call from my mother’s doctor who told me that he didn’t believe mom would ever come out of the hospital.
Now, Jane’s desk was right outside my door. She was in my office before I had even cradled the phone. She saw how shaken, how scared and how hopeless I was. She walked straight to me and wrapped her arms around me. We weren’t huggy, touchy friends, but yet it was the most natural thing to be held by Jane – and I cried. Not silent manly tears, but great, big, racking salty sobs.
She said nothing.
Jane was just… there.
She provided the infusion of strength I so desperately needed to bolster me along the way. Jane’s certainty and her encouragement helped me make appropriate decisions and do those things that had to be done.
In many ways, Jane was a second mother to me. Like a mother she was loving and supportive – and like a mother she could be witheringly critical when I wasn’t measuring up.
For instance, she would make very clear to me that she did not care for when my hair got too long. If it started to curl a little behind my ears, Jane would make comment. It was not unusual for her to offer to braid it. Or suggest a pony tail. Or perhaps some kind of hair clip.
I began to think that Jane saw me as one of her daughters.
I’d like to point out that I got my haircut this week. Just for you, Jane.
When I really goofed up, Jane would come into my office and close the door. I always knew it was gonna be bad when she shut the door. She’d say, “Got a minute?” And a half hour later she’d still be telling me what I needed to do to right my wrongs.
Like a mother, she reserved the right to approve or reject my girlfriends. I can’t begin to tell you how many times after I told Jane about a woman I was seeing that she’d shake her head, “Huh-uh. No. I don’t think so.”
Let me tell you, you break up with a woman – they do not want to hear that the reason is because your Administrative Assistant does not approve.
I am pleased to report that Suzanne, my wife of more than six years now, bears the Jane Clevenger seal of approval. Jane liked Suzanne right away -- and even before things had turned serious between Suzanne and me, Jane said: “She’s the one.”
And she was right.
After eight years of service, I moved on from State employment – Jane urging me along all the way. Jane changed positions as well. She promoted from her role as Administrative Assistant to become a case worker. She excelled in this position, providing quality and accurate casework for her clients. She was proud of her achievements. Whenever I spoke with her she would reference her multiple Quality Control awards.
So it is that I have been blessed in this life with two mothers.
And now, Jane is gone.
My father died several years ago. My brother and I stood beside his bed as he passed. Much as Jane’s family stood beside hers, I imagine. I remember thinking, “He’ll never tell me another story. I’ll never again hear him laugh. There will be no more beer and cigars on the backporch. We will never talk again.”
I cannot begin to tell you how wrong I was. Within weeks of Dad’s funeral our conversation continued. It was subtle at first. Every now and again, I would have a sense of him. It became clear that he was with me, though, on an outing with my brother.
My brother and I went out on our first hunt together after Dad died. And after a day of shooting absolutely nothing, but polishing off a cooler of beer, puffing cigars and telling stories on Dad with his old hunting buddies, I turned to my brother and said: “Dad would have liked this.”
My brother nodded, “Yeah… He would.”
He was there with us that day.
In the pasture… Under the Mesquite trees, Dad was there. I could hear his laughter.
We talk all the time now, Dad and I. He’s constantly telling me what he thinks about what I am doing. And what I am not doing enough of. He still complains that I am beer snob.
Dad was proud of me in life. And that continues now, I know.
I tell you this, because another voice has been added to the chorus. Jane has been with me all week.
Like my father’s voice, I hear hers clear as a bell. She’s been looking over my shoulder as I pulled this together – laughing, crying – and exclaiming: “Good God, Don’t tell them about that!!”
Popular wisdom tells us that people are never gone if we remember them.
I am not a wise man gifted with great wisdom or foresight. I mean I’m the same guy who in 1984 declared that this Madonna person was a flash in the pan, a one hit wonder. This Cindy Lauper, though – she’s going places.
So I am not a wise man, but I tell you what I do know. Our loved ones are never gone as long as we talk to them. Jane is with us today as she was with us through her life – loving, supportive, encouraging, and yes – even a little bit critical.
Hers was an honest soul, and honest she remains.
I was fortunate enough to visit with Jane a few weeks before she died. She knew what was coming – she told me. And she accepted it with such an amazing sense of peace. As we talked she told me how much she loved her husband, Charles, and her daughters Zan, Mara, and Gianna. And she bragged on her grandkids: Amanda, Jana, Anthony and Jenny. This was no big surprise, sense she spoke often of her family to me.
She was proud of and loved each of you.
She still does.
To paraphrase Tom Jones, it is not unusual to be loved by anyone. Nor is it particularly unusual to have fun with anyone.
Jane’s love for us was unusual in the sense of how deep and wonderful it was. Jane herself was also unique.
They do not make ladies like that anymore.
I know that beyond talking to Jane now, I will one day see her again. I imagine that she’ll meet me up there in Heaven right outside the Pearly Gates and I know what she’ll say.
She’ll walk right up to me and ask, “Got any peppers? Can you score me a jar?!?!”