I am taking a class this semester called "Death and Dying". Both appropriate and challenging, considering I have lost both grandfathers during the course of the semester. The major assignment of the course was to write our own eulogy. I struggled. I started. I deleted. I considered taking the easy way out and writing a short, sweet and vanilla homage to myself. I finally waited until I had something to say, and as they usually do, the words came.
Eulogy for Katie Hall Smith
Katie was a person who deeply valued family, friends, loyalty, and love. She admired those who were not afraid to stand up for their beliefs. She honored education and the Arts. She reveled in her children and dedicated herself to them. She held tightly to her faith, even when it was challenged. Most anyone who knew Katie at all, knew these things about her.
If you are here today, it stands to reason that you probably know the high points of Katie's life...her talents, accomplishments, strengths, and even weaknesses. Any of you likely could have given the first few lines of this eulogy.
Wouldn't it be interesting to not talk about the glowing things everyone already knows at a funeral? Wouldn't it be refreshing to learn, even at this time, some things you might not have known about Katie? Recently she was on a journey...a journey to understanding herself and her world. A quest to peel away the layers of obvious...to pare down the soul and spirit to the original, the organic...the truth. I believe we owe it to her today to do the same as we remember her.
Did you know that as a child, Katie spent an entire summer licking S&H Green Stamps with her Great Grandmother while watching Another World? She didn't particularly like soap operas (a preference that followed her to the end of her life) and she certainly didn't particularly enjoy licking hundreds of stamps and putting them in little books. What motivated her to ride her bike across Gilliam day after day was the reward of hours of time spent in the presence of two of the people she loved most, and who made her feel connected to something greater than herself, her Grandmere and MeMe. The french language, strong coffee in little cups and stories of people she only knew from photographs lit a fire at a young age; fueled a desire to connect and identify with the side of her that came over from Acadia on a boat so many generations ago. This fascination and identification led her, 15 years later , across the ocean to West Africa to learn the language of her grandmothers...of the LeBlancs and Pellissiers and Begnauds. Even though she heard the language in a different accent, on a different continent and among people far removed from the Acadians, she knew she was stitching up a hole in her history; she was closing a language barrier that began with her father and will hopefully not end with her children. Her connection to her history, through her love and admiration of her grandmothers, led her to read and re-read the story of her people and give her daughter a name to grow into: Evangeline.
Speaking of Africa....how on earth does a little white girl from a small, private, liberal arts college end up studying on the dark continent? Katie did not come from a long line of people who spent their Junior year abroad in exotic locales. She did not necessarily come from a family that spent a lot of time considering other cultures and ways of life. She did, however, come from a family who valued her...her spirit of adventure, her unpredictability and her courage. When Katie was given the opportunity to apply for a grant to study in Africa, her mother probably knew she would do it. She knew enough to know that Katie would likely accomplish what she set her mind to. She also knew that if Katie were to make it to Senegal, it would no be through any effort on her part! Carole remembers the day she learned of her daughter's desire to spend a year in Africa: “I told her I loved her, I supported her and I would be very proud of her. But I absolutely was not going to help her get there. I would not type a form...I would not mail it off. I would not finance this dream at all. I couldn't. It had to be her decision, her effort and her choice. I knew that if, God forbid, something happened to her over there, I wanted no responsibility in it. I knew she would do it. And she did.” Katie came home a year later transformed. She literally became a different, deeper, better version of herself that year. A little part of her heart always remained in West Africa. She never underestimated the evolution of her character that happened that year. It set the stage for the last 15 years of her life.
Did you know that Katie never passed a beggar, homeless person or panhandler without giving them something? A dollar, five dollars, a package of crackers, a taco out of her combo meal....She had seen poverty. She knew it up close. She never again took for granted the blessings of shelter, clothing and food. She became extremely frugal. She shopped at Goodwill and bought on sale. Before she went to Africa, she had credit cards to every major department store in the mall. In the last fifteen years of her life, she likely set foot in a mall 2-3 times per year instead of 2-3 times per week. This year, leaving the Festival Plaza in Shreveport, pulling her children in a wagon, they passed a homeless man in a doorway, leaned over his sack of collected aluminum cans. Katie stopped the wagon in front of this man and emptied her bag of every last snack and juice box she had packed for the kids. She gave him a blessing and the food and took two bewildered toddlers back to the car. Evangeline was crying for her juice box. Harrisen was asking questions about why the man was dirty and why Mommy had given their snacks to him. Her children have been deprived of so many lessons in the future by losing their mother so young, but when you see them today, ask them what you should do if you see a hungry, poor, dirty man on the street and you have a bag full of snacks. They know.
They also know about God. Katie had a prie dieu in her bedroom, with icons of the Blessed Virgin and Christ. Though she was devoutly Catholic, and knew by heart most of the prayers in her prayer book, she taught her children that God, Jesus and Mary were there to talk to in their words, in their time. The kids would stand on the kneeler, look up at the icons, and say, “Hi Jesus. Hi Mary. I love you. Amen.” They are well on their way to a spiritual life as deeply rooted in action as their mother's.
Did you know that Katie once took a $25,000-a-year pay cut to go to work for the Church? She did. She was working in sales for a major network television affiliate (a career that never suited her) and left it to pursue a career raising money for the Catholic Church in Northwest Louisiana. She was fond of saying, “I got sick of waking up each morning for the sole purpose of raising money for fat guys on a golf course in Alabama.” So, she devoted the next decade to raising money for things that mattered: the hungry, the poor, the unborn, the men who wanted to be priests...things she cared deeply about. Working for the church, she was known to say, was like, “pulling back the green velvet curtain and seeing the wizard pulling all the levers...” This intimate relationship with the Catholic Church led her into a deeper understanding of her faith and a mature relationship with God. It forced both an acceptance and a healthy criticism of something so close to her. It was a time in her life that she treasured and was extremely proud of.
Did you know that Katie was a handyman? She hated depending on anyone to hang, move, repair, paint, wire or plumb anything. She couldn't always do the job totally by herself, but she always tried. Her independent streak and self sufficiency were qualities in herself that she truly valued, and she was tireless in her work. She was goal-oriented and would not stop until she collapsed or finished. She helped her father lay a floor in her kitchen a week before she was due to deliver Harrisen. She rolled around like a bowling ball on that floor until it was complete. Nobody ever had as much energy as she did when there was a deadline to meet. A goal was a challenge and she never backed down.
It's no great secret that Katie Smith was smart. However, I'll bet not many of you knew that Katie was a geek. She was. The trendy clothes and put-together look, as well as her ability to truly work the room at a party, belied the fact that she was a book junkie, a constant learner, and a delver into the things of the mind. She visited the library more times that she liked to admit and called it alternately her “cave” and “sanctuary”. Katie read non-fiction for fun. She took senior-level Literary Criticism at Centenary as an elective. She valued her few friendships where she could open up that part of herself and share her thoughts and intellect with those who both understood it and appreciated it. It was a pretty private side of her life, and a quiet one...but it was extremely important to her. Any of you know about iTunes university? Katie did. Look it up.
On the outside, Katie was passionate, dramatic, and often emotional and impulsive. What her closest friends and family know is that Katie could also be extremely rational. She was an excellent listener and friends relied on her to tell them the truth...not what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. Her advice was often sought, and was always tempered with love and compassion. Katie was known to the world as a talker: someone who always had a lot to say, lots of it funny, much of it over the top, and sometimes exaggerated for effect! But when her phone rang, as it often did, with friends or family in crisis, the performance stopped and the talk quieted. She listened...thought...and then chose words carefully and sparingly. In these times, she was able to say much with few words. Those closest to her will tell you that Katie was one to love despite people's shortcomings, trust despite being burned, and look for the good in people, sometimes to her own detriment. Her ability to be compassionate in the face of pain led just about everyone who knew her to agree she would have been uniquely successful in her latest endeavor, nursing. She liked to say, “It only took me 36 years to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up!” Many people who heard she had gone back to school to become a nurse had an immediate reaction of shock, which was quickly replaced by a knowing smile and nod...that, yes, it indeed made a world of sense.
In the last two years of her life, Katie was experiencing a Renaissance. She was shedding painful parts of herself and her world that had kept her from experiencing the fullness of life she desired and deserved. She was searching and working daily to achieve peace and truth in her life. She was setting goals and attacking them in her typical unrelenting fashion. Some may say she died at the most inopportune time... in the middle of her journey. However, I believe she died in a very appropriate time: a time of pruning...and we all know what happens after pruning. We flower and grow and bear fruit beyond all measure. May the memory of Katie continue to bear fruit in the lives of those who loved her.
I encourage all my friends to do this assignment. If not on paper, in your head. It was a very clarifying experience for me. I think I shall live better to truly live up to it.