Only about ten people knew it was my wedding day. Noel and I decided on a surprise wedding before we even got engaged. After being a total bitchy basket case the first go-around, I was on the lookout for the best way to do things better. How do I make sure that we have the experience we want without feeling pressure to do things a certain way? The idea of eloping didn’t appeal to us. Having the people we love around was too important. A few days after Noel’s dad was hospitalized, I pitched the idea and held my breath. “I love the way your mind works,” he said, and then went to sleep. Over the next few days we talked more about how this would work. How do we get people there if they don’t know it’s a wedding? What are the things that are important to us? Can we afford to do this in less than three months? Is it even possible to find a venue?
A few weeks later we were officially engaged and sprung into action planning our wedding and our strategy for keeping the whole thing secret. Ten weeks goes by quickly so we didn’t have a lot of time to be engaged, which was just fine with me. The business of getting married, thinking about finances, working out logistics, running all the errands people typically have months to do…all crammed into ten weeks. All the while, Noel’s dad’s illness was progressing and each week was a reminder of how uncertain we all were about how much time he had left. One thing I hadn’t considered when I convinced Noel to do a surprise wedding was that when no one knows, there is no one to offload things on. The time was stressful to be sure. It didn’t help that things were tense with my sister. She was going through some tough stuff and despite living with us, there was more distance between us than we’d ever had as adults.
The morning of our wedding Noel and I woke up together on the futon serving as our bed. He went off to start wedding day tasks. I headed to yoga. On the way out the door I hastily texted my sister (who was in on the wedding secret of course) “I’d really like some berries and some eggs when I get home please. Can you help me out with that?” “Yeah,” she said apathetically. Great, the one request I have as a bride and I’m going to end up doing that too, I thought.
As I put on my jacket and socks after the yoga class, I checked my phone. “Look at this dress I got just for your party” one friend had texted with a picture of a full length sequined gown. “So excited to see you tonight” said another friend. I drove the five minutes home on the verge of tears. I walked into the house and there on the table was my bathrobe folded next to a plate of meticulously arranged berries, a giant toy diamond ring sat on top of the robe. I just burst into tears. The most genuine and grateful tears of my whole life. All of these people, doing things for me because they cared, on a day they didn’t even know was my wedding day.
Summer 2015, I was in Minneapolis for the weekend. I visited a UU church and to this day the sermon is the most memorable I’ve ever heard. The topic: joy. Specifically what makes joy different than happiness. “Joy,” the minister said, “is a visceral spiritual reaction to deep connection.” Happiness can be experienced in isolation. It is in the mind. If we were on a desert island with a funny movie we could be happy. Joy is only possible through connection. It is felt in the gut and soul. Happiness interrupts pain, but joy encompasses it. “Joy is grief turned inside out,” she went on. Think of that feeling you get when you look at a person you love so much and simultaneously think about the pain of losing them. Softening to create the connection that forms joy ultimately means the grief of deep loss when that connection comes to an end for whatever reason. But the depth and experience of joy makes it worth the difficulty of losing it.
I am in a discussion group at church. The group is intended to foster deep listening and sharing about spiritual topics. We get the topic a month ahead of time along with readings, activities and questions to consider. Last month the topic was “memory.” One of the activities was to speak with people you are close with to ask them what three memories they would share at your funeral. I thought of a number of people to ask, most of whom I don’t see very often but remain a very important part of my life. So I sent an out-of-the-blue text to some of my favorite people to see what I’d get back. I should not be surprised with how in stride my friends took a random text about memories for my funeral, but I was.
Here were some of my favorite responses:
I can’t remember the bar we went to for drink the very first time, but I remember the scene perfectly. We sat on a high top in a corner of the bar. You had short hair and a huge smile. We talked about life. Your accepting and understanding led me to talking all about crazy things from my past. It was weird how much it felt like we were lifelong friends. I don’t know why that memory is so vivid. But I can still feel that warmth and closeness with you. It never went away.
Your raw emotion. You seem determined to feel emotions whether good or bad, like it’s a part of life that you relish. I find that really admirable, especially your ability to control your emotions while still feeling them.
When we broke into the pool to go skinny dipping. I’d never done anything like that before and was so scared we’d get caught but you had this way of pushing my boundaries and making me try new things (that wouldn’t hurt me if course). And it was exhilarating!!
Just always there: we’ve talked about this before, but your mantra is that you show up. I remember you saying to me “it’s what we do, show up.” I think of that often and try to live my own life that way. Showing up.
When you randomly sat down and made me take of my headphones while I was working hard in the lunch room. Ha! You are fearless. And you genuinely care about people and their stories. It’s one of my favorite things about you. You are willing to take chances that many other people aren’t.
There were so many responses. Ultimately I categorized them so I could find patterns: connection, emotional openness/sharing, FUN!, inspiration, showing up. The assignment asked us to consider what others would take away from our life if we took our last breath today. I was comforted to know that the things I try to prioritize in these relationships seems to be working. In the end I decided the best way to share these takeaways with my group was to write my obituary.
The Life and Memory of Katie Kegel
Katie Beth Kegel’s life ended on (date). Katie’s affinity for thoughtful writing and her need to be in control has culminated in a self-written obituary.
Katie’s life cannot be defined by labels: daughter, sister, wife, lawyer, athlete. It also cannot be defined by qualities: intense, energetic, persistent, intimidating, over achiever, leader. These words cannot capture the fullness and complexity of a life so defined by intention.
Katie lived her life to tell the stories. Through her work, stories of people who have done terrible things and had terrible things done to them. Dotting the chapters of her life with the long, arduous journey to physical and professional achievements. But most importantly the stories of shared memories with the people she cared most about.
Katie will be remembered for the connections she made. Whether friend-at-first sight or succumbing to her persistence, you saw something special in her and she saw it right back. There was an energy; you were special, someone she had to know, because you were like her or maybe completely unlike her, but whatever you were, you were interesting with a story all of your own, a story she needed to intersect with her own.
Early and often Katie showed you who she was. Whether clumsy or effortless the rainbow of her emotions shone bright for all to see, her thoughts and feelings never a secret, but instead poured out in her words or her touch or her laughter. Her strength captivated you but her softness kept you there.
It kept you there because she was there. Physically. Her motto “just show up” guided everything about the way she spent her time. Just show up for people, however big or small. For one never knows which of life’s events will be life changing. And she wanted to be there, for all of your life’s wonderful and terrible changes. Just as she pulled you willingly or unwillingly into the adventure of her life replete with drinking or dancing or nudity or costumes, so she asked to join you on the adventure of yours. She challenged you and was challenged by you and wouldn’t have had it any other way. Her relationships were not easy because life is not easy. But life certainly can be fun and Katie found all of the crackpot ways to make things fun. “Wanna come do this with me?” she’d say out of the blue. Yes, just say yes most learned. It was always worth it.
All those intersections of lives wove a fabric of armor. A fabric strong enough to withstand time and distance and hardships. Break ups, break downs, years long breaks in conversation were no matter because when the time came to be together again it was as if nothing changed.
And now something will change. Katie is not here to lead the charge, have the ideas, or make that phone call. The stories are what you must share. SHOW up. SHARE the stories. Be brave. Be vulnerable. Big or small, sharing creates connection, a connection that honors what you most loved.
The stories…the stories you created together are what Katie thought about until her last breath. Her stories will live on through you, and what an honor for her story to be woven in with yours for all of time.
In the end, it won’t be about the accomplishments. The things that are defining my life are the people in it. “Surely joy is the condition of life,” Henry David Thoreau wrote. Indeed sir. Indeed.