Sunday, February 14, 2016

Doris - a Celebration of Life

I was not going to put these remarks on my blog because I already commented on Doris’s passing two weeks ago and don’t want to repeat myself.  But I’m still riding high from the Celebration of Life service her colleagues and my friend Cathy put together yesterday, and it’s a way of keeping the good feeling going.  Hope nobody minds.

Doris’s brother and two sisters and a brother-in-law were all there from Switzerland.  I think they were working on the assumption they were coming to a funeral.  They weren’t ready for the fact that in the circles Doris and I and all our friends move in, funerals have been replaced with celebrations of life. 

The first time I heard of such a thing was about twenty-five years ago.  My first reaction was, “Oh, what a bad idea.  How ridiculous Americans can get, insisting on putting a smiley face on every damn thing – even death.”  My best friend, Craig Buchanan, had died unexpectedly, like Doris in his fifties, and thus arguably way too soon.  It was pure tragedy.  Absolutely the last thing you’d want to put a smiley face on.

But Harriet, his wife, and some friends put together a table full of his favorite food, and we loaded up on champagne and all gathered around, forty or fifty of us.  We began with a toast, and then started telling Craig stories.

Craig was the closest friend I ever had.  We met in the army at a time when we were both beginning our adult lives and we shared everything.  Our insecurities, our dreams, our vulnerabilities, our fears and inner thoughts and the wildest of imaginings.  I was convinced I knew everything there was to know about him.  But then as the reminiscing went on, and more and more people began sharing the Craig they knew, I was struck with how wrong I was.  Looking back now, it’s obvious.  No one can possibly know all there is to know about another person.  But at the time I was shocked.  And ultimately delighted.  In that room, in those couple of hours of reminiscing, an image of Craig was beginning to appear that none of us had ever seen before or could have seen before in its entirety.  Harriet made the same comment some time later when we shared with each other how surprised we were by all the aspects of Craig’s life we had not been privy to.

There were two Israeli friends of Harriet’s in the crowd.  At some point they had to leave.  “This is just too much,” one of them said.  “This is not how we deal with death.  We cover the mirrors, we rip our clothes and we wail to heaven.  You guys are laughing like it’s some big joke.”

It was a good example of culture shock, of two entirely different ways of approaching one of life’s basic rituals.  We were laughing, yes, but we were crying, too, and somehow they missed that.  We were not missing the tragedy of the event.  On the contrary, we were giving full vent to our feelings.  Only our feelings included a respect for a much loved friend with a joy of life.  To just feel sorry for ourselves and miss the opportunity to see the full breadth of his humor and the power of his personality on others, would have only added more tragedy.  It was not an either/or proposition.  We would grieve and mourn.  We would wail to the heavens, actually.  But we would also celebrate a life well-lived and a create a version of Craig that could only be put together collectively.  A life too short, but definitely well-lived and worth celebrating.

The memory of that first celebration of life and of the several I have experienced since then all came to mind yesterday when Doris’s colleagues put together this marvelous service, with poetry readings, songs and testimonials.  And out of it came a much richer image than any of us had had before.  I think her family were amazed at the fact that over a hundred people showed up to honor their sister.  They had no idea that she had made such a good home for herself.  Suddenly, I think, her choice to take American citizenship made a little more sense.

Lots of laughter and lots of tears, yesterday, as I have now come to expect from a celebration of life, this wonderful substitute for dressing in black and listening to some preacher-man talk about how the dearly departed is now flying around in heaven.  If anybody is flying in the clouds, I’m sure Doris is.  But what matters to me is that I received a great gift yesterday in seeing a richer and more complex picture of a good friend than I had ever seen before.  And I sincerely hope her siblings and her other friends can say the same.  It was a wonderful way to say good-bye.

I was one of the speakers at the event.

Here are my memories, the view I had of Doris, reduced to about five minutes.

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When I think of Doris, I think of her smile.  And her amazing abilility to make friends easily.  The two obviously go together.

German teacher and biker chick
My connection goes back over twenty years now to when I first met Doris at work.  She was teaching German at the same university in Japan where I was teaching English and our offices were four doors apart.   The workplace was stiff and there were lots of rigid people around.  I could feel the tension as soon as I stepped off the elevator in the morning.  Then, one day, things changed noticeably.   There was this new person on the floor.  Bright and cheery and completely out of character with all the self-important folk playing their cards close to their chest.  She had flaming red hair and a look of adventure about her.  It was as if somebody had thrown open all the doors and windows.  Suddenly the stuffiness of the environment had been replaced with fresh air and sunlight.  I began seeking her company at lunch and before long we were hanging out together.

At some point Doris reached the conclusion it was time for her to leave Japan.  She ran into a problem with her lease, though.  She wouldn’t be there another year, so it made no sense to pay several months rent to renew.  I had an extra bedroom, so I suggested she move in with me.  I had a house about ninety minutes down the coast from Tokyo.   She took me up on the offer just as I was leaving for two months home leave here in the Bay Area.  I was concerned about leaving her there on her own.  I had found the neighbors a bit stand-offish, and suggested she should not expect too much of them.  

Two months later I returned only to discover that she had not only met all the neighbors, but she was already walking their dogs and baby-sitting their children.  And suddenly I had a network of people around me popping in unannounced.  My life changed completely.   Suddenly it was filled with neighborhood barbecues and political action groups.  Doris had done her magic. 

I would watch her repeat that magic again when she came to visit my husband Taku and me in Berkeley some years later.  She was around when Taku and I first met and we loved seeing her again. 

Next thing I know she is announcing this looks like a great place for her next great life adventure and we’re helping her find a place to live and work.  In no time, she had made friends with my friends Dov and Cathy and was once again baby-sitting and becoming a regular at family gatherings. By now she was more a part of my chosen family than just a friend, and over the years, at shabbat dinners, birthday parties, Thanksgiving and other holidays, Doris became part of the scene. Many of you here are part of that scene also, and those of you here from Leapfrog can attest to her power to make friends of her colleagues, as well.
Doris and Ziva

We asked people to submit photos of Doris and I posted them on a Flickr page.  If you haven’t seen them already, let me know and I’ll give you the link.   We started with a half dozen or so, and I believe the number at last count was up to 89.  As I look over the array of photos there, I’m moved especially by the ones of Doris and the little girls she played auntie to and at how she was able to come into our lives and make such a lasting impression.  Doris showed up at our house one Saturday morning and said, “Come on, the Pet Food Express on Broadway is having one of their mobile adoptions.”  Our two little girls, Jack Russell terrier/Chihuahua mixes named Miki and Bounce, now the center of our lives and pretty close to the meaning of life, come from that day when Doris took the initiative and put us in the right place at the right time.

Doris’s life was cut far too short.  She should have had two or three more decades of adventures, and time to share her love of birds and of dogs, of hiking, and her notions of healthy living and the importance of good posture, the need to buy organic and to organize your kitchen cabinets so you use your food up well before the shelf expiration date.

Doris and I didn’t see eye to eye on everything.  She had an appreciation of homoeopathy, which I thought was just nuts.  She loved Hawaiian music - at least she did at one point - which doesn’t do a thing for me.  But when it came to the important things in life she had much to teach me and others she came in contact with.  She had no patience for incompetence or violence or deceit or laziness.  She was inevitably up and at’em.  I think what I admired most about her was that although she was no Pollyanna – God knows she could peel the paint off the walls with her criticism of crooked politicians and self-serving bureaucrats – somehow her response to the bumps in the road was always to keep a cheery disposition.  She had an ability to get back in the fray with that big smile that filled her face and gave off a sense of almost boundless energy.

The day she died I didn’t know what to do with my shock and grief, so I put something on my blog on the spur of the moment.  And the photo I picked to go with it is that wonderful one of her with the leafy green trees in the background, the blue-rimmed glasses and the bright red lipstick, looking every inch the wise and mature lady she had become over the years, that combination of cheer and warmth and wisdom that was Doris Kyburz.

That smile will always be there for me.  It will always be there.

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