Thursday, July 03, 2008

Funerals. Not just for old people anymore.

I work at a church. Part of my job description includes helping families through the process of planning a loved one's funeral. I didn't enter the job knowing a whole lot about funerals, but I instinctively pictured a 95-year-old man being the first funeral I'd help a family through. Unfortunately, after almost six months on the job and five funerals later, I have yet to see that 95-year-old man's service. In fact, all five have been tragic deaths....individuals leaving this world far before their time. Our first was an 18-year-old girl who was in a car accident in Montana. Our second was a 51-year-old man who, unfortunately, took his own life. Our third was a 54-year-old woman who had a bilateral pulmonary embolism and passed away two weeks later. Our fourth was a 4-year-old boy who had a number of heart surgeries and essentially had a heart attack while playing in the yard with his family.

And our fifth, just this past Monday, was for my dear friend Julie Steiskal. Last Wednesday, almost one month shy of her 30th birthday, she tried to help a camper who slipped while wading through the Temperance River. Tragically, they were both swept away in the current and died. My initial reaction was complete shock. A friend called on Thursday morning to give me the news. I started crying right away. I honestly couldn't believe it. I had seen Julie on Tuesday morning, just before they left on this hiking trip. And now she was gone. I couldn't comprehend. My sweet son was sitting on the table with a box of Kix, watching me sob. When I got off the phone, I said, "Mommy needs a hug," and he shot up and jumped into my arms and wrapped his arms around my neck. He knew something was up and that when I said I needed a hug, I was serious. :)

I met Julie three years ago at a going away party for some mutual friends. We hit it off right away and quickly learned how to make each other laugh. We got to know each other really well through our blogs. I would read her silly stories and she would get a kick out of my weird pregnant dreams. In fact, one time I had a dream about Julie. She had married a rock star and changed her blog address to Well, she indulged my weird dream and actually created a blog at that address and informed all of her blog readers that she had indeed married a rock star and was going to be getting a small dog to keep in a bag. You know, like all wives of rock stars to. :)

This spring, Julie created a group on Facebook called "Come Run With Julie!" I remember her being SO excited about the group that right after she created it she said, "Erin! Do you run?" and I said, "Um, no!" But she informed me that I could still join the group and come and cheer. I didn't think that sounded like very much fun, so I decided to join the group and actually start running. (See previous post about confessions of a non-runner). On May 31, Julie and I ran the Northside 5K together and had so much fun! I'm pretty sure we both thought we were going to keel over about halfway through due to the effects of heat, sun, and tight shoes. But we powered on and survived to the end. We even have a picture of us together at the end. Smiling, no less!

There are so many things I already miss about Julie. And I know that I will keep remembering things and missing her even more. The fact that she just recently stopped drinking out of water bottles because she heard it caused "smoker's lips." I'll miss seeing her face behind the receptionist's desk here at work every time I walk out of the south offices. The calls around noon inviting me to grab lunch. Looking at the shots of her most recent photography session. Hearing about her scrapbooking weekend and seeing the fruits of her labor.

There is one thing that has remained at the front of my mind since Julie's funeral on Monday, and I truly believe God is using this tragic loss to teach me something. (I could have used a couple more days without getting a lesson out of the deal, but apparently His timing is perfect.....). Julie had an open casket, and I was very surprised. When you hear about their trip down the river, you just assume she would look too beat up. I didn't notice that it was open until I was walking down to the front to arrange some flowers that had been delivered. Part of me really didn't want to look. I wanted to remember Julie as the vibrant young woman I had seen flitting about on Tuesday, preparing to leave for this hiking trip. She had simply glowed that day. But I did look. And it wasn't Julie. Sure, it was the shell that she had walked around this earth for 29 years in, but it wasn't her. Everything that we loved and admired about Julie--the joy, the vibrancy, the natural beauty, the LIFE--was gone. It reminded me of a passage in I Samuel: "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." Julie's heart was good. And honestly, she never really cared about appearances. Hers or others. She always looked absolutely stunning, but you knew it wasn't because she spent an hour in front of the mirror that day. So really, it was comforting to see her laying in the casket. It was just a reminder that the Julie I've known for three years was not laying in that casket--she was laying in the arms of a loving Father.

Julie, I miss you. But thank you for the amount you did in your short time here. For the lives you touched, for the laughs you shared, for the hugs you gave, for the joy you emanated. And I know you're in a much better place now. But it doesn't make it easier for us yet. And like I said on Facebook today, I'm sure you watched us all at your funeral and said, "You guys! Get a grip! You are not going to BELIEVE what it's like up here!" :)