It's been a couple weeks now since my sister Gine's funeral. I hadn't wanted to speak at it, but my brother-in-law Joe demanded it. This is what I came up with in our hotel room that morning.
In my sister Gine and Joe's magnificent teal and turquoise bathroom, there's a picture frame hanging on the wall. What it contains she found on a trip to visit Mary and me and has deep meaning for me.
Gine had twisted Joe's arm enough that he consented to take time away from his other marriage to RCS and drive the 12 hours across the state through Sioux Falls, where months later she would be gifted with a competent, listening oncologist, an incomparable nurse navigator, and other staff who regarded her as a complete person worthy of their best efforts.
But that would be months away. On this trip they drove past the signs for Avera Health and continued down toward Omaha on I-29 and east halfway across Iowa. They came for our annual Palm Sunday shrimp boil: andouille sausages, onions, shrimp, and corn on the cob boiled together and dumped in the middle of the table. Around that table were our pastor and his wife, along with their three little girls, still another a couple recovering from addiction and expecting a baby, and, by phone, my brother Troy. Our sister Lynne arrived from Gettysburg a day later. Afterward we engaged in a little Cards Against Humanity and delighted in the laughter that arose at a pastor's wife being forced to say those things.
You'd think that would have been the utter highlight of the trip. But there's no photo of of us all enjoying ourselves in that frame a few blocks west of here in their house. It contains no family pic or vacation shot but instead holds something just as precious to my sister: one solitary sherbet orange and pink flamingo feather.
She picked up that feather from the ground at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines that week as she and Joe played tourist at places we never think of visiting: the botanical center (think Gine's greenhouse but way bigger), Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, the state Capitol, and Blank Park Zoo. The flamingo feather lay on the ground and her sharp eye spotted it, something she regarded as a singular thing of beauty and a rare find for a kid from happily unrefined West River country.
That she took a feather that probably had lain there next to a gob of decidedly non-pink flamingo poop and back at home turned it into an object of art and pride and joy, and that she placed it in a frame to be honored and valued says something profound about Gine.
There were easily any number of times in her life where you could have found her down low, waiting and hoping to be picked up, revered, valued. When it didn't happen she built a space around herself with small objects of beauty or created and crafted the beauty herself. The trinkets and tchotchkes invariably connected to places she felt happy or to people who had noticed the feather she was. The crafted cards were sent to those same people.
My sister Gine loved deeply, starting with that Christmas Eve baby in Manhattan, Kansas, with such an unwieldy name: Brandon Augustus Jones. She was central operator on the line, staying connected with us siblings, Troy, Lynne and me. When her dogs Kramer and Suie died her, grief was a great as the unconditional acceptance she got from them. And when our Papa died just over a year ago, she was inconsolable. Everything around her was something that promised her love, joy, and value.
And then along came my brother-in-law Joe. He was the third of those things, and I didn't expect much out of such a misogynistic, mullet-wearing Wisconsinite. But what I'm so grateful to come to know is that Joe Mack is the most righteous upstanding husband I'd ever want for her, a man who himself spots flamingo feathers, picks them up, and places them in a frame of honor. My sister's last years with Joe were years of being valued, of Joe walking in the door and catching his breath because of the beautiful woman he saw waiting for him.
They made quite a pair of feather finders. I thank you Joe for these last months when Gine couldn't bear to look in the mirror because of the ravages of this vile disease but could take your loving gaze. Thank you for putting her in a place of honor in your heart.
And Brandon, the recipient of 36 years of love, you, too, hold a delicate feather in your palm, for she gave herself to you and lived as best she could to take you into the full, gracious, thoughtful manhood you now present to the world. You know there were lots of opportunities it could have gone crap-wise. If it had, she would have loved you even then.
We're sure going to miss her laughter, so often aimed at herself, her birthday cards, her garden, her secret place in the back yard, her piles of rock treasures found in the Hills, her retirement job as number one Rapid City Rush fan. Our dear daughter, mother, sister, aunt, cousin, friend, and quirky loyal companion. To day, hold your hand up, and imagine a flamingo feather in your palm. Our Gine. Regine. Gina. Regina. Gine Dean. And now blow gently and let her float away into the utter grace and acceptance where God collects such precious things.