Have you noticed how people are usually smiling in their obituary photos? What do they know that we don’t? While someone else may have selected the picture that illustrates a death notice, seeing the smiles makes me wonder: what secrets of the universe have been revealed to the deceased, while we who are left behind have to wait our turn for epiphanies?
As often happens during bereavement, Penny’s death inspired reminiscence. I remember when I encountered Sue, first meeting her during re-orgy (reorganization week) at West Point in August 1976. After the second-best summer of our lives—Beast Barracks—cadets moved into academic-year companies after marching back from Lake Frederick, a week-long bivouac. From the relative freedoms of tent living and limited supervision, we entered bedlam. Plebes are considered lowest as low, confirmed by an entry in the West Point Plebe bible, Bugle Notes. Plebes rank behind:
“the Superintendent’s dog, the commandant’s cat, the waiters in the Mess Hall, the Hellcats, the Generals in the Air Force, and all the Admirals in the whole damned Navy.”
We Fourth Class cadets were trying to get our own rooms organized while engaged in duties assigned based on our humble status in the hierarchy. Meeting surreptitiously in barracks rooms to strategize and gain strength, plebes then pinged around hallways hoping, unsuccessfully, to avoid notice. We delivered mail and laundry to disgruntled and unappreciative upper-class cadets, unknowns who reflectively hated us. Instead of “thank you’s,” many upper-class cadets issued disciplinary 4-Cs for infractions. Returning to the confines and discipline of the Academy had provoked them, displayed in bad tempered outbursts or barely concealed sadism. Plebes were the natural target for projected venom.
In the midst of this pandemonium, I noticed Sue Fulton, a striking figure in gym alpha (phys. ed. uniform). From mutual misery in Company A-4, our bond grew over the next four years: sharing English classes, planning goat-stealing escapades, broadcasting a pre-graduation recording of “I am Woman” over the Central Guard Room speakers, and recognizing and laughing at some of the (more) ridiculous aspects of West Point (“F’noon Ma’am”). When Penny entered Sue’s life years later, we also became friends.
During my last visit with Penny, she was sleeping more than smiling. Although still hoping for recovery, we now know that Penny had already made her last trip to the Asbury Park boardwalk and posted her last sunrise picture on Facebook. A bed sore debridement, unremitting pain, and the side-effects of analgesics had worn her out. Her human experience was wrapping up. End of life has difficulties for the person dying, but it also has challenges for loved ones. Sue was bearing witness to Penny’s suffering, managing caregivers, dispensing narcotics day and night, and working when she could.
In the aftermath of death, as memories of the bitter end fades, we shift focus to celebrating the life in order to overwrite the toll of illness. We remember Penny’s healing ministries… Her exuberance, singing, and laughter… Hosting episodes of “Little Miracles with Penelope” on iHeart Radio… The pride she took in sharing photos from her wedding at West Point…
Remembering Penny has inspired me to reflect on our friendship and how both Sue and Penny have touched the hearts of many.
The yin-yang symbol, a Taoist concept that portrays universal balance, seems to epitomize Sue and Penny’s partnership. Yin-yang is a circle divided into halves by a curved line. One half is dark, representing the yin side; the other side is light, for yang. A dot of the opposite color occurs in the other half, signifying that both sides carry the seed of the other. Yin is characterized as an inward energy: feminine, still, and dark. On the other side, yang is characterized as outward energy: masculine, hot, and bright. The unity of opposites forms the whole, embodying duality and paradox, change and harmony. The tension contributes to dualism or balance, found in pairs such as material/spiritual, give/take, ephemeral/eternal.
In nature, seemingly opposing forces coexist and complement, a dynamic interplay. The relationship of ocean and waves hints at the connection between source and manifestation. Waves are a part of the ocean, although they seem temporarily discrete. Just as the curved line of yin-yang signifies, there are no absolute separations. Yin and yang form a system of interconnected forces – the whole is greater than the sum of parts. While true partnership respects the other, contradictory/complementary aspects can sometimes cause tension.
Sue and Penny exemplified a joint venture, brought together by love and music. Sue’s roles are more visible, as outlined in a Wikipedia entry: founder of Knights Out and OutServe, working with the Pentagon to support the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” President of SPARTA advocating for transgender military service, and co-chair of West Point’s Board of Visitors. Penny’s path was more inward: sharing healing modalities, posting sunrise photos, and hosting her radio show. Fullness of expression includes healing, seeking, and softening as well as eloquence, brashness, and action.
Tikkun Olam is a Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to repair the world. Most of us are called to do small things. We make our way in this world as best we can: overcoming difficulties, learning to cope, spreading love, developing resilience. We discern and answer the purpose we are called to: sowing seeds of love and bringing light, learning, and laughter to the world. We work to improve the lives of future generations, as well as bettering own existence. We live on in lives touched, love shared, music expressed.
The winter beach is wild and forlorn with stiff gusts and icy spray. From Penny and Sue’s window, you can see the sea, sky, and sun. High and low tides, sunrise and sunset, life and death: cycles remind us that the beginning is also the beginning of the end. Humans are transient creatures, part of nature that changes over time. In February, Penny’s body succumbed to its physical assaults. Ultimately, bodies are ephemeral. While Penny no longer exists in her physical entity, she also isn’t absent either. Her legacy lasts. `
Yin-Yang reminds of the possibility for good in bad, of life growing out of death. In the end, it is simple: the heirlooms we leave behind will be love and light—music spread, healing shared, wisdom sowed, joy sparked. We remember and are inspired by Penny’s life, sustained by her memory, and supported by the love of family and friends. Bodies are finite; love is infinite. Simple but hard. As a dedicated sunrise watcher like Penny would remind: from the darkness comes a glimmer, promise of a new day and a reflection of hope.
∞ Blessings on the journey. ∞ In loving memory of Penny Gnesin – 9/1/1960 to 2/12/2019
© Joan S Grey, 29 MAR 19
IndexCardCure™: Love never ends