Friday, January 13, 2006

Eulogy for Joan

Jim Wilson, January 13, 2006 – Western Presbyterian Church

Thank you, John, Bill, Carol and Dee. Thank all of you for coming to honor and remember the life and spirit of my mother, Joan Wilson.

Joan’s afflictions
Spinal stenosis w/diffuse arthritis, senile dementia and, in the end, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease.
George’s valiant and loving partnership.
Searched the world for best doctors – from Johns Hopkins and NIH to Mayo Clinic …
Five days and nights – mostly without sleep – by Mom’s side at the Hospice – a true and wonderful example of love and devotion, “until death do us part.”
We are here, however, not to dwell on this sad end but to celebrate the extraordinary wonder of Joan Wilson’s life and to carry forward her spirit as we measure and make our own lives.
I am going to talk a little about where Joan came from, where she went, Joan as a mother and friend. Joan was born and raised in Chatham, New Jersey.

Father -- Harold Ralston Gibbons – Ral
Ral came from a modest background; his father Samuel was a roofer.
With his parent’s urgings, Ral worked hard, graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1913. From there, he followed in Alfred Sloan’s footsteps to become Chief Engineer of General Motor’s Hyatt Roller Bearing.
Ral was Chatham’s School Board President, staunch conservative, strong work ethic; demanding of his daughters, Lois and Joan. You must always serve, Ral frequently intoned to my mother.

Mother – Dorothy Binns -- Dot
Descendent of poor French and Irish Canadians.
Dot’s grandfather, Malcolm McEachern, was a war hero, who died the Battle of Ridgeway, 1866. Mom often told me about Malcom’s statue in Toronto and shared his war medal with me.
Dot was a World War I nurse, serving at Camp Coetquidan in Brittany, France. She cared for numerous soldiers and prisoners of war. After the war, Dot married Ral, his second wife, and cared for Ral’s grievously ill son, Junior, who soon passed away.
Mom often told me how compassionate Dot was, providing food to families at her back door during the Great Depression.
Together, the Gibbons summered at their house on Barnegat Bay, where Joan became a great sailor and developed a deep love of the outdoors and the water.
Wonder of Life

Home in Chatham
Joan was always very proud of her parents and her family; their solid nature and immense and dutiful charity. Almost every time I saw Mom in her last months, hobbled by ALS, with great loss of dignity, Mom would look up from her sad fog, and tell me to remember that she came from a good family; that despite appearances, she was a good person, her roots were sound.
Joan was an excellent student and a gifted musician – playing saxophone, piano and clarinet.
Field Hockey and sports star.
Most popular Senior in her high school class.
At Bucknell she was an honor student, a Phi Mu enriched by many friends.

George and Joan
From her staid, perhaps confining, upbringing Joan found something refreshing, something entirely different – SAE fraternity President, WWII Navy fly-boy, and aspiring boy reporter George Wilson.
A guy who had a passion for art and adventure and for changing the world, making it a better place, righting what is wrong … A guy whose family was, to be frank, nonlinear. George’s maternal grandfather, for example, crossed the ocean 39 times, walked from Capetown to Cairo, walked across Russia, and stepped into the jaws of many adventures. On his father’s side, Dads was descendent from a gallivanting Senator and Supreme Court Justice, Founding Father James Wilson, who fled Pennsylvania to avoid being thrown into debtors’ prison.
Joan loved George and was a great admirer of his work and passions, his many excitements; but this new life she chose also proved to be a painful stress that Mom conscientiously and very privately worked to balance with her innate sense of the world.
Mom deepest and greatest passions were her children, my sister Kathy and I. We were Mom’s anchors.
Mom did so much. I am going to offer a few snapshots.
Den Leader. Baseball partner for Jimmy. Guiding my sister and I through hours of homework, especially science and mathematics. Helping us to have fun – and lots of it … skiing at Sugarbush and Sugarloaf, taking Kathy to horse shows, cheering us on at swim meets, backpacking at Rocky Run and in Yellowstone, tobogganing on Washington’s Big Hill, swimming in the streams of Great Falls Park, catching an enormous – 42-pound – striped bass in the surf at Block Island, sailing with me across the Severn River, fishing with Walter Reed and the boys in Chincoteague...
Partnered to run the Lafayette Elementary School fair. I remember catching tens of frogs, snakes and critters to stock the school’s Pet Booth. It was chaotic but it was real. This woman was vivid, fully and richly engaged in life, in her kids and what was going on in her community. She put her arms around an immense chunk of humanity.

Amidst all this action, Mom was always there, sympathetic – sharing and helping child or adolescent negotiate numerous uncertainties of growing-up and encountering the world. She was always non-judgmental and unconditional in her love.
She was also very courageous. It wasn’t easy being George’s wife; he would often go off to the wars and conflicts of our time – once he left on an aircraft carrier for seven months, having just bought a new house that Joan never saw. Mom dutifully packed and moved across the river.
I remember in 1968, George was in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive came, The Viet Cong infiltrated Saigon. Dad was often at the front lines. Joan lost 20 ponds from her already slim frame. It was a scary time. She wanted to make sure Kathy and I had good experience when Dad was away. I can remember her crying as she worked to light the hibachi by herself at the Memorial Day cookout at our summer place in Sherwood Forest. Some guy made fun of her, with her two little kids; but Joan bit her lip and soldiered on.

Mom was an inspiration when I was recovering from near fatal car accident, brain surgery and paralysis; again, the compassionate partner and confidant in a near impossible mission. Not just in the ICU, but the many months – if not years – of delicate, stressful and compassionate care for a grievously injured child, a young man of 17 who had to re-build his world cognitively and physically, from the wheelchair on out. Joan would patiently hold my belt loop as I struggled to walk, and she endured my black depression and tantrums.

She was an extraordinary mother.

Mom was always there for us. With her, I knew I would never walk alone. And it was not just me. It was all of us for whom Mom lived, her friends, her family, her many thousand school students. She made this a better world.

I thank you and urge you to carry on Joan Wilson’s wonderful spirit and to know that, in a way, she is with you.

God Bless.

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