(2013) In Which I Honor Jan
Yesterday I lost a dear friend/mentor/mother figure and kindred spirit, Jan Brinkerhoff, to her battle with cancer. In losing her, my mind has gone back over the memories, lessons and example she was to me--and I wanted to write them down. I know my words will be inadequate in expressing everything she was and everything thing she has meant to so many people, but I hope it gives the slightest glimmer into the woman that she was, and the legacy she left behind.
As a girl, I knew all my friends' parents. I would happily greet them, and them me. I enjoyed being in their homes, and felt like they enjoyed having me there. But being in the Brinkerhoff home was different. None of my friends' parents greeted me with hugs and kisses, asked how I was doing, and genuinely cared about the plights and joys of an 9 year old the way they did. Being in their home was magical, and I felt like family. I remember Phil taking us to Chuck E. Cheese (where I first discovered that Ali hates cheese, a dislike she has to this day), and Jan getting Cinnabon (the new big thing in the 80's!) on Saturday mornings after a sleepover. We swam in the freezing pool and played our favorite game--where you couldn't touch the ground, so you had to come up with very clever ways to get around the perimeter of the house. My memories of being there are all happy, and I cherish them. In my mind's eye I see Jan at her kitchen counter, talking with me and sharing insights and advice that has stayed with me my whole life long.
Jan was the epitome of class. Her elegance and style was impeccable. She was never flashy, but understated and perfect. I recognized this at a very young age, and I remember complimenting her on the way she always looked so pretty. She then explained the basics of building a wardrobe with timeless pieces in neutral colors, then adding accessories to add flair and style. I was 10. I also had a mullet and a mis-matched outfit on, so you can imagine that it seemed like a world away when I would ever "build a wardrobe". But wouldn't you know---I think about what Jan said almost every time I go shopping. As a tween I went through the "uglies" something fierce. You know....that time when you are no longer a cute little girl, but you haven't hit puberty and everything is just a little askew? There was no part of me that could have been considered cute. And yet, Jan very thoughtfully held my hands as I sat on her couch one night and told me how beautiful my fingers were, and how perfectly shaped my nail beds were. I'm sure she never gave that conversation another thought--but I have held that compliment with me my whole life. Years later after I had my first baby, I visited with Jan and Phil in Jennica's home in Philadelphia. Bennett was about 6 weeks old, and I was embarrassed at how big I was. I had gained a lot of weight during my pregnancy, and I felt ashamed at my size. When I saw Jan, she of course hugged me, and complimented me on how nice I looked. I told her how I felt about my body and she told me I needed to be patient with myself. That it takes time, and that I should enjoy this time with my baby instead of worrying about fitting into my old jeans. I've had 4 babies since then, and I remind myself of her advice every single time. She had such a gift of making people feel so valued, and loved. Being with Jan made me feel like my best self, and I came away from every single interaction with her feeling happy and uplifted.
There are certain things I didn't realize about Jan, and her incredible grace and strength until I became an adult myself. The house the Brinkerhoff's lived in when we were kids was high on a hill in Hope Ranch. It was gorgeous. It was Jan's dream home, and to me it seemed like a castle. When I was in junior high, they moved from their hilltop castle to an apartment in town. It honestly never occured to me to question why. I enjoyed hanging out at their apartment just as much as I did their big house on the hill. It was still the gathering place for tons of friends and activities--and to me, nothing had really changed. It wasn't until much later that I learned about how Phil had lost his job at the bank, and how they struggled. Monetary status defines so many people, and the loss of a house like that would cause so many people to become bitter and angry. Not Jan. Her home was a place of love and warmth and happiness--not because of the size of it, but because of the people who lived in it. I didn't fully appreciate the measure of her character until I understood the details surrounding their move years later--though none of it surprised me at all. She handled their challenges with optimism, grace and faith. As always.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of having Jan and Phil in my home, where they'd come to visit and support Ali as she ran the Chicago marathon. I was going through a really rough time with my family following a very painful estrangement. She listened as I told her about how hurt I'd been, and how I had lost hope of things ever being repaired. There was never any judgement as she listened and gave some excellent advice that helped change my perspective--and ultimately led to healing my heart. I replayed that conversation so many times in my head as I tried to apply her message of forgiveness. My ability to move forward was, in large part, because of Jan. It wasn't long after that that she started her battle with cancer.
Less than a month ago I was reunited with the Brinkerhoff family as we celebrated Ali's wedding. I was able to spend a little time with Jan, and tell her how much I loved her and how grateful I was for her friendship. It was painful to see her in a wheelchair, struggling in her own body. So much of what made her Jan--her amazing conversational style, her smile, her wit---was gone, but her spirit was the same. I felt so blessed as I sat in the sealing room of the temple with their family as Ali was married for time and all eternity. The spirit of love that filled the room was overwhelming to the point that tears ran down everyone's faces. I was so comforted as I was reminded that families really are forever, and that our relationships will go beyond the veil of death.
In a few days I will fly to Texas to celebrate her life, and laugh and cry with my friends as we remember Jan as a wife, mother, sister and friend. She was an angel on this earth, and while I am so sad she's gone, I can't help but feel profoundly grateful. I'm grateful for her life, her love, her legacy, and most of all, grateful for the knowledge I have that I will see her again.