Beauty and Joy in Sadness—The Memorial of Lee Perish

Lee’s memorial was amazing, with laughter and tears and technical difficulties that led to pure beauty. There was a real magic to it that I’ve never seen at any other service, and for that Laura and I are both deeply thankful.

The service was held at the Bread of Life Church for the Deaf, a classic little fifties Midwestern neighborhood church. We got there early and sat outside in the car for a few minutes. I wore a formal black kilt rig for mourning because I was going to be giving a part of the eulogy and because Lee loved the kilt. Laura wore pants and was a bit less dressy, and I think that the reversal of traditional gender roles there is something that Lee would have loved. She loved shaking things up.

Laura and I took up station at the church entrance to greet Lee’s friends and the members of her communities as they came in. We wanted something to do—we’re both much happier when we have something to do, and there was the guest book to point out and the sticky door to manage for the many wheelchairs and walkers. The funeral home folks handled a lot of that, but the turnout was huge and they were happy to have us helping, especially once the crowd really started rolling in.

Right from the start this funeral felt more joyous than any memorial I’ve ever attended, mourning and sadness, of course, but also a celebration of a woman who really LIVED. Not quite an Irish wake, but so much more than merely a memorial. The mourners came in every size and shape, and more than one species. There must have been a dozen service dogs, and they really helped lend an air of love and community to the crowd. And it was a crowd, a standing room only crowd. Lee was loved by so very many people, and an astonishing number of them turned out. She loved the color purple, everyone knew it, and many honored her memory by wearing her signature color. Even the church honored her there, it being Lent.

The service opened with the assistant pastor signing, and the pastor interpreting in spoken word from the pews. It felt exactly right. Then it moved into a more typical format with a few bible verses read by family and another piece by the pastor, all interpreted in ASL.

Then the pastor, Susan, went into her homily and that’s where the magic really started. The pastor started with a story about how Lee had her name legally changed from Leone to Lee, because if Lee didn’t like something she changed it. There were a lot of nods at that and some laughs, and few muttered “yeahs.” Then Susan said that this was the point at which she would normally have talked about the deceased resting peacefully with god, but that though Susan believed Lee was with god she didn’t think there was anything peaceful about it. She was quite sure that Lee was demanding to see heaven’s accessibility policies. The whole room roared with laughter, and something changed then.

What had been a sort of coalition of mourners, with many smaller groups joining together to say goodbye, suddenly became a community celebrating a life. And it went on like that with many tears and a continued laughing rumble that was impossible not to love.

When Susan finished, I was up first. I read the appreciation that I wrote in Lee’s honor, and it was perhaps the hardest reading of a life that has included a lot of time on stage. I couldn’t even introduce the piece, because I knew that if I took one step beyond the words written on the page I was going to cry my head off and not be able to speak a word. As it was, I managed all right, and didn’t really break up until the last line, at which point a little crack in the voice was okay, as was crying my way off the stage.

I wrote my appreciation for me and for Laura, and most of all for Lee, because I loved her and I needed to say goodbye. It was an emotional snapshot of a decades long relationship. I expected a few others to read it because most things I write are read by at least a few, but hadn’t really expected anything more to come of it. But it apparently struck a chord in Lee’s communities and with the family. Dozens of people have expressed how much it meant to them over this past week, and it has been humbling and edifying and a bit scary to see my work reflected back at me in a way that I rarely encounter.

Lee’s boss, Alan Peters, followed me, giving a more traditional sort of eulogy and doing it up proud. I was both impressed and moved by his ability to speak clearly and strongly with tears rolling steadily down his cheeks, something that is simply beyond me. He talked about Lee and their friendship, and her work in improving accessibility for everyone. He also talked about her absolutely glorious laugh, and the whole room laughed and cried with him.

Last up was Lee’s brother-in-law Michael, who read out a resolution passed by the Minnesota state legislature in honor of Lee. He was clearly as nervous as it is possible to be about being up there, but again, he did her up proud. Neither Laura or I had heard anything about that beforehand and it was a moment of great pride and a punch in the gut at the same time. Lee would have loved it, but she wasn’t there to know. There have been a lot of those punches this week. Lee was an incredibly joyous person and a bit of a ham and she would absolutely have loved all the attention she’s been getting. But she’s not there. Instead, there is a hole in the world that can never be filled.

After the eulogies, the pastor did pastor things and then put in a CD of Amazing Grace. It went about ten words in and then started skipping. Nothing ever went smooth in Lee’s life, and a technical glitch at her funeral seemed somehow exactly right. I know that she would have loved watching Susan signing the skip over and over and over. The room roared once again. Susan tried to fix the problem, but it just wasn’t happening, and she eventually gave up. There was a long moment of silence then, while Susan contemplated what to do next.

And then, just before Susan could break that silence, an absolutely glorious soprano voice started singing Amazing Grace from somewhere in middle of the church. Within a few words the whole crowd was singing and it was pure magic, a truly touching tribute to a grand lady. I couldn’t sing because I was crying too hard, and honestly, given my singing voice, that’s no great loss. After the song finished we followed the casket out to the waiting hearse—given Lee’s life it really ought to have been a Metro Mobility van, and it really ought to have been late—but the hearse works too. We all gave our final goodbyes, many people making the ASL sign for love and touching the coffin.

Then we went back inside and watched slides from Lee’s life and told stories of her. One young woman who had made a point earlier of coming over to tell me how much my appreciation meant to her, somehow convinced her smart phone to cough up a video of Lee that she hadn’t been able to get to run before that day. It was of Lee getting a birthday gift, and it had that Lee cackle that we all loved so well. Another person imagined that the pearly gates had better have a wheelchair button installed if they didn’t want a world of trouble from Lee. And so it went.

Somewhere in there we introduced the people who are taking over from her as staff to her cat Marygold, to the person who had preceded Lee in that role and they all talked about Lee and her cats and exchanged pictures and email. Another of Lee’s friends, the poet Morgan Willow brought us a limerick she wrote for the occasion—Lee loved them. About a million people told Laura and I how much they had heard about us from Lee and how much she adored us. There was chocolate everywhere, another of Lee’s loves—I think we must have found fifty pounds of it squirreled away in various places in her apartment. Dogs were admired, hugs exchanged, and in general it was a perfect mixture of the bitter and the sweet.

Goodbye Lee, you came, you saw, you conquered, and we will miss you forever.