Today is my cousin Josie's birthday. She would be 27 years old. Two months after she turned 25, she was hit by a car while biking up a canyon in Utah. She was about 14 miles into the ride, just a couple of miles from the top.
She was in her second year of a PhD program in Molecular Biology. She was brilliant, humble, athletic, beautiful, disciplined, kind, hard-working and a good friend. She died in the arms of fellow bikers as they tried and hoped desperately to be able to save her. Nobody could have.
She had a brand new biking outfit on she'd gotten for her birthday. She had a completed RS lesson sitting in the front seat of her car, to give the next morning.
She had gone to the temple and an REI sale that morning.
I had never felt a devastation so complete, one that coursed throughout my entire body, before the night I had to walk into a room and see her lying still in a pink casket. I didn't feel my legs giving away underneath me, until I suddenly felt someone's arms around me, pulling me back up, offering support. There was no way to ever capture her look without her bright eyes and infectious smile. I was angry with the effort to even try.
Josie unwittingly turned people's heads with her physical appearance. At my bridal shower J crashed it with a couple of his friends. One of them spotted Josie in a crowd of 25 women and commented, "That is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen." It wasn't an overstatement by any means.
At her memorial, I learned more fully, that her heart changed people. I thought that the way she made me feel valued and smart and like the greatest addition to her life was unique to our relationship. 450 people at a memorial service in the state she only went to college in said otherwise.
At her funeral I spotted a guy standing alone, visibly shaken. I approached him and learned that he was part of the janitorial staff at her lab. She had invited him to have lunch with her a few times. He had never known anyone like her. None of us had. I stood and cried with someone who probably would have gone unnoticed in my life, at the funeral of a girl who didn't let him go unnoticed.
The last man to speak with her wrote a lengthy letter about their encounter and it was displayed at her funeral. He was too shaken up to attend. He asked her how it was going as they passed on the road. Huffing up an insanely steep mountain she exclaimed, "Things are excellent! How 'bout you man!?" He was moved by her enthusiasm and friendliness. I think we all were.
When Josie was 9 we became penpals. She grew up in California, I in Missouri. We corresponded through letters well into our twenties.
When she was 10 years old she lamented in a letter that the teacher had changed their seating arrangments, but she was still sitting next to Leon, and "couldn't escape his inexorable wrath". I was 14 and had to look up the word "inexorable" in the dictionary. The following summer I spent in California. I wore a pink shirt a friend had given me, a lot. One day Josie told me she didn't think my hair matched the pink. It was the nicest constructive criticism I have ever gotten. I never wore pink again until 2001. For a wedding. And it was a nice pink. :)
I still don't wear pink.
When Jay and I were moving from St. Louis to Utah, I called Josie and she gladly went and checked out a potential apartment for us. She had duplicate keys made before we got there. I've saved them because she paid an extra dollar fifty to have them cut on leopard print and smiley faces and they always made me smile when I used them to open our door.
She was graduating, moving, working, and beginning a PhD and always managed to find time to come and check on me, a new mother in a new town. She took me grocery shopping my second night in town because I have no sense of direction and would have ended up in Winnemucca faster than I would have found the local grocery store.
At the time, I had no idea how much she packed into a day, so I had no idea how much she was giving me with those hours here and there.For my birthday that summer, she showed up at my doorstep at 9:30 at night with a Skor bar and a box of Glide floss. "I didn't know what to get you but everyone can use floss, right?"
We met monthly on Sundays with other cousins for family dinner. Josie was always the highlight for me at these gatherings. She would always be standing at the counter helping in the preparations. She always turned with a big smile and arms opened for a hug. For months after, that void at family dinners was tangible and hard to cope with for a lot of us.
I miss Josie. My sadness over her loss has become steadily more "socially acceptable." I don't burst into tears mid-sentence. I don't have to walk out of rooms anymore because I can't keep myself under control. I don't walk around my house sobbing over the entertainment center as a dust it. Or sit in my rocker and weep while I hold my baby, because I just can't shake my sorrow. If I'm braced for the conversation, the details of her death don't reduce me to a heap of snot and tears.
I don’t miss the good ol’ days with Josie, because she always lived to the fullest. No regrets, truly.
I miss what could have been. The amount of comfort I found in knowing I will see her again, turning to face me with a great big smile and arms open for a hug, is indescribable.
I think the greatest legacy a person can leave, is an internal desire to be a better person because you know her.
Josie did that.
I look forward to telling her thank you.