Renee took on dying as her final project; this included designing her own memorial while she was alive. She planned every detail, down to the flowers. No surprise here. Of course she did; this was always her way. She was exacting in everything she did. So, to ensure its perfect execution, she left very explicit directions. She remained captain of her ship until the very end!
The last months of her life were spent steeped in gratitude for all the people who had supported, loved, and deeply touched her life. This gratefulness overflowed into a vision that informed her memorial. She wanted it to be a magnificent event that would magnetize her peeps to come together under one roof so she could express her thanks by serving them one last time. It was to be a celebration in three symbolic movements—like an unfolding symphony that featured the primary rhythms and themes of her life: doing spiritual practice with sangha, gathering in community to laugh and share stories, and finally—eating abundant, organic, and nourishing food cooked by loving and devoted hands!
The preliminaries started the day before the big event. In the kitchen! She had created teams and assigned captains to each dish: roasted vegetables, Ethiopian collards, tempeh, and beef brisket. Knives were flying; we had 120 people to cook for! We could almost sense her invisible presence hovering overhead. Watching. Checking. Some people needed reassurance. “Are you sure you want me to help? I used to make Renee crazy in the kitchen. I was slow and talked too much. . . Am I doing this right? Is it okay?”
The First Movement in the morning was the Red Tara practice, lead by Lama Choyang. The Fellowship Hall had been transformed into a beautiful shrine room. The prepared food (that would feed the multitudes later) was consecrated and blessed within the context of the practice (tsok). Voices filled the space with the familiar and holy chanting of this sacred practice bestowed by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche many decades ago. Cymbals and drums and the ringing of bells resounded throughout the room, adorning the practice. My eyes swept over the sea of faces, some I had not seen in years; Renee would have been so pleased.
The Second Movement in the afternoon provided the opportunity to tell tales. Well. . . Oh. My. God. No one held back! It was a full-body experience: weeping, laughing hysterically, and rejoicing for an iconic life well-lived.
“When Renee looked into a box of potatoes, she didn’t just see brown lumps; she saw magical orbs and had to meet the farmers, and plunge her hands in the dirt that grew them.”
“When I first met her and she saw that I buffed my winter squash before putting them on the shelves in the barn, she knew I was a kindred spirit.”
“She terrified me in the kitchen. I’m still in therapy. Ha Ha.”
“She was bigger than life. An icon. Devoted to feeding people. So generous. Loved, loved, loved to hear her laugh.”
“I miss fighting with that crotchety cook. God, I loved her.”
“She was difficult to grow up with, but she came to me before she died to heal our relationship and ask for forgiveness. We are good.”
“Everything I am today is because of my grandmother. She never gave up on me.”
“I only knew her for this last year, but she taught me that I am worthy of love and respect.”
And on. . . and on. . . and on. . . leading to the final tribute: a slide show put together by Forest, one of her devoted caregivers. (This was not part of her plan!)
And at the end, her voice echoed through the room, edited from an interview she gave for someone’s class project. It was the undoing of us all.
The third and final movement was the serving of the food. Exquisite. Sublimely cooked. Seasoned with laughter and love and robust conversations. She would have approved.
That girl set a high bar. How does one top this memorial! She always was a perfectionist. One day on the phone she mused that it wasn’t such a bad thing to pass from this life at a time when all one’s friends were still alive and could attend your memorial and still had their faculties to even remember stories to tell. None of us knows when it will be our time to say goodbye, but Renee has bushwhacked a unique trail to follow. My friend, I salute you.