Grief is Forever

It has been ages since I’ve written in this blog.  Months.

Part of me feels bad because I want to document this process of grief that started…well, the grief started long before Luna, but my documentation started with Luna.  But what I’ve discovered is that grief is forever.

The way that my grief makes itself known is different now than it used to be, but it’s still there.  It’s a little monster that sits in my chest and waits until small tiny little nothings appear (like the perfect bite of pinto beans and cornbread or a Wonder Woman sweater that’s not my size) before it attacks and causes fresh pain all over again.

It will be six years in December since Jake died of his heart attack and I still pause before cleaning out his bathroom because I remember how I felt the first time I cleaned it after he died.  We found him on that floor.  He died in that room.  And the feeling I get is not disgust or sadness, it’s fear that I’m erasing evidence of his presence in that room.  Fear that I’m removing him from the space.  I still make my family call his room HIS room.  Not the spare room.  Not the blue room.  Jake’s room.  Uncle Bubba’s room.  Because he existed. He filled that space and to call it anything else ignores that…..doesn’t it?  (Forget the fact that my son, Bo, is like a mini-Jake in his interests and habits and personality.  Case and point:  he is currently working on a book of mythical creatures, now that he has finished his instruction manual for building a dragon robot.  I totally blame Jake for that one.)

Four years ago this month, we found out about Luna’s Turners Syndrome and started the whole medical rigmarole of appointments and ultrasounds and echocardiograms two and three times a week.  There are certain smells and sounds that I associate with that time in my life – medical tape, the rubber tubing of a stethoscope, the sound of velcro like a blood pressure cuff, the ppppbbbbbt sound of squirting gel out of a bottle.  It’s silly but every time someone squirts stuff out of a plastic bottle (ketchup, mustard, hair gel), it reminds me of the ultrasound where we found out Luna’s heart was no longer beating.

That means it has been almost four years without Jen.  I see so much of Jen in her sons that I miss her almost constantly. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could call her and talk to her.  Even to this day, I still forget sometimes that I can’t call her up.  Someone gave me some sad news this morning and my first reaction was to pick up my phone and call a dead woman!  The saddest part of this for me is that I find myself holding in a lot because she isn’t around to talk to.  That woman was so easy to talk to that I could vent about her TO her!  I have a collection of stories that I’m saving for her one day.  Maybe I should write them down.

And my dad.  Oh, Daddy.  I don’t even know where to start with my daddy.  I’m still not sure how I’m functioning without having hugged that man in almost three years.  I’m not ready to get in to that.

BUT, my point is that grief doesn’t ever go away.  It doesn’t stop.  Once you’ve experienced it, grief will always be a part of you.  Those of you grieving now?  Don’t wait for it to go away.  Don’t expect to “get over it.”  Don’t think there is something wrong if it still hurts after all this time.

It changes you forever. FOR.EV.ER. (How many of you said that like the kid from the movie Sandlot?)

But don’t let it change you for the worst.

Yes, I am sad more often now than I was.  But my happy is more happy than it’s ever been.  My joy is amplified to degrees that it never could have if I wasn’t given the opportunity to see and appreciate what God has given me.

I miss Jake and Luna and Jen and Dad.  I have these great big gaping holes in my life that cannot be filled up with anything or anyone else.  But I also have these amazing people in my life that love me and need me. My family.  My friends.  My students.  My coworkers.

Thank you God, for teaching me to love with more of my heart.  Thank you, God for showing me how to minister to my family, friends and students in ways I never could before.  Thank you, God for giving me the opportunity to help those who hurt.  Thank you, God, for making me more like you.  Continue to work in me, Lord.

Thank you, my loved ones, for loving me back.

Isn’t that what makes us grieve in the first place?  Our love?  What I mean is that I wouldn’t be sad about any of them if I didn’t love them in the first place.  I wouldn’t miss them if I didn’t love them.  I wouldn’t be upset if I wasn’t blessed by having them in my life in the first place.

Grief is forever.  But so is God.  And God is love.

 

Memories: The Good and the Bad

Two years ago around this time, my brother-in-love Chris gave me a call and told me I needed to get my butt to Hopkins because Jen was probably going to die from the leukemia she had fought for over a decade.  I know he used gentler words than that, but that’s not what I heard.  What I heard was that my world was about to crack into pieces yet again.

My gut told me to drop everything and get there.  I called out of work for the foreseeable future, got a sub who could cover for me even if I gave them really bare-bones sub plans and I gathered up my family for Baltimore.  When I stepped onto that elevator in the Weinberg Garage (or GARE-ahge as the machine greets you when you pull in), I felt a wave of anxiety for a split second.  What if Jen looked awful and I would only remember her that way?  What if her death wasn’t peaceful and I had to steel myself to handle it to support her and to support her husband and boys?

Then the wave passed.  I would endure anything to spend Jen’s last moments with her.  If she was convulsing and vomiting blood, I would hold her hand and coo her name in her ear. I would remember that these moments were not about me or what I would remember or how I felt.  These moments were about drinking up the very last seconds of Jen’s life so that I could somehow make it without her after she died.

Those few days (I really can’t remember how many actually.  It felt like forever.) were hard.  Most of us were camped out in the waiting room or on the floor in her hospital room or down the street at my other sister’s apartment.  We were smelly and hungry and on edge and we had a variety of nurses and doctors coming in to say goodbye to Jen because she had touched them in some way during her treatments there at Hopkins.

There are moments from those days I will never forget.  Good moments.  Like when we snuck Bo (then only 3 years old) into Jen’s room and she opened her eyes for real and we saw that magnificent smile on her face.  She reached out for him and held his little hand and seemed herself for second.

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Or when someone mentioned Rico and she rolled her eyes in classic Jen style. Cuddling with my siblings and nephews on the waiting room furniture, joking and laughing and trying to forget what was happening in the room down the hall. Rico’s ridiculous slippers. (Please someone tell me we have a picture somewhere!)  Jen’s cool smooth skin as I held her hand and talked to her like nothing was happening.

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But there are things that I won’t forget that are difficult to think about.  The look on her face when she needed her meds increased.  How dry and shriveled up her tongue got because she was breathing with her mouth open.  The panic in her eyes when she felt like she needed to throw up.  The sound of the oxygen pump bubbling next her bed reminding me how she couldn’t do something as basic as breathing. Tears dotting her sheets. Falling in and out of sleep in the early morning hours, seeing my dad and Chris sitting Jen’s left and right sides, whispering to her and holding her hands.  Hearing Chris yelling when she finally slipped away. Not wanting to leave her hospital room because that meant it was really over and she was really gone.

But all the fears I had about only being able to see those few last moments – the ugly moments of vomiting blood and slowly slipping away?  They were completely unfounded.  How could I focus on those few moments when I had a lifetime’s worth of beaming smiles, goofy faces and happy memories?

This face is so Jen that it hurts. :)

This face is so Jen that it hurts. 🙂

I remember those things about the day that Jen died, even though it’s been two years.  I remember those things like they happened yesterday.  I feel those things in my gut, even though it’s been 728 days since she died.  But it’s with the same clarity and detail that I picture days like these:

On the way to Lancaster, PA to visit Green Dragon and pig out on Amish goodies.

On the way to Lancaster, PA to visit Green Dragon and pig out on Amish goodies.

Jen stepping off the elevator the first Christmas after her diagnosis.  We talked the nurses into letting her come down to the lobby so she could celebrate with her babies who she hadn't seen for three weeks.

Jen stepping off the elevator the first Christmas after her diagnosis. We talked the nurses into letting her come down to the lobby so she could celebrate with her babies who she hadn’t seen for three weeks.

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And look how happy she is to see them!

Laughing with her at a photo shoot that she demanded so that we could get pictures together "just-us-girls."

Laughing with her at a photo shoot that she demanded so that we could get pictures together “just-us-girls.”

Jen was more than her last moments.  She was more than her last days or years.  Jen will be remembered forever and her story and life have impacted more people than I will ever know.  I am thankful for every second I had with her – even the ones I’d rather not think about.  And I’m trying to live a life where I am like that with everyone I love.  I am thankful for every second I have with them because I am unsure when it will end.  I find peace in knowing that as long as I enjoy the now, the later will be full of memories I still enjoy.

Jen, you’ve been gone for two years, but in reality, you’re not gone.  You color every moment of my day.  You’ve trained me to know what you’d think in every situation and you’ve shown me how to learn from you even when you’re not around.  I miss your physical self – your hugs, your laugh, your voice – but you are with me forever.  And I praise God for you every.single.day.

3 years, 1 year, 9 months, 1 month

It has been 3 years since we found my brother Jake dead.

It has been about 1 year since we buried Luna.

It has been 9 months since we gathered at Jen’s bedside and she breathed her last.

It has been one month since our Baby Joe was born.

It seems that the longer we live the more anniversaries and milestones we have to remember. It almost seems like every day has different memories and every day marks some meaningful event.

I have been mulling over this entry all weekend because I thought I would have something more meaningful to add to this. The truth is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It still feels like yesterday that Jake was slicing my throat with his hand and poking my side so I would jump a mile high. It still feels like Jen is a phone call away and a drive down the street. It still feels like nothing has changed and at the same time, it feels like nothing could ever be the same. Baby Joe will never get to fall asleep cuddled into his Aunt Jen. Maggie and Joe and their cousins Grace and Lolo will never get to play crazy imagination games with their Uncle Jakey. I will never have to whine about finding Jake’s hair all over my floors or complain to Jen about how she never lets me sleep because she wants to stay up late to talk. And Luna would be 9-months now!! What would she be doing? Standing? Pulling herself up? Getting ready to walk?

Some days I can convince myself that nothing has changed and then other days I feel like my loss is dragging me around behind it leaving me bruised and battered for weeks.

It’s strange the things that remind me of my siblings. We got this baby chair for Bo that vibrates and plays music when he was born. We used up the batteries when Bo was a few months old and hadn’t replaced them until a day ago. (Yes, that was four years and two babies ago.) So I hadn’t heard the chair’s music since before Jake died and when we turned that chair on for the first time with Baby Joe in it, my brain got confused. I totally expected to find Jakey in his room doing his ridiculous exercises or something.

And of course it’s Christmas season. So everything reminds me of Jen. Decorating the tree. Christmas shopping. Presents. The other day I saw PeeWee’s Big Adventure on TV. And whenever I dress my children to go out in the cold, at least one of them is wearing something she made.

And can I confess something? Sometimes, if I walk by a window or mirror at the right speed and angle, I think it’s her for a split second before I realize it’s my goofy reflection.

I guess what I am saying is that memories and reminders can be random. And those days where you are expected to remember the ones you’ve lost are no different from any other day except you are reminded more often in the day. And while I am confessing things, I admit that I sometimes like days where I get to think about them more than usual.

Why I love Autumn

Fall was not Jen’s favorite season. She loved the winter holidays and she loved the beauty of spring, but her real favorite was summer. Swimming. Going to the beach. Crabs. Sunshine. Warmth. Cookouts. She has always been a summer girl.

But in my brain, there is so much about fall that reminds me of my sister that it has become almost a symbol of her. This is cheesy, I know, but I am a sentimental pregnant woman. Bear with me.

As the air cools and I have to reach for a scarf in the morning, I realize that most of my scarves were knit by Jen. I wrap the soft warmth around me and it’s as close to a hug as I am going to get. I remember how she chose that pattern for me because it had something in it that made her think of me, whether it was the owls on Maggie’s hat or the Luna pattern of my shawl. Sometimes I think I can see her fingers furiously knitting away at some of those pieces.

Crisp autumn Saturdays mean football and I think about all the football games I went to so that I could cheer alongside Jen for her boys. She was so proud of those boys. Especially on the football field, she saw so much in them that she admired and encouraged. They are fearless and determined. They are smart and made decisions in seconds. She wanted them so much to see how those same qualities would serve them well in everyday life. How many Saturdays did I wrap myself in blankets to sit beside my sister and watch her beam with pride for her husband and sons? Not as many Saturdays as I wish I had, but enough to know that she was beyond happy.

The changing foliage reminds me of Jen for two reasons. First of all, I love that as the leaves on the trees die, they erupt in sheer beauty and color before they gracefully fall to the ground. People travel for miles to watch the leaves as they lose their green chlorophyll – a fact which ultimately means they are losing their ability to support themselves through photosynthesis and are dying. Like those leaves, Jen was definitely dazzlingly beautiful as she was dying. It seemed to me that the more scarred and ragged and tired her body got, the more beautiful and Christlike her heart became. Barely a week before she died, I watched Jen patiently – even sweetly – handle a newbie nurse I would have torn to shreds for her incompetence. A nurse Jen would have torn to shreds herself a few years earlier. And people came from miles around just to be around Jen these last few years because her beauty was so incredible.

But mostly the reds, yellows and oranges of fall remind me of Jen because of something she taught me. The leaves turn these brilliant colors because the green chlorophyll is lost revealing these other pigments underneath. These other pigments were always present, but the chlorophyll hid them. Only during this brief season do the trees let those intimate, personal colors shine through. I feel like Jen was constantly pushing me to let some of my brilliant fall colors shine through. She would encourage me to let people have a glimpse of the real Katie because she was convinced that once people knew that part of me, they would love me the way she did. She would always call me on it when I was trying too hard to behave a certain way. “I know you want people to think you’re tough as nails, but you do have a heart, Katie,” she would say.

Jen died almost seven months ago, but it know she is still pulling the best parts of me out into the open. She is more beautiful than ever and she is still fiercely proud of her boys. If there is yarn in heaven, I also know she’s working on that DNA pattern scarf she always promised me.

And every morning I step out and shiver in the fall air, I remember that fall morning she sat next to me as my infant daughter Luna was lowered into the ground, with her soft, graceful hand in mine. Thank you, Father, for allowing her to be there with me that morning and for every moment I got to spend with her. I look forward to an eternity with her in heaven.

Joy

My grandmother recently posed a question in a daily devotional she emails to some of her former students and some family members like me. She asked “Are you joyful?”

What a question.

In the past two and a half years, the two siblings I considered my closest friends (the ones I saw the most often, opened my heart to and knew the best) have died. One died suddenly of a heart attack and the other died after many years of hospital stays and treatment for leukemia. One died in my home and the other died with her family by her hospital bed. On top of that, in November, I lost a baby at 25 weeks of pregnancy and delivered our Luna stillborn the day after Thanksgiving.

But that wasn’t what passed through my brain when my Oa asked if I was joyful.

I was thinking about Easter. I guess I should clarify by saying that she sent this email out around Easter, which is probably why it came into my head. But here we were at Easter celebrating the day Christ conquered the grave, rose from the dead and saved sinners around the world. How could I be less than joyful?

My joy does not rest in my life here on Earth because all these things are temporary. Losing Jake and Jen taught me that firsthand. If I thought my existence ended here when I died, or that their existences ended when they died, then I would have no joy. If my life here on Earth was everything, then all this pain and loss I have experienced the past few years would be everything. But it’s not. My life basically BEGINS when I die. I will be with Jen and Jake in heaven worshipping God for eternity and glorifying Him in ways I can’t here.

So yes, I am joyful. I am joyful that my God and my Creator had enough mercy and grace to save a poor angry, selfish, impatient, needy woman like me. I am joyful that I get to move past the hurts and the pain of this life and spend eternity experiencing joy that I can’t even imagine. I am joyful that the same God who gave me everything I have chooses to bless me continuously every day. I am joyful that my God has chosen me to bear the burdens of loss that I bear because I know He has a purpose for them and for me. I am joyful because the life I have been given is a life that serves a purpose.

I am also joyful because my losses have taught me not to take things for granted. My God has blessed me so many times in the past thirty years that I cannot linger on the losses and hurts without also thinking of a million reasons to smile. The majority of my memories of Jen are of when she was alive and vibrant and strong – not thin and tired and struggling to breathe. Praise God. My soul aches when I think of the infant I could be holding right now, but it also soars when I think of the tiny soul God has already placed in my belly, due less than a year after Luna was delivered. Better than that, it soars when I think of all that Luna taught me and all the time I got to have with her regardless of her early death. I cannot mourn the five miscarriages my sister had without also thinking of the gorgeous miracle that is her daughter Lolo Fe and the incredible (and gorgeous) miracle that is Jes herself – a woman who never gave in to hopelessness and continued to be joyful no matter what God gave her. I cannot think of my brother’s funeral without remembering the few chuckles I shared with my parents and siblings during the ceremony. I cannot remember my sister’s memorial service without feeling incredibly proud of my brother Chris and nephew Alex.

I guess what I am trying to say is that my heart is joyful. My heart is JOYFUL. Regardless of what I have been through, my God is the same God He always was and always will be and when I handed my life over to him, I did it because I trust Him. And that makes me joyful.

I am joyful because my life is about Him and not about me. Well, at least it should be and when I remember that, I am joyful.

Remembering and Celebrating Jen

I have so little to say about Jen’s memorial except just how good I thought it all was. I wish I had a better word than that. Alex (her son) spoke and made my heart swell with his sincere and faithful words. I am so proud of that boy – no, he is a young man. A man changed and shaped by the amazing woman that is his mother. A man who is aware of all his mother did for him and is thankful for it. Then Chris (her husband) spoke and changed my life. Every single syllable served a purpose, pointed to Christ and honored my sister. I loved when he said that Jen’s spirit got too big for her body – that her body couldn’t contain it any longer. Seriously perfect.

I told others that I would post the few words I said at her memorial, but I feel like what I had to say was small, simple, insignificant and already well known. Please don’t see this as fishing for compliments on my eulogy or as a cry for pity. I am not sad about that. It was perfect the way it was. The amazing part of her memorial was the expression of love and faith from her son and her husband. The expression of strength and beauty from the images in the slideshow my brother made. The admiration and respect expressed in the song Abby Rutter wrote that fit so perfectly. But primarily the glory of God that shone through every moment I spent celebrating the amazing life of my sister Jen. And boy, was He glorified. I am anticipating that they will post video of the service on the church’s Vimeo site, but they haven’t yet.

This is a link to a small portion of Chris’ incredible talk about life, hope and faith.

Below is the eulogy I gave:

I was trying to figure out how best to describe growing up with Jen. I had the honor of growing up in Jen’s shadow. This was not the kind of shadow that made you miss the sunlight. This was the shadow that protected you from awkward social situations and introduced you to people so you wouldn’t seem weird and antisocial. The shadow that forced you to let her pluck your eyebrows and put makeup on you for special occasions. The kind of shadow that taught you how to handle pain and stress with grace, strength and love and a little sarcasm. The kind of shadow that showed you the sunlight, taught you all about it and made you appreciate it.

Jen cast a big shadow. She was an extraordinary person from birth. Bigger than life. She learned to read when she was three years old and read everything and anything she could from cereal boxes and shampoo bottles to gigantic novels. She mastered a variety of topics in the same way – seriously devouring information. She could school you on just about anything – and if she couldn’t, she would speak of it so confidently that you couldn’t tell she didn’t really know what she was talking about. She was the only person I could play games with and not get over competitive because I expected to lose to her.

Everything she did, she did with passion. She didn’t just knit. She knit all day every day like a woman possessed and made money selling her projects. She was part of an online community of knitters that sent each other care packages and patterns. She was a passionate wife – modeling to me how a woman can avoid complaining about her husband when everyone else around you is. She was a passionate mother – actively participating in her sons’ lives whenever and however she could. Does the football team need a momma? Done. Does the basketball team need a coach? Jen’s got it. No PTO officers? Jen to the rescue. She agonized over making it to every game, play, and school event she could because she really valued those opportunities to see her sons shine.

Many of you didn’t know Jen before she got sick. Those of you who did, I am sure you would agree with me that leukemia did not change who Jen is. Leukemia magnified Jen’s greatest qualities. Sure, it magnified some of her more difficult personality traits too but those were traits that carried her through some very difficult times. These were traits that we looked for to know that Jen was still Jen. In the last few days at the hospital, we rejoiced over moments where little bits of Jen came through.

It was not easy for Jen to submit to anyone before she got sick. With her diagnosis in 2001, she learned that submission was not weakness. She wrote me a letter early on, when she wasn’t sure how much time she was going to have and told me that she hoped to meet my children, but that she had to hand her life completely over to God. It was in his hands. Praise God she lived to see not only my children, but Joe’s and Jes’ babies too. She lived to see her sons grow into strong, responsible, faithful, deep young men and she definitely enjoyed her time with them because they are total goofballs. She took every opportunity in the last eleven plus years to point toward Christ as her reason for still being alive. She was not shy about her story and so many hearts were changed listening to her unfailing trust in her savior. And I am not talking about any kind of faith – I am talking about saving faith in the living God.

Could she have gotten through this without Christ? No. I know I couldn’t. Chris and the boys couldn’t. My parents and siblings definitely couldn’t. Christ held her up when chemo had beaten her down. Christ gave her strength to fight when her body had none left. Christ gave her hope when her situation got frustrating and her pain seemed unbearable. Christ took her home when it was time.

And she wasn’t the only one learning through this trial. She once told me that whenever she started to get down or feel lonely, Chris would show up. Can we talk about the image of Christ? Self-sacrificing, selfless, patient. I am not here to talk about Chris, but knowing and loving Jen has changed him. It has changed me. Not only did Jen teach us about faith and strength, but God used her to make those of us around her into the image of the savior who ruled her life. I am a better person because of Jen. I look more like Christ because of Jen. And I would bet there are many of you here who could say the same thing. She fit more into her 36 years than most people fit into twice that. She is more than her life here on Earth. Like I said, she is bigger than this life and it was my honor to grow up in her shadow.

I can think of no better way to celebrate this Easter than to celebrate my sister.

Jen’s Eulogy Part I: Her Testimony

This is the eulogy I delivered this morning at my sister’s funeral.

Growing up with Jen is something that defies description. Knowing Jen. How do you describe anyone that shapes the very being of the people around her? The closest I can get is to use the phrase “force of nature.” Once, we had a Hansbrough sisters get together around halloween and our costume theme was “forces of nature.” Erica dressed up like a volcano; Jes was a tsunami and I was Mike Ditka. (Yes, I had a mustache.) Jen showed up without a costume and said that she was a force of nature. We all know that it was a cop out, but it was true.

But I think a more accurate description of Jen is a “force of God.” When you say “nature” it kind of implies an unexplainable coming together of things. But it was no accident that made Jen the way she was – God perfectly designed her to be that way. As a science teacher it is my job to see God’s hand in creation and I have no greater evidence of his design than in my sister Jen. Not only was she a wonder of creation – beautiful, super intelligent and freakishly strong like some sort of superhero, but all of those qualities that made her difficult to deal with as a teenager served God’s purpose too. Her stubbornness, rebelliousness, contrariness, ornery-ness – all of these things kept her alive far longer than doctors expected. Her know-it-all-ness was what kept those doctors treating her the way she needed to be treated because no one knew what Jen needed better than Jen. (And there is no surprise that she was usually right.)

More than that, God gave her many characteristics that allowed her to take her story and share it with the world. There are lots of stubborn strong people in our family, but not many of us have the ability Jen had to reach other people. Her heart was so huge. She would talk to anyone and then remember intimate details of their lives so that if she saw them again, she would ask all those questions that make people feel important. She was never afraid to say hello to someone she recognized and she went out of her way to find you if she knew you were in the same building as her. Sometimes she would visit if she was in the same geographical area. She was queen of random gifts and she often showed up with lunch just when you needed it the most. She was the first to volunteer to help with something and she had a knack for knowing just what you need.

When I came home from having my first baby, I was experiencing new baby crazies and she showed up with my mom and a pot of matzo ball soup. Exactly what I needed. She provides the perfect foil to Jes’ weirdness, which is exactly the ballast that Jes needs to understand herself in this world. Whenever Jimbo needed a place to stay, Jen was the first to offer him with a clean warm place to sleep. She acted as a second momma to Rico, often reprimanding him more harshly than our parents would because she knew he needed to hear it. She cared for Jack like one of her own children, often including him in family vacations and celebrations. Jen showed Joe that superheroes do exist, which is something he has been searching for his whole life. She loved being Aunta Nina and her nephew and nieces felt it. She knitted a million things for them, spoiled them and completely covered them with her love. As my Bo said when he found out she had died, “But who is going to love us?”

Jen has a talent for changing lives. She made my parents parents. She made my grandparents grandparents. She made my parents grandparents. She introduced all of us to No Anchovies. She brought Chris into our family and gave us a brother we all love and admire. She showed us girls how to be a mommy. She showed Alex and Will how to play hard and all of us how to be strong and trust in The Lord. Jen excelled at every job God gave her to do: wife, mommy, sister, aunt, friend.

God designed Jen the way He did because he knew she would need all these characteristics. She moved and changed everyone she met because God designed her to. She glorifies God in her very being and even in her death. She is undeniably a force of God.