by Debra Littlejohn Shinder
During the two years I've been writing this column, most installments have dealt with life online, and the relationships we form, through the miracle of computer networking technology, with people we've never even "met" in real life.
This month I'm going to depart from tradition slightly, and discuss a relationship formed decades ago in real life, a type of "networking" that has nothing to do with computers and copper wires but everything to do with communication -- which is the foundation of our modern "connected" lifestyles.
My Aunt Pearl didn't own a computer. She was, however, a networking expert. She led as "connected" a life as anyone I know. For a lot of us, the Internet has opened up a world of diversity, has shown us the way to friendships with more folks than we would have ever imagined.
My Aunt Pearl did the same thing without ever logging on. She didn't have to rely on technology to reach out and touch others; it just came naturally as part of her very real life. She and her husband, my Uncle Jerry, spent their lives building a network which, though it might not have been quite as far reaching as the Internet, spanned far beyond the small town in Texas where they lived and loved and worked and played. This month's column is a tribute to her and to her networking skills.
She was born on the fourth of July, long before they made the movie. We used to tease her, saying she must think she was pretty special since everyone set off fireworks every year to celebrate her birthday. She was.
My aunt and uncle may seem pretty ordinary at first glance. They were just a couple of East Texas kids who got married when both were seventeen, way back in the fifties. They came to Dallas not to seek fame and fortune, just a steady income and a nice little house to make into a home -- both of which they found here. My uncle, like my own dad, went to work for the City of Dallas and eventually retired from there. My aunt raised three daughters -- all of whom grew up to be productive, professional members of society and who blessed them with three grandchildren, also all girls.
A few years ago, they moved back "down home" to Sulphur Bluff, Texas and built their dream house. Since then, they've been active in their community and church, doing volunteer work at the local schools, helping out others less fortunate, in their quiet way. They always seemed to be a quietly happy couple; the image that remains most striking to me is the fact that even after all those years of marriage, when I would see my aunt and uncle together they would be holding hands. They still called each other "babe." I'm sure they had their share of marital disagreements -- but if so, they kept those quiet too. (This story was supposed to be about my aunt, but there's no way to write about Pearl without writing about Jerry).
The life they lived together may not have been an extraordinary one, but they were (again, quietly) extraordinary people. That life together came to an abrupt end on December 28, 1998. As the year drew to a close, my aunt and her sister set out early in the morning for their "meal-a-day" volunteer work. There was heavy fog, so heavy you couldn't see the road in front of you. So heavy they didn't see the eighteen-wheeler until it was too late. My aunt's new Cadillac, the one she'd been so proud of when she and Jerry came to show it to my mom, was totalled. The impact downed a utility pole and live wires covered the car; the two women were trapped inside for hours before they could be safely removed. According to witnesses, my aunt never regained consciousness, although her sister was awake and able to talk with rescuers during the ordeal.
They were taken to the local hospital, then rushed to Baylor in Dallas. Medical personnel worked diligently. My aunt was in surgery all day, and scheduled for more the next morning. We all waited, praying for the best and dreading the worst. Tuesday morning, doctors cancelled surgery and called her family together; her daughter told me later that she knew then what was coming. The doctor confirmed our fears: brain death. Her body was still alive, but the Aunt Pearl that so many people knew and loved was gone. The family made the decision to discontinue life support. The transplant team stood by; even after death, my aunt was still giving to others.
The small town of Sulphur Springs turned out en masse for the funeral. I've never seen so many flowers anywhere, ever. That was appropriate -- she loved flowers; her home was always full of them. She and Jerry lived near the cemetery where my dad and grandparents and ancestors on both sides of the family are buried. Pearl was the one who made sure there were fresh flowers on all their graves on Christmas, memorial day, birthdays and anniversaries. Now she's buried there too, surrounded by her loved ones like she always was in life.
Those of us who believe, believe that Pearl is in a better place now. So my tears are not really for her. They're for the one who loved her longest and knew her best. The rest of us will dry our eyes and go back to our normal lives. For my uncle Jerry, there will be nothing "normal" about the life he goes back to; she was too much a part of that. He has to build a whole new one -- and that's hard. He's the one for whom my heart aches most.
Jerry and Pearl were like a second set of parents to me when I was growing up. And they were solid rocks of family stability after I was grown. We visited way too seldom after they moved back to the country, but they were always close in spirit. Yet I think back and I don't know if I ever once came out and said to Pearl, "I love you." It's one of those things that's a given. You take it for granted that the people you care about know. And I guess she did, but I regret not having said it. It was the first thing I said to Jerry at the funeral, the only thing I could think of to say that made any sense at all after such a senseless tragedy.
I have been blessed with a family full of ordinary, extraordinary people like Jerry and Pearl. Sometimes I take that for granted too -- until I look around me, until I listen to friends lament about their family members, until I read the newspaper and its headlines screaming of domestic violence. Then I stop and give thanks, and think about the things that went unsaid -- to Pearl, to others now gone -- and remind myself to never again let one of these special people get away without making certain they know how much they mean to me. An extraordinary woman named Pearl is gone from this earth, and the world lost someone irreplaceable when she left. But she touched a lot of lives while she was here. And those of us lucky enough to have had her as part of ours will never forget her.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder is a writer, editor, community college instructor, and part-time computer consultant who lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area with her husband, Tom, and her teenage son.
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