This is the text of the eulogy for my friend Jan Rutherdale I delivered yesterday at Centennial Hall in Juneau, Alaska.
Once I overcame the shocking and unwelcome fact of Jan’s death, I was overtaken with a new and a forceful need to be present, to be unambiguously loving, to say yes, and to connect. My standing here is a testament to this imperative. Unlike Jan, I’m not a traveler. I’m a serious homebody, slightly reclusive, and I’m ready to say No before anyone even asks.
Jan and I met at Oberlin College.
We were among the seven women known collectively as The Red House, an off-campus dump with seven bedrooms, two bathrooms, and mice. While Jan and I were the only ones willing to set and empty the traps, we really bonded over cross-country skiing around the cemetery at night.
After we graduated, Jan lived in Oakland and I lived in Manhattan. When I visited her in California, we did things: We skied in the Sierra Nevada by day and we slept in the back of her Pinto at night; we bathed in the Calistoga mud in the morning and in the afternoon, we tasted wine on our way back through the Napa Valley.
When Jan visited me in New York, we talked. She told me about her family, her friends and her adventures, and I’d tell her mine.
Then she moved to Alaska and I moved to Vermont.
For most of our long friendship, we lived parallel lives far apart. Even after the advent of email, we still only corresponded about once a year. Jan’s Christmas letter would arrive about March. I’d reply with a Valentine in July.
It didn’t matter.
We’d pick up mid-sentence whenever we were together again. Because we knew each other’s backstories, we could move immediately into the present.
Jan was a splendid storyteller; I listened spellbound. And when it was my turn, Jan listened so intently, I know I was heard.
But four years ago, something changed.
Jan emailed, saying she was coming to visit; she had something to tell me in person.
This was ominous.
There were only two things I could imagine her having to travel to Vermont to say. I looked her over as she stepped out of the car and saw she was healthy, so I knew she came to tell me something was wrong with her marriage.
It was a twenty-four hour visit; Jan talked for eighteen.
She was distraught.
As she was getting ready to leave I blurted, “Do you want to hike the Long Trail with me?”
She said, “Yes!”
Then she asked, “What’s that?”
Hiking the Long Trail
Fourteen months later, we walked from Massachusetts to Canada along the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains. For the first half of the hike, where the terrain is relatively easy, Jan looked backward, retelling the story of her marriage from beginning to end. As we made our way north, the mountains become higher, the terrain harder, and the views above tree line more spectacular. Each time we reached a summit, we could see where we’d been and gain a glimpse of where we were going.
We’d both just turned sixty.
We were now more often in awe of our daughters than we were worried about them. We’d both cared for our parents into old age. We were on the threshold of new territory, and whenever we reached an open summit, we basked in the long view, imagining ways to shape meaningful lives for what we thought would be the next thirty years.
Walking and Talking
For twenty-five days, and for eleven hours a day, we walked and talked.
Jan told stories; I set the pace.
In camp, I followed her lead.
By watching Jan take delight in every simple task, from bathing in a cup full of water to washing the dinner pot, I learned to slow down, calm down, and look up. Jan’s utter comfort and joy in the outdoors calmed my chronic tendency toward worry. And when Jan dazzled me with her smile, I knew what it is to be loved just as I am.
Jan benefited from my literary and listening skills. I probed her with questions, encouraging her to explore connections she hadn’t considered.
After dinner we rewarded ourselves with chocolate, bourbon and silence while we wrote in our journals. We reached the Canadian border elated, tired and changed.
Hiking the Long Trail was a turning point in Jan’s recent transformation.
By the end of the hike, Jan changed her narrative. She was no longer looking backward in self-blame and regret. This is what she wrote in her Long Trail Journal the day we reached Canada, which happened to be September eighth, Megan’s birthday.
“This was the day 30 years ago that I became a mother, and now I feel like I’m starting, thanks to the Long Trail . . . a new chapter in my life. I am now turning toward myself (as Deb puts it), relying on myself. I’m feeling strong physically, mentally and emotionally.”
My husband Tim, another Oberlin friend, was our mule on the Long Trail. He’d meet us each week with food, clean laundry and stories, which he’d tell as he joined us for a day or two. At the end of the hike, Tim and I promised Jan that we’d visit her in Alaska.
We were here last summer.
Jan arranged a fantastic itinerary, including hiking locally with Isabel, taking us to meet Fred in Haines, sending us off to hike the Chilkoot, and visiting Meghan and Justin in Tenakee. Wherever we went in Southeast, we enjoyed instant goodwill simply by being associated with Jan.
And as soon as I learned Jan had died, I reached out to connect: with Megan and Isabel, with the Red House, with Fred, with Jan’s Uncle Abe and so many others, including the many people in my small village who met Jan during her brief visits.
Jan connected with people wherever she went. By sharing our stories, we are connecting with each other. By connecting, we keep Jan’s memory alive.
And Jan continues to bless us with her absolute, unambiguous love.
I end with the poet David Whyte’s definition of friendship.
The ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self. The ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.From Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, by David Whyte
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