My parents couldn't reach me by phone so they drove an hour to deliver the message in person. Only...I wasn't home. So it fell to my youngest son to tell me Aunt Riesa was gone. I'm not sure either of us were prepared for my reaction. I'm not even sure I knew, until that moment, how very much I loved her.
Later that night, my mother asked me how I'd feel about preparing and delivering Riesa's eulogy. "No. Way. I am waaay too emotional...I'll never make it through. I can't even form a sentence without falling apart!" That's when I learned she had already volunteered my services and her suggestion was universally approved. Gee thanks, Momma.
In the end, I was glad she proceeded without my permission, because it forced me to engage in the active work of remembrance, grief, and thanksgiving which I might otherwise have avoided.
I know many of you knew Riesa along the way and were blessed by her life, so I'm sharing these good words in reflection of her 58 years.
My sweet little girl, Riesa Kay Waggoner, was born on March 18, 1958. In spite of the objective reality embedded in that date, the fact is: Riesa didn’t age like the rest of us. When I was 11, she was 18. When I was 23, she was 18. Somehow I blew right past her all the way into my late 40s while she managed to linger at 18. But who was I to question? She didn’t take kindly to those who attempted to persuade her that she was actually 30-something…or 40-something…or 50-something!
Riesa didn’t always have control over the realities of life in the same way she assumed control over her age. Her birth was accompanied by some measure of chaos and her entrance into this world was traumatic, resulting in an APGAR score that was too low…a troublesome indicator of things to come.
In 1958, attitudes and perceptions about babies born with Down’s Syndrome were drastically different than they are in 2016. Once Riesa was labeled as “Mongoloid” – as they called people with Down’s in those days – some doctors suggested she be institutionalized and forgotten. After all, she wouldn’t live long and certainly not well. She would only be a source of inconvenience and trouble for an otherwise healthy family. But these doctors didn’t reckon on one thing: Mother Shirley
Thankfully for all of us, her mother – my Grandma – saw things differently. She valued the life of her “sweet daughter, Riesa” and devoted herself to her survival. That’s no exaggeration. Riesa’s very life was at stake because she was unable to nurse or take a bottle for sustenance. Her mother remained on active duty around the clock in order to feed her from a medicine dropper at intervals that allowed Riesa, not only to survive, but eventually to thrive. We owe you a debt of gratitude, Grandma. Because of your dedication and intensive labor in those early days, all of us have been allowed to share in the joy of knowing and experiencing life with Riesa.
In reminiscing on those experiences that span several decades, I made some rather obvious observations that I think many of you will relate to based on your own experiences with her:
Riesa loved family. Because Riesa was 7 years older than I, I don’t remember much about her early years. In fact, my clearest memories originate around Riesa’s teen years. Our family would make trips from Chicago to visit G’ma, G’dad, and Riesa and b/c we were coming from a distance, we would also stay with them. We 6 children – or when it was a holiday and ALL the cousins showed up, it could be as many as 12 children! – would invade her space…play with her toys…ride her bike…hijack her skateboard…monopolize her scooter…listen to her records…sleep in her bed…cover her bedroom floor with pallets…and all around disturb her normally peaceful world. But I never remember feeling like we were an imposition on her. I don’t remember her trying to keep us out of HER stuff. Perhaps I was clueless, but I’m pretty sure she WANTED us there! She was amazingly accommodating and patient with all the disruption that accompanied our arrival and with the ensuing demand to share her stuff, her people, and her space.
One of my favorite memories from a time when we lived in their home, is of her sitting for hours around the living room with my sisters and me as we thumbed through bridal magazines, each of us imagining our own special day yet to come. I remember Grandma worrying that it might stir an expectation in Riesa of her own wedding day, which would never come to pass. But she loved the beautiful gowns as much as we did and she dreamt right along with us.
Riesa loved music. From the earliest days, it was clear that she had inherited her daddy’s love of music. She spent hours sitting by her turntable playing her records. I remember hearing many hymns, LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of Marcy, with a hearty dose of Phil & Lori thrown in…and she sang along with all of them. Riesa had a remarkable capacity to memorize songs.
Riesa loved to write. I never knew just *how* much until she lived in my home and I saw her go at it for hours upon hours, filling page after page after page with words and numbers and sometimes shapes…but mostly words. I couldn’t always decipher those words or her meaning, but that didn’t deter her. The most common words were the names of people she loved and their ages or birth dates. This is what she wrote, b/c this is what mattered to her b/c
Riesa loved people. Well…*most* people. Everywhere she went, she endeared herself to people. Years after high school ended, she could rifle through old school pics and name every one of them and often add some personal detail about them. She made friends at each church, school, workshop, residence…it didn’t matter…she made friends. She always had her favorites too. You considered yourself lucky if you made it into that category.
Riesa loved to laugh…and she loved to make US laugh. A lot. She left us a host of Riesa-isms that have become permanently embedded in our family vocabulary. My personal favorite conferred upon me: “Your hips are too fat behind your back!”
She loved to be silly and she loved it even more when WE were silly. Pam was one of those chosen favorites who could get her laughing so hard she could hardly catch her breath.
Riesa loved home. She seemed to have a sense of place as important and she not only loved being at home, but she also loved being invited into other’s homes. She also adapted to a number of homes over the years…whether it was a new house in Festus after many years in Jackson, her first stint at My Place Residential, her time living in my home, or her final stay at My Place…Riesa adjusted and contented herself in each of those homes with an uncanny adaptability.
Her way of expressing her contentment with a particular place was to say “This house is better.” If she pronounced that over YOUR space, you knew she felt loved and welcomed and accepted and that she wanted to stay for as long as she could. She might even be a little irritated when you forced her to go.
Riesa loved Jesus. Another evidence of Grandma’s dedication was that Riesa memorized a lot of Scripture as a child as she worked her way through the Bible Memory Association program. One of my great joys during her stay with me was praying Psalm 23 together and passing by her room to see her sitting in her bed with her Bible open as if she were reading it before she turned her lights out at night. She couldn’t read it, but there was a sense that it mattered.
When her mother taught her the implications of John 14…that Grandmother, or Grandma Palmer, or Daddy, had gone to live with Jesus in his big beautiful house, she believed it. Well…mostly. There was that moment when told that Grandmother went to live in Jesus’ house and she uttered what all of us *feel* sometimes at the loss of a loved one: “stupid Jesus”…and yet...many more times, she voiced her childlike faith in Jesus as she’d talk about these loved ones being in the “big beautiful house” with Jesus.
So…Despite the early predictions of those doctors, Riesa lived both long AND well.
In some ways, it’s almost impossible to believe that she is gone from us. Some joys of this life have flown with her, but so has the worry of what might become of her as she aged…what measure of illness or pain she might be called on to endure…and we can give thanks that her merciful Savior spared her from prolonged suffering, including the death of her dearest, Mother Shirley.
When I’m able to lay aside the suddenness and shock of her absence, I am mostly consumed with thoughts of what Riesa might be experiencing in the presence of her Savior and what her life might look like at the Final Resurrection when body and soul are re-united in glory.
I look forward to the day when I will share in resurrected life with Riesa without the limitations that plagued her in this life.
I want to hear as she joins her voice with the hosts of heaven and all the Family of God in singing praise to that faithful Shepherd of Psalm 23.
I can’t wait for that first conversation where she is unhindered by her ability to express freely all those words and thoughts she penned over the years.
I eagerly await her participation in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb when she will have no regrets about the absence of married love in this life.
But for now, along with her mother, I imagine Riesa walking – with a lightness in her step – through Jesus’ big, beautiful house saying with renewed vigor and unmitigated certainty: “THIS house is better.”