Is there room for a eulogy on a teaching blog? In this case, I think there is. I learned so much about writing and living and loving and teaching from my sister. I have written about her on this blog many times. Katherine Elliott Joachim died on February 2, 2016. It seems right to honor her here.
I am Elliott’s sister, Annie, one of the Hopkins girls. I am the Annie of “Annie and Katie” (Elliott’s childhood name). She was my sister and as little girls we developed a little school of love and friendship that we would later take on the road as we learned to love and befriend others. I think you all will agree that when it comes to love and friendship, Katherine Elliott Joachim was an expert. We know. We are here because we loved Elliott Joachim and she loved us. And we, all of us, are better for it.
I am a teacher by profession, but my sister was a teacher by nature. Ever the teacher, she planned this service so very carefully today. She asked me to do the eulogy. I took some notes as we talked. Later when I picked up the notepad, I noticed that she’d drawn a big heart on the paper with these words: “I’ll be watching from heaven.” No pressure, right? She was a purveyor of truth, hope, joy, and courage. She did everything well, and when she found out she was going to die, she was determined to do that well, too. It turns out that she had a head start on this. I was present when her doctor told her that he too had become her student because she was facing death so bravely and with such determination. But this did not surprise him. He said to her: “We die as we live.” And it turned out to be true. If you want to die well, live well. If you want to die bravely, live bravely. If you don’t want to die with unfinished business, don’t live with unfinished business.
When I asked her what she wanted me to say in this eulogy, she said simply this: “Say that mom is my monument and my legacy from my mom is my charm.” We laughed at the irony of this: My grandmother once said to my mother, “I’ve sent you to three finishing schools; it is not my fault if you are not done.” Elliott talked about how my mother’s charm could not be contained by convention. How she was so aware of our talents and made sure that we had lessons and opportunities to develop them—for Elliott that was art and dance. And glamour. She talked about the dinners of our childhood—lovely meals cadenced with stories shared and how they always ended on just the right note. It was from our mother that Elliott developed her beautiful gift for language, leaving a trail of pithy poetry in the air and in her wake. She talked about how we were taught that good manners were to make the people around you more comfortable. She said that mom taught us to laugh at ourselves but not at others. (By the way, laughing at one another, as siblings, counted as laughing at ourselves—but we were not to take that out into the world.) We were taught to laugh WITH everyone. I promised Elliott I would say these things. And there are some other things I want to say.
Her truths were hard won, but she never imposed them on others. She assumed that the rest of us were working on our own hard-won truths. She was a work in progress–a beautiful work in progress–and she knew this was true for all of us. Elliott knew grace. She knew forgiveness. She traveled with a stack of “Get out of Jail Free Cards,” and knew that resentment was a blind alley to nowhere.
As teenagers, Elliott and I were devoted to magazines, especially Seventeen Magazine and Glamour Magazine. We especially loved the “How to do Anything Better Guide” in Glamour Magazine. Elliott became a walking “How to do Anything Better Guide” — the queen of self-improvement–because she knew life could be better. She could be better. We could be better. She read countless self-help books—each one ‘life changing.’ Elliott was brilliant.
I was six and she was three and we felt like peers. When she was three and said to me, “I would say you were stupid, but Mommy says you are getting an inferiority complex. I went out and asked my mother what an “inferiority complex was. She responded with, “Katherine Elliott Hopkins come here right now!” I still didn’t know what an ‘inferiority complex’ was, but I knew I was at risk.
Yes, she was brilliant. She was creative. And she was highly sensitive: The perfect storm for addiction. Addiction provided the backdrop for a duel between joy and torment that lasted for years and took her away from us for a long time. Ultimately Joy won. And the Queen of Self-Improvement found the ultimate self-improvement program: Alcoholics Anonymous.
For Elliott the “Anonymous” was very important… but really only when it came to other people. For Elliott, Authenticity trumped Anonymity. In AA she found release and recovery; she reclaimed her life and family. And eventually she also found true love. In an AA meeting at the United States Capitol, Elliott met Bruno Joachim, the love of her life. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Are you sure AA is the place you want to meet someone?” There was no question. He was the one. She fell in love with the man and then fell in love with his four children: Kathryn, Alex, Curtis, and Max. . She never wavered in this love, which grew to include Anna, Curtis’ wife and Ollie, Kathryn’s fiancée… and the mother of his children, Kathy Ahearn.
And then Elliott met her second great love: Mexico. Ground zero for magical realism. A perfect fit. She and Bruno went there for a vacation and bought a house. They never looked back. Mexico was Elliott’s victory lap. A good long victory lap. Love in slow motion for a place, a people, and a community. She lived well and she loved well. She gave well. The regional head of Cruz Rojas (the Red Cross in Mexico and her favorite charity) said that her philosophy had benefited so many: “Have fun. Do good. Raise Money for others.” She loved her life and she loved her family and she loved her friends. Mexico was the final destination in a circuitous search for home. Having grown up around the world, home had been a nomadic notion of the heart. Home was family…. But finally, in Mexico, home found a place.
When Elliott was diagnosed it was horrifying. She was a quick wit with a silver tongue, and her voice harmonized with her powers of keen observation. That silver tongue and distinctive voice were compromised by her illness. But she kept on living. And she kept on loving. She gave recovery every chance, even though every chance made life harder. She stayed charged with the possibilities that life holds. She helped us hope because hope helped us. She helped us hope even when her hope was rapidly diminishing—not because she was losing her ability to hope, but as a realist she knew she was losing her life. We scanned the horizon for the miracles we wanted. Elliott just scanned the horizon for miracles. And I can tell you that she found them every day of her life. We had one name for miracle: “cure.” She had so many names for miracles and she counted the names of her family and friends—your names– among them. We wanted faith that would move mountains and end this; she wanted faith that would sustain her through the end. And that is the kind of faith my sister had. Together we learned that faith is not controlling the outcome; it is living fully in the face of the outcome.
My sister lost her life to cancer, but she did not lose her battle. Facing this mighty foe, and fighting valiantly, she sharpened her focus and her faith. She said to me once, “We are all terminal; most of don’t know what it is that is going to get us, but I do.” There was nothing defeatist about this. There was something victorious. The fight was going to be worth it, no matter how it came out. She lived her life out in the world as much as she could. A day out meant days resting at home… and to Elliott it was totally worth it.
She died as she lived, with courage, grace, exquisite manners, and yes, with the charm that she learned from our mother. As people talk about Elliott, one phrase comes up over and over: Elliott lit up the room. She did. But she was lit from within and she learned how to tend and cultivate that holy fire. To paraphrase the poet Steven Spender: “Born of the sun, she traveled a short while towards the sun, and she has left the vivid air signed with her love.”