My dead sister’s birthday is today, April 8th, and she, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer in September 2022 after two years of diagnosis. I shared this at her memorial (Sept 2022), held at Delaware’s Christiana High School standing room only auditorium, where she taught and coached for over 30 years. Here is her eulogy: (and if you read that in a Law & Order voice, you totally get my sister).
Jennifer’s hometown is a small one-light village where the (one) doctor made house calls, the (one) cop called your dad, and we rode horses, not bikes, to the deli to get roast beef sandwiches and a giant pickle. We went to same school our dad went to; our uncle was the superintendent. Everyone knows everyone.
And Jennifer was everyone. Jock. Smartypants. Worker. Valedictorian. Pain in the ass know it all. Friend. Sister. Daughter. Aunt.
Her nieces and nephew are jocks – and really good ones. Field hockey, motorcross, track, swim, lacrosse, horseback riding, cheer, soccer, hoops – and yes, volleyball – and yet she barely if ever made a game.
Because she had her own kids – all of you.
Not just you volleyball players, although she loved you best, she had to be there, in particular, for her Christiana students to exceed and excel against all odds, at all times. In the classroom and on the court, fields, and track. She had high demands, but wanted to give you the support you needed to achieve them, and would fight the system that held them back.
She started on that path young.
One overcast day at Pawling Elementary during indoor recess, there was a revolt. Tired of being told what to do, one student blockaded themselves in a classroom and began negotiations with on why indoor recess was unfair when it’s not even raining, and when the lunch ladies threatened to call the principal, the 10, or maybe 11 year-old organizer yelled through the door: you are violating our constitutional rights.
And it was Mrs Tanner, or Mrs Summerson, definitely not Mr. Polikoff cuz he was super nice and would have encouraged such behavior, when they returned from their own lunch, took Norma Rae, otherwise known as Jennifer Mayer, and disciplined her.
She had to write out, 100 times:
At the teacher’s request, I will obey them at all times.
It was like a bad episode of the Simpsons except real life, in real time.
It was probably then she decided the kind of teacher and coach she was going to be. Not that kind. Tough. Hard. But always fair and a good listener, especially to the kids not talking.
Jennifer was valedictorian of her class, all while working 40 hours a week at Burger King, playing duh, volleyball, being in the band, chorus, school plays. She missed so much school by writing herself out, mostly to work at Burger King, that when our mom wrote her an excuse, the school called because they didn’t recognize the handwriting.
What does it matter when I get the job done as long as I get it done? She argued. She wasn’t wrong. She seldom was.
When she graduated high school, Mr. DeLucia, our principal was happy cuz he now had four free lockers for more students. Jennifer had commandeered four lockers because she needed extra room for her “stuff:” one for music, two for athletics, and two for the books and notebooks she likely read in the first week and never opened again. Didn’t need to. So those of you surprised by her office, or car, or backpack, she’s always been like this. Always.
A collector. Of gifts. Treasures. Memories. People. Families. Love.
After Colgate, where she had little tolerance for the rich kids with silver spoons, and less for the dumb kids with connections that got them there, she went to work at my mother’s school district as a long-term sub. Unfortunately, she was not offered the position when it became available, a rarity for subs, because she once again, went rogue. She gave the “bad students” AP exams. She hid them, the exams not the kids, in the trunk of her car, and administered them during detention because she knew they were smart as hell and just needed someone to advocate for them. When bragging about their excellent results, the lead teacher was less enthused, and apparently, the administration didn’t agree either with her discovery either.
She wasn’t asked back and she left for Delaware – Lucky, lucky you.
When covid first hit and schools went remote, Jennifer was worried, not about the A-list — they’re gonna be alright anyway students. Her constant concern was about her students: not just the ones who struggled for wifi and technology, or the ones whose parents were essential workers and kids didn’t know what would happen if they died. She worried about them alright, but also those who needed her. Not for calc tutoring or volleyball coaching, but for the ones she quietly and consistently made lunch for, brought money in, did their laundry. Her kids needed her, and with remote learning, she was distraught they would be not left behind, but forgotten altogether.
This is who she was.
My sister was also a royal pain in the ass. Stubborn. Obstinate. A complete and utter know-it-all. And a rule follower till the end. She refused to take meds if the allotted time hadn’t passed. When I tried to slip a Xanax (or two) into her morning or evening pill box, in a second she could tell there were extra pills there and gave me a side-eye.
She gave me that often.
I tried to get her to talk about the hard stuff. Dying. Memorials. Obituaries. Wishes. She would just turn up the tv and tune me out. So I suggested, rather loudly to be heard over Law & Order, okay then, I’ll just sprinkle your ashes around the Christiana football field — and she gave me the eye, muted the TV, and barked: “Absolutely not Kathy. Are you nuts? No way – it’s against the rules.”
I knew better than to suggest the gym.
But I got her attention enough to talk about donations in lieu of flowers. She decided Christiana Volleyball, then to Christiana Athletics but – “not to the administration. Not one dime, Kathy, make sure the money gets to the kids who need it.”
When Jennifer was dying, not the first time, but the third or fourth, she was on the oncology floor of Christiana and one of you kind parents live-streamed a game so she could watch on her laptop.
Not a great idea for the oncology floor.
She yelled so loud at the game that nurses came running, full panic, to see what was wrong. Apparently, someone was not getting low enough, or standing flat-footed, I don’t know, but I was super pissed and told her to keep it down.
“Are you out of your mind? Shut up already, Jennifer! People are literally dying on this floor — DYING.”
And she said, “Not me, I’m coaching.”
I can only hope she’s still coaching, wherever she is, loud and proud, and knowing she did indeed, leave the world a better place, sadder maybe, but most definitely better.
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