The week had begun like virtually any other, with us rushing around in a mad attempt to get 2 adults and 3 children ready for church on Sunday morning. Our preparations on that Valentine’s Day Sunday were interrupted by a phone call, and after speaking with his mom for a few minutes, Matt informed me that his older sister Denya had died – completely unexpectedly – that morning.
One advantage of marrying young has been that Matt and I have had many years not only to grow up together but also to be part of each other’s families as they’ve grown. I remember meeting Denya and her husband Timmy and their daughters Cassilyn and Elisabeth 17 years ago, back when Cassi and Elisabeth were only pre-schoolers. Matt had always spoken highly of Denya and Tim, describing them as incredibly hard-working, kind, and wise, and as soon as I met them, I understood why. Several years later, Denya and the girls were in our wedding, honoring us with their presence and being helpful and fun throughout the weekend.
A couple years later, Denya coordinated a trip for herself and her mom to surprise Matt by coming out to Indiana for his MFA show. That supportiveness and desire to celebrate others’ big accomplishments was borne out as she parented her own children, as well. Every time we talked, she would proudly share about how Cassi and Elisabeth were doing in school and what their latest accomplishments were. She delighted in seeing them pursue and attain excellence.
And as I became a mother myself, she was one of the older women to whom I felt comfortable turning for advice. She talked with me about naps and about cultivating in your children an attitude of helpfulness. She modeled a true enjoyment of her family – a great respect for Tim and a desire to spend time with her girls, to hear about their days and be part of their lives.
She cheerfully hosted our growing family during our almost-annual trips to New York, and she sweetly took the initiative to plan for our kids’ various food preferences and arrange for age-appropriate activities for them throughout our visits. We might get family photos taken, spend a girls’ day in Syracuse, swim in their family’s pool, or prepare special meals.
And she was, of course, always available for snuggling babies!
One of my favorite memories of her as an aunt was the year we visited just after Miranda had turned one. Miranda had just learned how to make herself cough, and as I didn’t want to encourage such an activity, I generally ignored these fake coughs. Denya, however, was constantly playing to Miranda, responding to each of her coughs with exaggerated concern, asking, “Oh, my goodness, are you okay?” Miranda loved it.
During our visits, we were so blessed to spend hours with her, both learning from her and enjoying her company. She spoke candidly about some of the difficulties she faced growing up, hard decisions she had to make, and her health challenges, and she also shared with us about hers and Tim’s celebrations, accomplishments, and plans for the future. She was a great story teller and had an awesome sense of humor.
Denya was always gracious, always serving, always reaching out to us and to anyone else around her with love. She loved big. I’m a better person and a better wife and mom for having known her. I love you, Denya, and I miss you.