She must have had a sensor that detected passing joggers. Nothing else could explain the clockwork certainty of this semi-weekly event. One block from my house, on the way to the park, sat Jane’s perpetually unlocked home, with the door ajar. Whether I was pushing a single-wide jogging stroller, a double wide, or just out running all by myself, the same thing would happen each time. From somewhere deep within her home, Jane’s sensor would alert her. Whether I kept my head down, or just faced it head-on, it mattered not. Jane would burst from her home with the enthusiasm of a Swiss farmer calling her cows home from distant fields. She would musically inform me, and the rest of the neighborhood, “Tom Wagner, I love you!” I had no mirror to confirm it, but I’m absolutely confident that, each and every time, my face was beet-red. Completely self-conscious, but secretly glad for her affection, I would demurely respond the same way each time, “I love you too, Jane.”
I wouldn’t say that Jane’s apple fell right next to the tree, but as I got to know her mom, Mary Alice, it was clear that they were two trees from the same orchard. Mary Alice had long since crossed the threshold of 90 years when she noticed something wasn’t right. Her drive to the emergency department resulted in a hospital admission. Several medical tests later, Mary Alice and her family were informed that she was dying. And this is where the iconic story comes in as told to me by my exuberant neighbor—Mary Alice’s daughter—Jane.
Her large, loving family was gathered around her deathbed. Still lucid, she asked if someone would do her a favor. “Could one of you go out to my car in the hospital parking lot? On the driver’s side is my sweater. In the pocket, you will find an Imo’s Coupon” (i.e. one of Saint Louis’s most famous purveyors of Saint Louis style pizza). “Could you get that for me, and bring it back? I want to give it to that nurse over there who’s been so kind to me.” Mary Alice’s life and death call to mind a line from one of Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s poems, “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for death.”
Unlike her mother, Jane did not make it into her nineties. Despite the fact that I knew she loved me, this knowledge did not feel like a ticket into the exclusive company of a family saying goodbye to their mom, grandma, sibling, and best friend. In retrospect, I learned that the circle she welcomed into her hospital room over the course of her dying would easily have filled a banquet room. The huge suburban church reserved for her funeral could not contain the overflow crowd gathered to see her off. Speakers had to be set up for an outdoor throng that covered the front steps, the side walk, and wound down the street. It is hard to imagine this post-pandemic, but I stood in one of the packed aisles of the church sardine-style, with bodies less than a foot apart.
Who was this dignitary that gathered a Nelson Mandela-sized crowd at her death? There were no patented inventions bearing her name, no books or TED talks. Jane did not found a religious order, lead a Fortune 500 company, or dance with any stars that I know of.
What Jane did was provide a walking, talking illustration for the Gospel passage that will be read in many Christian denominations this Sunday (John 3: 14-21). It concludes with the claim that people are drawn to light (John 3:21). This insight comes as close as any to explaining what attracted people to Jane. Pure and simple: she was light. I wasn’t the only one who regularly stood in the firehose of her loving attention. She was constantly busting out of her house to inform people of their innate lovability. Whether it was her volunteer work in Haiti, a women’s shelter in North Saint Louis, or interacting with a sales clerk at McDonalds or the grocery store, Jane was going to communicate that you are loved! (exclamation mark totally necessary!).
This week, I would like you to conduct a little research. Who are the Janes in your life? Who is light for you? How do they go about shedding it? For the last several weeks, the pages of this blog have focused upon actions, or habits that have the possibility of sweeping us up into a virtual cycle of causality where one good thing leads to the next good thing. See if your research doesn’t confirm what altruism researchers have found. Acts and habits of service tend to enhance the resilience and happiness of those who perform them. Perhaps as you meditate on the Janes in your life, you will come to know the truth of a claim made by the Thirteenth Century mystic, Saint Claire of Assisi: “We become what we love.”