Friday, November 7, 2008

the size of one woman's heart

The size of one woman’s heart is difficult to capture when one is thinking of my mother. In many ways her heart defined everything that she was. From a very young age she gave herself over to the welfare of others in such an unrelenting manner that I sometimes worried that someday she would get lost in that heart of hers.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was as a daughter. As an innocent adolescent she bravely and unrelentingly supported her parents and gave herself over to the welfare of her younger siblings when her mother fell ill and couldn’t do the things that needed to be done.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was as a student. She excelled at her courses and in her early 20s continued her selfless acts of kindness in Hospital School. Day in and day out she willingly took on the most difficult of cases and helped patients and their families create new strategies of living and engaging so that life became easier to bear.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was a wife. As a married woman she lovingly supported my father during the early years of their marriage and then proceeded to contribute every cent she ever earned to the welfare of her family. She helped my father through medical school and then helped my brother and I in such a way that we were never, not once, left suffering from an unmet need. Over the years she was so swollen with pride for him that she needed nothing else for herself and with each added moment of their marriage came more hand holding, more kisses and more endearing shared moments. In some ways it was if her illness allowed her to let down her guard a little, if only with him, and he relished in his position with pride.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was as a teacher. As a well trained LD specialist, she passionately labored over IEPs and spent endless amounts of time advocating for the most vulnerable of children. And, even though many of us believed more was being asked of her than could possibly be done, she never gave up because with each child that came before her in need her desire to help, protect and fight for their rights trumped any rational side of her brain that spoke of restraint or the risk of burnout. In the last years of her service to the Janesville school system she honorably served as a volunteer and refused to take a cent for her contributions to the development of our country’s future.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was a friend. As a companion to many my mother would drop everything if someone was in need. With friends in all age groups she could frequently be seen going from babysitting the grandson of an old colleague to visiting a retirement home to spend time with a dear neighbor. Instantly befriending anyone in her path she carried caramels to her pharmacist when filling prescriptions and invited a friendly new house painter into her orb with pleasure. This gentleman, a kindred spirit of sorts, soon became a staple in my mother’s social life and he would energetically show up to the house to chat about world affairs, his home country and life for hours on end.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was as a mother. As a nurturing mother, she loved my brother and I so intensely and so deeply that sometimes it felt like she might disappear in all that love. But, she did not disappear, not once, and she was there for every meaningful and every circumstantial event in our lives. From basketball games to golf matches and graduation ceremonies to dove hunting she stood by and supported us, cheered for us and loved us so deeply and so proudly she was frequently moved to tears by this felt love.

Now one might say that’s a lot of parts for one heart and you might be right, but as I mentioned before, we aren’t talking about just any heart; we are talking about my mother’s heart and it was a very big heart indeed. When it came time to give to others outside her family she gave so graciously that people were frequently moved to tears by the veracity of her giving. For soccer matches Drew and I would have enough orange slices to feed all the participants of the World Cup; for catered events, either at school or the hospital, she would bring enough food to feed a small village. No matter what the occasion, she outdid herself each and every time.

In the few short days since we lost her each every person who has approached me or contacted me has commented on the size of her heart. The collective memory of Joanie Vogel seems to capture this core aspect of her with absolute clarity. Each thoughtful gift stands out in stark relief from what could have been done has she cared less. In this moment, without the passage of time to smudge the memories of her existence, I am comforted by each vital detail of her heartfelt contribution to people in her life and the sheer amount of heart that was involved in her interactions with others.

In some ways I think this might be why it hurts a little bit more now. In this world we’re living in, a world where self-interest rules the day, my mother was such a striking contradiction to the norm that I think there were times she suffered as a result of her nature. By that I mean it appeared as if she periodically became so overwhelmed by her desire to give, to love, to show she cared that she could get lost in the emotions of it all. As her daughter and someone who has chosen a helping profession, I have tried for years to emulate her sprit but have constantly fallen short. Even today as I work with torture survivors in Africa I can’t touch the level of innate humanitarianism she embodied.

So dear audience if you remember anything about Joanie Vogel please please remember the amazing size of her heart.


Anonymous said...

Gwen- I see you more and more in her everytime we talk. You know what they say, "the older a women gets, the more she emulates her mother". I am not really sure who "they" are, but it appears to be true. Your heart, as well as your mother's, are two of the biggest I have ever encountered. I think of all of the times we have spent together (dating back to freshman year in high school) and how she was always there for us, especially when the fam and I got food poisoning in Santa Belle Island...she was a great person with a big heart, and for that you should be proud! I know she is proud of you for all you do.
Take care of yourself and your family. Love- Tia

Anonymous said...

My dearest Gomah Gwen~ My sister's heart was also so swollen with pride for her children and husband that she needed nothing else for herself. Her constant support and love through my entire life has been a unique gift. I've watched her pour that passion into our family as far back as I can remember and have seen it spread to all she encountered in her life.
You're always in my heart.
Sista Auntie

Altimus Jones said...

gwen. first off this is ted lee. yes the same ted that spent so many nights with drew driving you batty.the same ted that knocked his tooth out in the reed's swimming pool that summer. this is very odd way of re-connecting with you but i found the need to get word to you after hearing the news this afternoon. your mom for many years, as you remember was a second mom for me. my mind, these past few hours, has been spinning with vogel memories and there in each and everyone is that smile of hers... . how much joy i always saw in her face. i am picturing that beaming smile of hers right now as i type. that smile never will never fade for me. The last i saw of your mom,was a cold january's night around 4 years ago. i took melissa out to meet your mom and dad during a quick trip up to the northlands of wisconsin. thought it had been quite a few years since i had last seen her or been out to woodbury lane. it was almost as time had stood still for us. sure i was good bit taller, the kitchen was a bit different.... her hair was a bit greyer, but there we sat in the den right off the deck, at times i almsot felt 6 again. I spoke to sally a little bit ago and reminiced on your moms impact on her own life. she herself credits your parents for helping shape her own life as well. my heart, my thoughts, and prayers are with you,drew,jim,and the rest of you family right now. love ted, melissa, and bergen

Anonymous said...

I haven't spoken to you in years, but I still remember your mother very fondly. What you wrote about her was beautiful. You are right that she was an amazing woman. But although I don't know you well and have only seen some snippets of the work you have done over the years... I can tell you that I am positive that you are doing amazing and loving work as well. She must have been so very proud of you and all you have done. And I'm sure that her love and her support helped you achieve all that you have. I have lost both my parents, so I have some idea of the pain you feel. Take care of yourself. My love and thoughts to you and your family.
-- Carrie Casey Bower

Anonymous said...

Gwen, what an eloquent and moving tribute to your dear mother. I'm so blessed to have been the lucky recipient of her big love for more than 20 years. My heart aches for you, Drew and your dad but I would not presume to say I know how you feel. Something I do know is that we'll see Joanie's magnificient smile shining down on us whenever we study the night sky. With so much love and tons of hugs, Mali

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