I had the privilege and sad task of delivering an eulogy for a very close friend last night. While there was sadness at the reality of saying goodbye, it was also a celebration of a life well lived. And, as expected, hundreds showed up — people whose lives were touched by Sonni.
I thought I would share my thoughts with you as well … I hope you all have a Sonni in your life.
I usually wear my hair a little long and have a beard. But the hair is a little longer and the beard is a bit fuller because I’m a Santa-in-training. Any ideas who got me my first gig?
We’re here tonight to celebrate the life of Mary Lee Hendrickson Sampson, more affectionately known to all of us as Sonni. I know she wouldn’t want too many tears, but would love to hear the laughter and the stories of a life well lived.
I’m Johnny-come-lately to the party. I first met Sonni about 20 years ago. When I merged my Between the Lakes with the existing Reveille, somehow Edith Delavan thought we should have an open house. She marched into the office on Routes 5 & 20 one day with Sonni in tow. My wife Karen was also on hand. The three of them immediately took over. Karen was an A personality. Sonni was an A personality. And, of course, there was Edith. It took me about 10 seconds to recognize my role was simply to step back, nod periodically and let the ladies weave their magic.
Over the next 15 years or so, our contact — Karen and I and Sonni and Scott — were casual. We might see each other working in the yard and stop for a conversation, but we typically swam in different pools.
Karen and I were on a long weekend when we heard about Scott’s death, and Sonni was at Wildwood when Karen died. All we did was exchange sympathy cards.
After Karen died, I got this brilliant idea about writing a memory book for my children detailing our life together. What I thought would be a week or two exercise swelled into a bittersweet six month project. And, as all writers know — although we don’t like to admit it — the written word is only as good as an editor’s pen. I reached out to Sonni, asking her to proofread the manuscript.
She graciously agreed. As payment, I promised her dinner out. She chose McDonald’s. We were sitting at the corner table talking about the project when she suddenly got up and right in the middle of McDonald’s gave me my first real Sonni hug. It came from her soul … as it always did for all she came into contact with. Then she gave me the manuscript … and I never saw so much red ink in all my life!
In my defense, there were a few misspelling and a couple of phrases out of syntax, but most of the red were questions about who was who, what was going on, when it happened, where we were and why it was important to the story.
It was after that incident Sonni and I developed a special bond. She decided, as a seasoned widow, she was going to take me under her wing to try and help me avoid the traps of widowhood. She was the salve that helped heal a broken heart — not repair it, not fill it, not replace it. I like to think we were helping each other get through the days of widow- and widower-hood. But deep down I knew I was the beneficiary in the relationship. We talked just about every day — if not directly, then certainly by phone or through messaging and e-mail. I knew when something was troubling her. She knew when I got into my “moods.”
We had so many memories packed into a relatively short time. She even tried to kill me … not once but twice.
Generally I sort of march to my own beat through life, but Sonni was one of the few people I would actually listen to. At her insistence — we all know what that means — I started a walking regimen. I was walking to Bonavista and even the post office without huffing and puffing, so one Saturday spring morning I called her up and asked if she wanted to go for a walk. Sure, she said. Great idea, she said. Where do you want to go? she asked. I told her Taughannock State Park.
She hesitated for a few seconds, then said, “Are you sure?”
“It’s only about a mile and a half. It shouldn’t be too bad,” I responded.
So we get to Taughannock and park at the upper rim. We start walking down the gorge, hand in hand at a leisurely pace. All was well until we got to the base on Route 89. While she stopped for a potty break, it hit me. We still had to UP the gorge!
Without trying to show fear we started back up. I don’t know how, but the return trip was much steeper than the descent. Sonni’s words of encouragement? “Scott and I used to do this all the time. Sometimes he would carry Scotty on his shoulders.” Sonni, I love you, but I really didn’t care what you and Scott did on the Taughannock trails. My legs were rubber … my mouth was parched … I had to stop about a dozen times while she danced on the steps.
That was the first time.
We also drove into New York City to see the Christmas decorations. I drove in and parked in a garage outside the Lincoln Tunnel in the mid 30s block. We meandered our way to Central Park — about two miles — stopping to look at the decorations in the store windows, Tiffany’s to window shop — we had to go to every floor — and Trump Towers. We had lunch at KFC — she always was a cheap date — where she engaged in conversations with some Israeli tourists and a woman who seemed down and lonely, both ending in one of her famous hugs.
We started back to the car, but my toe was bothering me. I thought I had a pebble in my boot and stopped a couple of times to try and dislodge it. But when we got home, I discovered I had a blister on my big toe that ruptured. I needed a cane for the next two weeks just to walk.
I actually loved to go shopping with Sonni — Wegman’s, Walmart, Sam’s, Lowe’s, Pet Smart, Hallmark … it didn’t matter. We would always walk into the store hand in hand, often stealing a kiss. It made us feel young again.
During one visit to Sam’s, I sort of got distracted at a sample stand. While munching on the pepperoni pizza I noticed Sonni had kept walking … and talking, not only with her mouth but with her hands. Suddenly about a dozen or so steps up the aisle she realized she was speaking to air. She pivoted, scrunched her face and headed back in my direction, her finger wagging as she scolded me … then hugged me as I promised not to do it again. After all, she wasn’t the first to scold me. I had heard that speech before. From that point on, however, she tethered me to the cart like a two year old just to keep track of me.
And she got even. She stopped at a sample stand featuring a veggie burger. She told me it was good, but after choking it down, all I could say was it was the best sawdust I ever ate. I got that finger-wave again!
When I took her for her pre-surgery doctor’s appointment visit a couple of weeks ago, she told everyone she saw she didn’t want an x-ray. All day she fretted about the x-ray — it’s going to give me breast cancer … I’ve had too many … Why can’t they look at my last x-ray — until she was told no x-ray, no surgery. In the waiting room she continued to worry about the x-ray and was sharing her anxiety with me … within earshot of two women waiting for their husbands to return from PET scans. Next thing I knew the four of us — okay, mostly the three women — were engaged in a conversation about anxiety, x-rays and their spouses’ conditions. Sonni went in for the x-ray — only about two minutes — and returned a little relieved and continued with her conversations. One of the husbands returned from his test and before we left we all laughing and joking. And we had to participate in a group and individual hug.
That was Sonni. She believed in the therapeutic magic of a hug. In her memory, right now, stand up, turn to your neighbor and give them a hug … not a small hug, but a deep down, from your soul hug. A Sonni hug!
Thus far, there has been a lot of “I” in my words. But in truth, there is a lot of you as well. Each of you have a story or a memory of Sonni. Some are casual interactions. Others are long term. The circumstances change, but Sonni’s heart remains at the center. As Scott [her son] so aptly says, you never just met Sonni, you experienced her.
I wouldn’t characterize Sonni as a religious gal. But she was always faith-filled. She saw God in the little things. She instinctively reached out as Jesus would to those hurting and lost with a kind word, a gentle spirit and, of course, a patented hug. When she said “Thank you God and Jesus” it wasn’t a catchphrase, but a prayer from the heart. She knew where she was going and this life was just temporary. She missed C. Scott every day. She was ready to live every day to the fullest but was not afraid of death. I know. We talked about it often.
God sends people into our lives. There is no doubt in my mind, God placed Sonni in my world, just as He placed her in your world.
As I tried to move on and took my trips to Maine, Sonni would always challenge my motives. Why did I choose Maine? And invariably it would all come back to Karen. It’s what she wanted. It’s what she would have loved. And she would just say, “Uh huh.”
When I told her about the mill apartment in Maine, she asked the same question. This time, however, I gushed about the view, the high ceilings, the old wooden beams, a brand new kitchen with all the necessary equipment and no maintenance inside or out. In short, I told her it was what I was looking for. In fact, I don’t remember mentioning Karen once.
We were again discussing the move on the way back from her surgery. She grabbed my hand, squeezed it and said, “My job is done.”
In so many ways, Sonni and Karen were cut from the same cloth. They were both strong-willed, independent, organized — yet so very fragile and too stubborn to ask for help. Often those traits got in the way of them enjoying life. They both could come up with a thousand excuses why not to go out, to go on that trip, to just stop for a minute to smell the roses. But they were always there for you when you needed them.
As I was driving and mentally preparing this text, the sky was cloudy, except for two beams of sunshine. I envisioned in my mind’s eye Sonni with her Diet Pepsi and Karen with her water turned into exquisite wine toasting each other on celestial lounge chairs.
To which I say, Well done, good and faithful servants.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: God created your face. You create the expression.