Friday, September 2, 2016

Lessons from Dorothy

My dear friend of over 30 years, Dorothy Jenson, died of inoperable liver cancer on Sunday, August 21.

She died at home, with her family. She was comfortable and did not experience pain. I was privileged to spend several sweet times with her in her last few weeks of life. Mark and I joined Dorothy and Ken,  at Sparks Lake in July. We visited Dorothy and Ken at home several times over the summer. Three nights before she died, I spent the night with her so that Ken and their son could get a full night's sleep. These were sweet, tender visits. I am so grateful that the family included me as a family member right up till the end.

Her memorial service was held just two days after she died. She had asked that I give a eulogy and play a song I had written with my ukulele.

Life lessons from Dorothy

            Dorothy Jenson and I met when we were in our mid-twenties. We share the same birth year, the same age of convert baptism, and we both gave birth to five children within the same decade. We share a similar love of the outdoors, books, family, and the gospel. For the first 10 years of our friendship, we were in the same ward; since then we have been in the same ward only briefly as the Oregon City ward boundaries have shifted from two wards when we moved here, to the five wards we know today.
            Across the nearly four decades of our close friendship, I have learned many important lessons from Dorothy. I would like to share eight of those lessons with you today.

1.     Use lots of colors
       If you were to describe Dorothy Jenson in only one word, which word would it be? For many of us, the word “artist” immediately comes to mind. And while some artists may prefer to work in media such as black pen or charcoal, that would not be Dorothy. To experience Dorothy’s art is to experience color. One time Dorothy and I were together in the celestial room of the Portland Temple, a room that is decorated in gold and white to suggest the light and beauty of heaven. As we turned to leave, Dorothy pointed out to me that the carpet was a shade of lavender. What?!? A hint of purple in that gold-and-white room? But I took a closer look at realized that Dorothy was right. Dorothy’s paintings often surprise me with color—orange in a mountain snowfield, pink along the side of a road, blue on a hawk’s face, yellow in a nighttime sky, deep reds and purples among meadow grasses, green hues in white daisy petals,
       In one of her blog posts about her art, she wrote, “Well, who knows what is going to happen when I sit down in my studio? I'm not always sure I do. Today I was thinking about abstract...just designing with color to see what comes up.” What came up was a meadow that looked just like a meadow, even though—or probably because—she used 10 or more different bright colors to paint a scene where I might have imagined only 2 or 3 muted shades.
2.    Pay attention
Dorothy’s use of color is correlated with another of her traits. Along the Eagle Creek Trail, on our first girls-only backpack trip I asked her what she saw as we hiked. I wondered what she noticed with her artist’s eyes. She showed me the lines in the landscape—the lines made by tree limbs, and how the lines of a Douglas fir are different from the lines of a maple tree. She pointed out the contrasts between the light on needles and leaves and the dark shadows that made the light more evident.
       Until she pointed these things out to me, I hadn’t seen any of them. She saw them because she paid attention. Paying attention in this way requires analysis, breaking the whole into parts. Seeing detail. Really seeing, attending.
       Not only did Dorothy attend to shadows and shapes, she attended to people. She noticed details and nuances in what people said and did. So much of living a life of kindness is tied to knowing when and how to be kind, and Dorothy blessed my life and yours because she knew how to pay attention.
3.    A sense of smell is highly overrated
       Did you know that Dorothy did not have a sense of smell? There was always some irony for me in her love of flower gardening, but for Dorothy, flowers didn’t grow for sweet smell; flowers were all about color. I remember one time walking into the house on John Adams Street, with the scent of Dorothy’s delicious homemade bread wafting through the screen door as I pushed it aside. “What smells so good?” I reflexively asked her (even though it was obviously bread baking). “I don’t know,” she replied, laughing.
       Dorothy found humor and the bright side in her “disability.” Stinky diapers produced by five babies never bothered her! In recent years when she and Ken organized campouts at Sparks, Lake, she cheerfully managed the group’s porta-potty maintenance—nothing smelled funky to Dorothy.
       Although Dorothy generally maintained a light-hearted take on her inability to smell, she was sometimes wistful. She shared with me how she appreciated the skills of sister-in-law Kate to describe scent in terms of color and texture.  Daughter Sarah remembers describing scents to Dorothy as colors. Dorothy told me once that for one afternoon, she briefly gained the ability to smell and that she had eagerly sniffed everything until the gift faded in the evening. Although Dorothy’s stance toward not smelling—that it was no big deal, really—was positive and light-hearted, I can’t help but think how much she must be enjoying the sweet smells of her new heavenly home.
4.     Be nice
       Years ago, when Gordon B. Hinckley was still president of the Church, Dorothy sat down with the General Conference talks published in the Ensign magazine to read all of Present Hinckley’s messages from the recent conference.
She told me afterwards that she wanted to capture his key ideas so she could commit to following the prophet’s counsel. To her surprise, she was able to distill his several messages into two words: Be Nice.
       Be nice! It seemed almost irreverent to think that the inspired words of a prophet, especially the words spoken over the pulpit at a General Conference in Salt Lake City, could be summarized in only 6 letters. Dorothy was not deterred by the simplicity of the syntax. She fully understood that “being nice” required choices and actions on her part, and that “being nice” is a call to walk the higher road, to make the better choice, to choose charity over cheap gossip, to look for—and to acknowledge—the good, to stick up for the underdog, and to trust that others are doing the best they can.
        It is one thing to be nice as a matter of our natures. Dorothy has always been a nice person. But even nice people get tired or frustrated or overwhelmed, and they can speak crossly to a child or spouse, or forget to be grateful in the midst of trials. I believe that discovering that golden nugget of prophetic counsel to “be nice” gave Dorothy a motivation to develop her basic nature and become a mature woman of charity who made deliberate choices to follow the example of her savior.
5.    Go play outside
       One of the gifts of the last few weeks of gradual goodbye for the Jenson family has been the time they have spent together discovering Dorothy’s journals and letters from years back. Becky shared with me how tender it was to read her mother’s thoughts about her before she was even born. And one of the hopes that young Dorothy had for her future family was that she would be able to teach them to love the outdoors.
       Dorothy was thoroughly happy outside. She loved to walk and garden and hike and camp and and canoe and swim and paint and dream and simply be outside. For the last ten years that she and Ken lived in Oregon City, Dorothy and her walking buddy Paulene walked for an hour every morning at 7:00 am, rain or shine. I joined them a few times when I wasn’t teaching, and it was hard to keep up with them! For Dorothy, some of the chief joys of moving to Washougal were the meadow and woodlands surrounding their home, roasting marshmallows with grandchildren around the fire pit, the patio perched on the rise that looked over the valley, the shaded porch with its swing, the flower beds lovingly planted by her Relief Society sisters, the raised vegetable beds Ken built so she could continue gardening into the last weeks of her life—all inviting her outside, every day, to play.
6.    Get it over with
Most of the years we camped with our canoes at Sparks Lake, we pitched our tents at “the cove,” a campsite with its own swimming hole. Of course we took advantage of our swimming hole on the warm central-Oregon summer afternoons! I will always be able to hear Dorothy saying to me, “Kathy, just get in!” Perhaps you will sympathize with me as you imagine that cold water hitting the back of your knees, the top of your thighs, your navel—of course one has to experience things like that gradually, to take time to get used to it. Not Dorothy. It didn’t matter to Dorothy that the water was cold. She knew that getting right in—getting it over with—meant that she could be enjoying the water sooner. She and Ken often joked that by the time I got in the water, they were finished swimming and ready to dry off.
       Dorothy’s practical, down-to-earth view of life helped her to take challenges in stride. Whatever the unpleasantness, it was best to face the reality and get it over with. When the cancer diagnosis came, Dorothy squared her shoulders and deliberately savored each day. And when it became evident that the chemotherapy was not going to allow her to be fully herself in her last months of life, she and Ken talked it over and then she made the classic Dorothy choice—to get it over with—not to hurry death, but also not to prolong a poor quality of life, chasing unrealistic fantasies of a magic cure.
7.     Write it down
       Most of us think of visual art when we think of Dorothy, and rightly so. She is a prolific and highly creative artist. She is also, however, a prolific and dedicated writer. She kept a thoughtful, opinionated, and descriptively detailed journal all of her adult life, a legacy that her family treasures. When she was called as Relief Society president, she instituted a weekly email, titled “The Chatter,” to all the women in the ward. Her vision was more than an informative list of activities and announcements. She wanted to write a weekly letter to the women in the ward, her sisters, to bind our hearts together. Oh, how we looked forward to Dorothy’s weekly chatty email letters.
       And speaking of letters, Dorothy maintained a lively correspondence with Ken when, as newlyweds of only one year, they were separated for several months while he completed army training. Dorothy’s family recently rediscovered these letters as they were sorting through her correspondence, and what a treasure they have been—to read the tender words of that young husband and wife, missing one another, writing of their hopes and dreams for the future. More recently, since her cancer diagnosis, Dorothy has composed individual handwritten letters for each of her 14 grandchildren and 5 children and also her mother and Ken.
       Through her writing, Dorothy’s family continues to hear her voice on matters from the mundane and daily to the deeply thoughtful. Dorothy could always be counted on to get to the point, to speak the truth, and yet to do so gently, and with humor and love.
8.    Stick to your story
       We rarely use the word “true” in one of its archaic uses, which is to be in exact alignment, exactly straight. Dorothy Jenson was true in that way. She had an innate sense of justice, of kindness, and though she was often perceived as a quiet person, she was never afraid to speak up in defense of her family and others if the occasion demanded.
      She was also never afraid to interject her version of a story. I have witnessed, many times, Dorothy reminding Ken that we wasn’t getting the story quite right, and then sharing her “more correct” rendering of the facts. These moments almost always included a classic Dorothy eye roll and some good-natured ribbing on both sides.
      Dorothy also stuck to her testimony. She joined the Church at 18 and was firmly committed to the gospel throughout her entire adult life. As a disciple of Christ, she stuck to hope. She and Ken weathered episodes of unemployment, injury, and other disappointments. She chose faith over fear, and gratitude over whining.
      Dorothy’s story has unfolded across the arc of her too-short life but well-lived life. Her story is one of kindness, of gracious inclusion of others, of courage and faith. In sticking to her story, Dorothy exemplifies the invitation of the Master: Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Well done.