Tuesday, September 11, 2007

B.J. Leimgrubler (August 7, 1949 – August 27, 2007)

B.J. is my friend Nick’s mother. She is also Erich’s mother. She is a mother to Jeremy. She is Tim’s wife. She is many things to many people, over a hundred and fifty of whom attended her memorial service at Eliot Unitarian Chapel last Saturday, but that is how I knew her.
Betty Jeanne Leimgrubler, was born in Los Angeles, California, the second of four children and the only girl. The family moved several times during her childhood, living in both Michigan and Texas. Her mother, Catherine Griswold Donnelly, suffered from manic depression and was institutionalized before B.J. entered the eighth grade. Her parents divorced that year and she started the fall semester in California, living with her Uncle Bud. Her father, Michael Edward Donnelly, remarried shortly after and took B.J. and his other children to live with his new wife’s family in Houston, Texas.

B.J. attended the University of North Texas in Denton, but transferred to Tulane University to be with John Thomas Leimgrubler, who she would marry. She graduated with a B.A. in Art History and the couple moved to St. Louis, where she got a job teaching art in the Parkway School District. Tom was a chemist.

In 1975, B.J. gave birth to her first son, Erich Leimgrubler. A year later, Tom died suddenly of a brain tumor. Months after her husband’s death, B.J.’s friends brought her to Eliot Unitarian Chapel.

Tim Gardner, also a member of the congregation, noticed B.J. on the first Sunday that she attended. He asked a friend about the “beautiful brunette with the childbearing hips” and how to pronounce her last name. They went on a few dates and Tim visited her when she was admitted to the hospital for mononucleosis and a bladder condition on separate occasions. He brought her daffodils, which became their flower.

B.J. and Tim got married two and half years after their introduction, in 1979. B.J. gave birth to her second son, Nicholas Gardner, in 1980. She began working at Community School, an independent elementary school in Ladue, a St. Louis County suburb. She liked working with young learners who seemed open to the creative process.

Shortly after she was hired, B.J. began experiencing the initial symptoms of multiple sclerosis in 1984. She continued teaching, but her speech became increasingly difficult for others to understand and the school eventually asked her to retire. Within three or four years of onset symptoms, B.J. demonstrated cognitive losses, an extremely advanced development in such a short period of time.

On July 11th, 1998, she was hospitalized with complications and on August 7th, her forty-ninth birthday, she was transferred to a skilled nursing care facility. She lived at the West County Care Center in Ballwin, Missouri for four years, then moved to the Lutheran Convalescent Home in Webster Groves for five more. There she received excellent services from a dedicated and compassionate staff.

On August 27, 2007 she died of complications related to multiple sclerosis in the presence of her husband, Tim. She was fifty-eight years old.

I had never been to a Unitarian Universalists’ church before Saturday. With the help of Wikipedia and Tim, I’ve learned that these Unitarians make up a theologically liberal community that champions a “creedless, non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and faith development.” They believe in the universality of salvation for all people. They trace their roots to Protestantism, but do not necessarily identify themselves as Christian.

This is, perhaps, one reason that the sanctuary at Eliot Chapel is striking and beautiful. There are no crosses or icons. The walls are white and the arched supports are darkly stained. Behind the pulpit, a set of windows frame a large pine.

My family and I arrived on time, but took seats in the last three rows as the sanctuary was already full. Others settled in the balcony or stood in the aisles. B.J.’s family entered and sat in the first row. A quiet piece was performed by flautist, Robert Charles Howard, who had played at B.J. and Tim’s wedding, and pianist, Sue Goldford. There were readings from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (49-52). Members of Tim’s former a capella ensemble, Random Access, sang Bobby McFerrin’s arrangement of the 23rd Psalm, which he arranged in the feminine declension in honor of his mother. Reverend Khleber Van Zandt also performed a song by Steve Key with Kathleen Mead and Sarah Reutter on backup.

“If my wheels skid in the rain / and you’re left alone to consol and explain, / tell ‘em that I / didn’t really die.”

“Don’t buy a grave, a box or a stone / Just buy everybody an ice cream cone / and tell ‘em that I / didn’t really die.”

Tim spoke after Nick, but I’ll share some of what he said first.

He began by describing B.J.’s commitment to life and her determination not to let go. He said he started singing gospel songs to her, like “Crossing Over” and “The River Jordan.” He said she finally succumbed out of self-defense. This inspired cathartic and much needed laughter throughout the chapel.

Tim went on to illustrate how B.J. had struggled and demonstrated her resolve even before developing M.S. She was diagnosed with dyslexia at the end of her college career. She confronted police officers in Texas who pulled over and detained her and her friends because she was the only white person in the car. She guided a stubborn Tim on a float trip down the Meramec River Basin. She communicated gracefully and compassionately with the children she taught, including Tim’s four-year-old son, Jeremy, who initially fled from her, screaming.

B.J. and Tim were married on a Super Bowl Sunday, and their minister, Reverend John Robinson, allowed them to write their own vows. Tim described John as a tolerant man, perhaps overly in this case as Tim chose to balance his composition on a metaphor about soup.

“What does that mean?” Tim asked. “‘I have tasted the soup, and it is good.’ What kind of a vow is that?”

“To have and to hold. For richer or poorer. For better or worse. In sickness or in health. That is a vow.”

“And thankfully, I believe, I’ve always believed, John was prayerfully chanting those vows as I droned on about tasting the soup. Because I kept her and she kept me. She is daughter and sister, aunt and cousin, mother and lover and dear dear friend. I have tasted the soup, and it is good.”

I didn’t know B.J. until I sat through this service. I only spoke with her a handful of times, and the majority of those interactions occurred when her disease prevented her from responding. I knew her as my friend Nick’s mom. I knew that she defined Nick, both in the way that she struggled and the way that she thrived.

I am grateful to know B.J. through the people that loved her and to have been present for a service as exquisite and loving as she.

I’d like to share what Nick said on Saturday about his mom. You should consider that he was addressing a packed sanctuary and that he was fighting to hold his composure. There is no need to qualify his words, though. His eloquence was with him.

This is what he said:

There’s a lot of people here. It’s really nice.

A lot of you knew my mom a lot longer than I did. And I just want to share a little bit…maybe. I just want to share a little bit about what I know, what I learned from her in her living and in her dying.

A few years ago, my grandfather, Martin Gardner Jr. (I’m sure many of you knew him) passed away in the same facility my mom lived in these past few years. He was ninety-six, and it was the most I could’ve imagined a person dying on his own terms. He was ready. He decided he was ready and we allowed him that opportunity. And it was powerful to see a person so ready and so able to embrace the next step.

During that time, just a floor away, was my mom, living in the same building he lived in. Fighting to live.

I think it’s easy for many of us to be really happy for my mom because she’s free. What’s harder is to consider her fight. Her unequivocal kindness, the whole time. The way that she lived and the way that she died. Her absolute defiance of what was happening to her. Unlike my grandfather just a floor away, she never accepted what was going on.

But coupled with that fight, that defiance, she had a tender, giving spirit. Anybody could walk by and say, “Hi B.J.” and she’d say “Hi” and smile. Just always smile and people loved her for that where she was because it was so rare. So many people there just wanted to go, you know. Just wanted to let go. She didn’t want to let go, but she never made people deal with that. That was hers. She just wanted people to be happy around her and for them to share her spirit.

And so, while I, as much as any of you, might be relieved that my mom is no longer suffering, I think that what might be better for us and what I think would be better for me is to learn from the way that she lived and the way that she died. And that might be more appropriate than to be happy for her that she’s no longer going through what she went through for the last twenty or so years. I think it might be more an honor to her to fight harder for what we all deserve in life and to not accept what’s just given to us. And to expect more for us and for everybody around us. And constantly, constantly give. More than you have or that you owe or anybody deserves. To the people around you. Because that’s what she did. She never wanted to die. No matter how hard it was. How bad. She wanted to live. And she lived with kindness. Every day.

Donations can be made in B.J.’s honor to the Lutheran Convalescent Home at 723 South Laclede Station Road, 63116, Gateway Area Multiple Sclerosis Society at 1867 Lackland Hill Parkway, 63146, or the Women’s Alliance of Eliot Unitarian Chapel at 216 East Argonne, 63122.


Anonymous said...

Ryan thanks so much for sharing with us about B.J. and the service. She must have been a very special woman to have such a loving and devoted family. Hope that I can be as brave and determined in the face of life's challanges as B.J. was. Marsha C

Edan said...

Thanks for the loving post, Ryan. I didn't know B.J., and I've only met Nick once or twice, but what you wrote was really touching.

Anonymous said...

Ryan, thanks for this post. I wanted to remember Nick's important message, but it was so emotional at the time. He's right about how to live and how to give. We know it, but the challenge is to live that message. Needless to say, the words of the song "If my wheels skid in the rain" hit hard. We are never ready for a final goodbye, but ALWAYS in our hearts...Connie

It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch. More fearful not to love.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing back lots of good memories. I met BJ before Erich was born - we were neighbors in Seven Trails. I think we learned to play bridge together (though our group seemed to talk more than play). I do know BJ would tell you not to bother her while she dealt the cards because if she didn't concentrate she would misdeal - I think she was ambidexterous so if she didn't watch it she would suddenly be dealing right to left. We both left Seven Trails and ended up in Kirkwood - one of the stories I remember about the house off Geyer was that was where Erich (I think) put peaches or nectarines down the toilet and BJ had to wait for them to rot to be able to flush that toilet again. I have a graphic of my son's name that BJ drew for his room, I remember the house in Webster and an old stove that BJ loved. Odd things to have as memories but all come with pictures of BJ laughing and smiling. Thank you Ryan for sharing and to BJ's family I hope it helps to know that BJ's courage and zest for life lives on in the hearts of many, myself included.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ryan for allowing me to experience again the loving memorial to BJ. I was so touched by the beauty of the music, the words, the memories and the community of love celebrating her life. Deb

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, Sun.

Ryan Miller said...

Dear "anonymous" bridge partner who was B.J.'s neighbor at Seven Trails,

Tim is having a hard time figuring out who you are. If you could email me at mryanmiller@hotmail.com, I could put you in touch with him. I know he'd really appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing recent information about BJ. In my childhood years, she was a big part of my life. Unfortunately, we lost touch. Thank you for sharing her life with all of us. I know more about her now than I have been able to find out in years. You captured all the things that we cherish about her...she was compassionate, caring, and fun. She faced many challenges in her life and never seemed to let them get the best of her. Thanks again for sharing.

bamagirl said...

i used to know Erich at the Univ of Alabama. I am so sorry to hear of his loss. do you know where he is now and how he is doing?

Ryan Miller said...

If you're interested in contacting any of B.J.'s family members, email me at mryanmiller@hotmail.com and I should be able to help.

Nick said...

I watched a movie tonight, called 'Away from Her,' based on an Alice Munro story.

For obvious reasons (if/when you see it) it made me think about, cry over, and ultimately just miss my mom (and dad). I tried to write a poem, which of course sucked. Then I came back here, the only place I know of that I can readily access my mom's life in any place that's not my own, solitary place.

I think I might take this time, since its unlikely I'll be able to fall asleep anytime soon, to elaborate on this record, which my impressively kind and relentlessly sincere friend Ryan has started.


I can remember incredibly little about my mom without MS. And so, almost everything I do remember is colored, or cropped, or altered by it.

Given that, I'm particularly interested in the ordinary, pre-MS B.J. Leimgrubler...

Her mannerisms. Her favorite figures of speech. What she cooked other than pasta con broccoli and sauerkraut and sausage.

Whether she was typically late, like my father, or... typically, anything?

Was she a hippie, or a hip-ster? Between old photos and homemade jewelry left behind, its impossible to make a final determination.


The thing I remember most about my mother is her eyes. Towards the end of her life, those last few years where language was less accessible and emotion less volatile, her gaze defined her. Sometimes she would have that lost, empty look conditioned by years of medication and sensory deprivation. But more often than that, she was with you...even more than you were with her. Staring directly, into, your eyes.

I have no illusions or limitations to what might have been running through her once formidable imagination and intellect, but I know she knew what she was looking at.

At once both frightening and assuring, her wide brown eyes characterized the innocence and the wisdom of both ends of life. When she smiled, and laughed, the generosity of her spirit was a tonic against all the self-pity, arrogance and anger that so easily consumes me.

I have no idea what has come of her, this women who gave birth to me, nurtured me into a young man, and succumbed to simply observing me. I can only hope she's still watching. I miss her.


carolkwiker said...

This is for bj's family. I am her sister, Carol. I wanted to let you all know that our father, Michael, died on July 1, 2009. If you are interested in any details my e-mail address is carolkwiker@aol.com. I send my love to all of you. carol