I got the call in mid-March: Diane, one of the women I was working with, hadn’t left her tent in weeks and was, from what my friend said, “a bag of bones.” I went to her camp immediately and when I peered into her tent, I was overwhelmed by the stench of human waste. But there was sweet Diane with her blankets piled high, and while her blue eyes were bright as ever, I could tell something was very wrong. She was incredibly malnourished and frail and could barely sit up. She was literally wasting away before our very eyes and her head was foggy. Her delusions were thicker than usual and she refused to seek medical care. We were able, however, to make the call to get her to Vanderbilt hospital and the last few months of her life have been spent in nursing homes, hospitals, and long term care facilities. During her time in medical facilities, Diane was able to reconnect with her daughter Dawn thanks to two incredible women, Diane Scott and Christine Winslow. The story of her funeral is in The Tennessean and I’ve included my portion of her memorial and eulogy below. It was an incredibly beautiful and moving funeral and I so thankful to know Diane and the many people she brought together.
Funeral of Diane Ramsey, June 29th, 2014
We come together today to celebrate and remember the life of an amazing woman—Diane Ramsey. She was a mother, a sister, a friend. She was creative, endearing, and resilient and she lived in a world created in the harrowing recesses of her own mind. Like all of us, she loved and she lost, she went through good times and hard times, she celebrated victories and made mistakes. We come together today to pause our lives and take time to be present to this moment, this time of transition where a mother, a sister, a friend has moved on. So I want to take a moment to center ourselves here, to turn our minds away from the busyness and distractions of our daily lives. And as we do this, let’s also be mindful that we are not alone… that God’s spirit is present in this place with us.
I met Diane in January when the nights were bitterly cold and the trees were still leafless. I had gotten an email from the Assistant Director of the Homelessness Commission asking if I would check on her, so I did. When I pulled up, there she was, huddled against the side of Country International Records with more blankets than I could count, with a blue and white umbrella, with her food and belongings stashed behind her. Even though it was freezing, she refused to come in to our shelters, so soon after my visit, her friends in the area bought her a tent and a small heater to keep her warm, dry, and safe.
And I realized recently that from the first day I met Diane, I’ve always thought of her as a wounded bird. Her lone tent was like a tiny nest in the middle of a quickly developing part of the city, in the middle of new construction and cranes and concrete, in the middle of newness and money. And there she was in her nest with her light and hollow bones, with her mind swimming in a fog of delusions, with her blue eyes that were always so inviting and bright. There she was, welcoming everyone who came to her, sharing her stories and her life, weaving her way into our hearts.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are still thousands of “Diane’s” across our city who are literally wasting away and dying without housing in the midst of all this development, all this newness, all this growth.
Thankfully, Diane was not alone. So many of us were worried sick about her, so many of us brought her coffee, food, clothes, cigarettes, anything we could to let her know we cared. We pleaded with her to come indoors, we pleaded with her to let us start her paperwork for housing, but the voices she heard in her head pleaded, too, and they won out all winter long. If it were up to the voices and delusions that plagued Diane, she would have died in her little nest in March. But those of us around her knew she had to come in, had to get medical attention, had to have a fighting chance at reclaiming her life and reconnecting with those she loved. So we made the calls and she was taken to Vanderbilt hospital. And because of Sheryl and her incredible team there, Diane wasn’t discharged to the streets like so many are.
Within the first couple days of being at Vanderbilt, Diane had charmed all of her nurses and doctors. She was connected with services, got the care she needed, and her flightless body began to gather strength. Despite her body’s best attempts to heal, she was placed in a nursing home where the ulcers came back and bloomed on her body. Her infections were festering, so she was sent back to Vanderbilt where her tiny body was tethered to machines, where she fought long and hard. Then, a few weeks ago, she was moved to a long term care facility where she fought long and hard again.
Something that is now clear to me is that along with all of Diane’s creativity, resilience, humor, and warmth, she also had another gift… the gift of bringing people together. Most of us sitting in this room didn’t know each other before this past winter, but we have been united by the life and death of this amazing woman. A few months ago, we were strangers, but now we have laughed together, cried together, and even fought together like family. Our sweet bird is gone, but she has left something beautiful in her stead. She has left a group of people who have been changed by her life and who have found each other. And Diane is no longer tethered to all those machines. There are no more tubes flowing in and out of her body to hold her down, there are no more ulcers to tend, there are no more voices to hear. At the end of her life, Diane experienced a kind of peace that passes understanding. She rested in the love of God, the beauty of community, and the mystery of hope and resurrection. And she let go. After all of her fighting and all of her pain, she let go. And our sweet bird is now free. So let us carry her memory in our hearts and think of her when we hear the song of birds in the morning and see the bird nests brimming with life in the spring.
In just a minute, we’ll sing a song that was important to Christine and some of the other women who came to know and love Diane. Then we’ll read a poem and have a time for sharing our stories and memories, for sharing how we got to know Diane and how she impacted us. I hope everyone will consider sharing, even if it’s something small.
(Break for songs, poems, Psalm 46, and a time for sharing.)
Even though we feel great loss, we know that Diane is no longer suffering, struggling, or fighting. In a sense, it is those gathered here who have the harder task. We must go on living, we must go on fighting, we must go on. But as we continue to move forward, we take courage in the realization that we are not alone. We are surrounded by friends and family on this journey and we are surrounded by the presence of a God who loves us, comforts us, sustains us, and works for our good.
From dust we have come, to dust we will go, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Diane, we release you now to the next part of your spiritual journey as you walk hand in hand with your Creator, all those who have gone before you lighting your way. We entrust you to God who created you and loved you. May you return to the One who formed you from the dust of this earth. May all the saints come to meet you as you go forth from this life. May Christ bring you freedom and peace and take you into the beloved community.
Let’s close our time together in prayer. O God whose days are without end, whose mercies abound, we pray that you would be present to us now in this space and we pray that you would be with all those who struggle, all those who mourn. God, we know you have not designed us to be alone, that we were all made for community, so I pray that you’ll help us surround one another in our loss, in our grief, and even in our hope. We pray that you would be the gentle breeze that moves us closer to healing, to reconciliation, to wholeness, and to peace.
We also pray that you would be with all those across our city and our world who still suffer and struggle, who are haunted by mental health issues, who live without housing, who are invisible, and who are wasting away without community and without hope. We pray that you would be present to them and that you would be a force for justice so that everyone feels loved and is able to access the services, healthcare, and housing that they so desperately need.
And for our dear sister Diane, we now release her to you, O God. In the mysterious hope of resurrection, we let go of our sweet bird who was always made for flight. While we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we know that Diane lives on all around us and inside us.
Diane, sweet bird, may the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord’s grace shine upon you, and may the Lord give you peace. Amen.