Aunty Bonnie died today.
My life has been marked in deep and lasting ways by my Aunty Bonnie. She was a person of immense passion, voracious joy, and twinkle-eyed mischief. Living her life through the lens of mental disability meant that she met the world always with childlike excitement and contagious earnestness. In my own life, moments with Bonnie have been like the lights on a Christmas tree — making everything more dear, more merry, more memorable.
I remember visits with Bonnie when I was very little, her squeals of delight and her squishing hugs as she met us at the door. “Come here, you, and hug your aunty!” I remember at 6 or 7 sitting somewhat nervously next to this loud, unabashed aunt who was adorned always in peacock blue and layers of beaded necklaces. She’d lean toward me with an intense look in her eye and say, “I have some important questions for you, so listen up!”, and then spend several minutes interrogating me to make sure that I really do read my Bible like a good boy. Many years later, after I was married, Bonnie noticed the backs of Jenn’s shoes were frayed. Not understanding that this was a style and that these shoes had been purchased that way, Bonnie tugged disapprovingly on my arm and asserted, “Luke! Buy your wife some new shoes! Just look at that! Next I bet I’ll find holes in her socks! C’mon, man! Get with it!”
I don’t think I’ve met a person who loved music more than Bonnie. She spent hours at the keyboard, playing and singing her favourite hymns and country songs, and writing a library’s worth of her own. Each was performed with the jocular, crashing gusto that typified the all-out joy that powered her life. I remember the enthusiastic response of the crowd at my aunt Sherrill’s and uncle Jason’s wedding reception as Bonnie played song after song, enthralled to be center stage before a captive audience.
Bonnie has permanently defined for me what “Christmas cheer” means. Every Christmastime spent at my grandparents’ house was peppered by Bonnie’s thunderous celebration. I don’t think there is a single Christmas carol in existence that doesn’t first run through my head in Bonnie’s voice. (Feliz Navidad in particular!) In her own funny way, Bonnie taught me what joy looks like.
I remember when Bonnie and Shawn got married in my grandparents’ living room. As the ringbearer, and as a 10 year old, I was doing my upmost to pay attention. But I still managed to lose the rings down the back of the armchair I was sitting on. The first half of the ceremony blazed by while my frantic fingers groped wildly behind my back in every crack, crevice, and cushion — and, with enormous relief, pulled the rings out just as the pastor said, “The rings please.”
I also remember that faithless pastor commenting afterwards, “I give them 6 months,” figuring two people with mental disabilities couldn’t possibly sustain a marriage for any significant length of time. But the ensuing decades proved him wrong. While visits with Bonnie and Shawn could be awkward at times, their earnest excitement to welcome us into their home easily outmatches any welcome I’ve received anywhere since. If other people’s joy bubbles, I think it’s fair to say that Bonnie’s boiled.
I remember her funny but so-intentional prayers at the end of every visit — gathering us in a circle and joining hands, and praying that we’d learn to trust the Lord, because, as she used to say, “Life isn’t always a bowl of strawberries.” Us kids would share winks and have to suppress vibrations of burgeoning giggles. But those moments also produced surges of love and appreciation for this woman who cared so fiercely for each of us. Bonnie expressed love through a bullhorn.
I thank God for Bonnie. What would our family have been had she not been part of it? Or if she had not been just as she was? As Bonnie’s nephews and nieces, we had front-row seats in a day-by-day class on how to detect when people need extra support, on how to extend dignity, grace, love, and equal footing. Life with Bonnie has taught me how to care for people, how to notice people. And Bonnie’s life has taught me that voracious joy can fit in this world, and that sometimes you just have to give into it and sing with all your might.
In the death of Bonita, the world truly has lost something beautiful. While the bowl of strawberries might be less than full today, I can only imagine the raucous shouts of joy one sunshiny soul made this night as she left a tired body and plunged headlong into the Life that pulsed so vibrantly in her all this time.
Rest eternal grant to Bonita, O Lord;
And let light perpetual shine upon her.
May her soul, and the souls of all the departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.