Celebration of life [UPDATED]Published 12:29pm Thursday, February 7, 2013 Updated 12:29pm Thursday, February 7, 2013
Ronele was in shock. Ann-Marie was a junior at Winona State. She was beautiful, talented, and popular. She wasn’t athletic. As far as Ronele knew, Ann-Marie had never been on a snowmobile. Later they learned she had gone snowmobiling with a new boyfriend. He was hurt, but alive; Ann-Marie was dead.
Heartbroken, Ronele and Jerry began the agonizing job of tying up loose ends of their daughter’s life. Cleaning out Ann-Marie’s bedroom at college was one such job.
One can hardly imagine the pain of driving to Winona, walking into the house where she lived with other girls, walking into her bedroom, and packing a beloved daughter’s belongings. But it was just that action that eventually resulted in the celebration of Ann-Marie’s life.
What they discovered that day more than twenty years ago was that Ann-Marie loved shoes. When they walked out of the house, they were laden with two baskets of size 5 shoes – all colors. The style in 1991 was stirrup pants with shoes to match, and Ann-Marie had plenty of shoes to match.
Before the family could get to the place of celebrating Ann-Marie’s life, however, they had to get past her death. Ann-Marie had been a beautiful girl with thick auburn hair – so thick, her mother says, she could hardly get a comb though it when she was little. She was petite – only 5 ft, 2 in. – with a good sense of humor. Ronele remembers her funny little laugh and that she could laugh at herself.
She had a sweetness and innocence that attracted others to her. Whether at Kennedy in Bloomington, where she graduated from high school, or Winona State, she had lots of friends. Years after her death, friends started a Facebook page for her. Many kept in touch with the family, two even visiting Ronele and Jerry last summer – one coming from Michigan, the other from Chicago. Ronele says they call them Grandma and Grandpa.
Ann-Marie played piano and violin and was part of the Minnesota Youth Orchestra and Tri-City Orchestra out of Winona. She did well in school, majoring in Spanish and International Business. On the day she died, a letter of acceptance to teach in Ecuador arrived. Her mother says she never saw it.
The aftermath of Ann-Marie’s death was rough for the Janes family. Anger, sadness, and a deep sense of loss plunged the family into grief and depression. Ronele remembers getting upset when extended family members would call to see how she was doing. She is so glad they stood by her through those times.
Ronele and Jerry started going to The Compassionate Friends, a support organization for those who experienced the loss of a child. After four years, they themselves became group leaders and helped other families move through the grieving process.
Ronele says she doesn’t quite know when it happened, but one day all those things of Ann-Marie’s that made her cry became a source of comfort – she was glad for the things that reminded her of her daughter.
Long before the Janes came to accept the loss of daughter and sister, however, they began celebrating Ann-Marie’s life and memory. On the first anniversary of her death, they bought a cake and had a birthday party at the cemetery. Given it was February, Ronele says, they froze. By the 2nd anniversary, Ronele had hit upon another idea. What was it that Ann-Marie liked best? Shoes! To honor her memory, they would go shoe shopping each year.
The shoe-shopping tradition continues to this day, although it has changed some over the years. Colene, who was a senior in high school when her older sister was killed, is now grown and married with a daughter of her own. Now grandma, daughter, and granddaughter, Kendal, go shopping together. Whereas the shoe-shopping day had always been February 16th, Ann-Marie’s birthday, now it is somewhere around the 16th to adjust for Kendal’s school schedule, who is a first grader.
They shop different places like DWS, Macy’s, or Herberger’s but always come home with shoes. Ronele laughs and says now it is Kendal who comes home with the most. In the evening, they have spaghetti, one of Ann-Marie’s favorite dinners, and play Pictionary, a favorite game. Although Kendal wasn’t born when Ann-Marie was alive, she knows all about her aunt and that shoe-shopping celebrates her life and memory. In fact, Kendal is starting to take piano lessons on her aunt’s piano.
The Janes now live on Silver Lake and are getting used to small-town life. They bought a cabin on the lake in 1998 and spent summers in the area, but not until 2009 did they build a permanent home to live here full time. Ronele’s sister, Carol, and her husband live just a few doors down on Silver Lake, and the families do things together – golf is a big favorite of the men. Ronele is still getting acquainted and has signed up for a couple of classes through Community Ed. In the summer, of course, lots of friends come to spend time on the lake.
The Janes recently established a place for Ann-Marie at Angel of Hope Memorial Park in Adams Park in Fergus Falls. The park, which opened in 2011, is dedicated to parents whose children have died. Ronele knows, as do other parents, the grief of losing a child. But she says you somehow adjust your life and move on. After all these years, beautiful Ann-Marie – daughter, sister, and friend – is still celebrated. That’s what Ronele wants her memory to be – a joyous celebration of life.