Eulogy for Phyllis Dickinson Fairman
You wouldn’t know the size of her spirit, just by looking at her. She was a diminutive, fragile-looking woman, almost birdlike, with pure white hair and large glasses. Her every movement was carefully measured. I’m not sure she ever did anything on a whim; her actions were always deliberate and thoughtful, whether she was writing a letter, sewing a quilt, or explaining over the phone to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee that they should take her off their donor list because she was in hospice and didn’t expect to live much longer.
When I think about all the things she did with her life, I am left breathless in the face of her indomitable spirit. As friends remember her, I frequently hear, “I never met anyone I liked as instantly as I liked her.” A couple of the titles she earned over the course of her life were “Goddess of the Kitchen” and “Angel in Combat Boots.”
Born October 28, 1922 to immigrant parents in Chicago, then raised with her siblings by their single mother, she not only went to college, but also earned her Masters in social work. While working in Michigan, she met the man with whom she would celebrate nearly 64 years of marriage. They had three children, and eventually eight grandchildren.
While raising her children in Oak Park, just outside of Chicago, she was working as a school guidance counselor. She also was the leader for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. The family had to relocate to New Jersey for a year, but then was able to return to their home in Oak Park for the kids to finish school.
She always believed that she was alive for a reason. There had certainly been enough opportunities for her to not be—she was a breast cancer survivor from the days before chemo; she contracted Hepatitis B and lived through it; she had triple bypass surgery and fully recovered. The various surgeries took a toll on her body. But after every recovery, she would say, “Well, there must be something left for me to do still.”
And she was never idle. She was a suffragette for women’s rights and was one of the organizing forces behind the formation of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She was an active Unitarian Universalist and would urge her congregation to stand up for social justice and human rights. Over the course of her lifetime, she was a member of UU congregations in Oak Park, IL; Reading, PA; Phoenix, AZ; and Bloomington, MN, with ties and connections to other churches all over the country.
She was diagnosed with a Staph infection inside the bones of her chest in 2006. The doctors suspected that she contracted it during one of her previous surgeries. Out of love for her family, she fought the infection for four years, though the efforts left her exhausted and in pain. But she always found a reason to keep fighting; first, she had to be able to vote for Obama in the 2008 election; then she had to help her daughter sell her house and go back to school. But as 2009 turned into 2010, it became evident that she likely would not live to see the leaves change color in the fall.
And so, true to form, she began to organize, even as she was confined to a hospital bed in the apartment she shared with her husband. She made binders full of detailed information and left instructions with her husband and children. She made phone calls and signed the appropriate documents.
And she decided that this was the end. She calmly stopped eating solid food, then stopped eating any food at all. Eventually she stopped drinking, too.
This was truly a death with dignity. It was a supreme privilege to be allowed to accompany her on this final journey, to stand with her and support her decisions—even when the decision was one that we all knew would result in her passing.
At 7:10 on the morning of August 14, 2010, she squeezed her husband’s arm, smiled…and was gone. She is survived by her loving husband, George; her three children (Susan, Sally, and Jim); and her eight grandchildren (Rachel, Stephen, Naomi, Leslie, Kyle, Kelly, Brent, and Makara).
Those whom we love and lose are never where they were; they are now wherever we are. So may it be. I love you, Grandma.