Along with Education for Ministry (EfM), Episcopal Café, and most of the Episcopal Church as a whole, I am mourning the loss of a mentor, co-mentor, editor, friend, and incredible resource and example, namely Ann Fontaine. So many words have been written about her since her passing this past week that anything I say might seem to be just more of the same. Still, in talking to a friend recently, I realized something about Ann and her passing that gave me one of those insights that I want to hold onto and think about for a while. It was sort of the essence of Ann, especially in her last months, that has been a real learning experience for me, as well as a prime example of grace under pressure. It was also an exercise in grace-full living in her own inimitable style that has touched so many over the years.
I co-mentored with Ann for nearly 10 years and was a member of one of her online groups for two years before that. I never met Ann in person, yet I felt I knew her well enough to trust her implicitly, to learn from her, and to see her through the eyes of so many people.
During a phone conversation with a former group member a day or so ago, we were reminiscing about being in class together and things that we had learned from Ann. I remarked that my current groups have been missing Ann since she stepped down from active mentoring not very long ago. I think we all have been mourning as we read her Facebook posts and then the gentle but honest updates from her daughter Kristen, truly her mother’s daughter in word and action. We followed Ann’s journey, a journey she allowed us to share with her. It was a gift that I, for one, have only just begun to really understand and really appreciate. It was like a final gift that she gave to me and, I’m sure, many others.
The journey of her disease was one that she shared with us both in groups, on Facebook, and in real life. She told us of her doctor visits, of decreasing abilities to walk and to do things that she enjoyed doing, and even just to breathe. In our online groups we heard the sound of the oxygen concentrator that was helping her. We had heard that sound for some time and just let it go unmentioned. it was something we knew Ann depended on, and that was enough for us. One night something was said about it, and several people said, to the effect of, “Oh yeah, we heard that and just ignored it.” I think that surprised her because she hadn’t realized that we could hear it and we felt it was a sort of sharing. Needless to say, we ignored it again and concentrated on what she had to say about whatever topic we were discussing.
Her lungs might have been weakening, but her mind and heart were as strong as ever. A real clue to her decline was when she stopped commenting “Cubs Win!” I hope she’s got eternal seats for all their games now, and I’m glad she got to see them win the World Series. It was a huge moment for her.
I think, for me, the last gift was her ability to learn to live with something that doesn’t have a good ending. Granted, her death came in her sleep, something most of us wish for, and some of us will maybe never get to experience ourselves. But with her usual grace and outright forthcoming, we followed her and saw her ability to occasionally look past the disease to things that gave her joy, things like watching the birds, enjoying a short visit from a friend, notes and emails from people all over the church and probably the world that she had met at various points in her life. Having her beloved husband and daughter at her side, and her family in almost continual contact gave her strength and support. What more could any of us ask for the joy, even when facing the ultimate adversary, death.
All of us need to learn to live with something. It may not be life-threatening, but it might be life-changing in some way, or it might just be a speed bump in the road of life. Learning to live with it with grace, which truly was the gift of God that Ann possessed in abundance, is for all of us. We can all count on this grace if we allow it to work through us. Ann certainly showed us that grace. No doubt she had days where she wanted to rage or express anger at the increasing limitations and especially the lost time she would have with her family, especially the grands. But when push came to shove, she straightened her shoulders, held her head up, and moved on.
I thank God for Ann and her journey. It hasn’t been easy, not for anyone who knew and loved her. I want to remember her grace in a dark time for her and for us. I want to remember to enjoy the little things, even the mockingbird mother who keeps chasing my outdoor cats off the patio. That’s trivial, and certainly the cats don’t enjoy it, but in a way, it reminds me of Ann. She was never one to let someone get in the way of what she felt was right or just, even if the pecks of the beak were a little too close for comfort many times. That was her gift, and I will miss it greatly. One of our favorite lines in our groups now is to mention Ann every time we forget to use the “I” word. She was not shy about calling us on using “we” or “us” when we needed to use “I” to take responsibility for our own beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.
Oh, yes, she wasn’t shy about correcting people who misspelled her name as “Anne.” She was ANN, and that was that. Those who learned the hard way never made the mistake again.
Rest in peace and rise in glory, Ann. You will be missed, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see you mentioned in commemoration by the whole church in times to come. It will be a mark of something special for anyone who could say “I knew Ann Fontaine,” and it will be a moment of joy for all of us when we see you in glory for ourselves.