Death and Shamrocks

| Mar 18, 2019
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My friend Dr. Jeanine Ruhsam died the other day.  She was an avid skier, and just finished a run on her favorite slope, when she collapsed.  Lifesaving efforts proved ineffective, and she was declared dead at a nearby hospital.

I met Jeanine in January 2009, on my second might out as Sophie.  She’d come to Angela’s Laptop Lounge at Shangrila to spread the word about a brand new Transgender conference.  She was president of a Harrisburg based organization called Trans Central, and they’d organized the Keystone Conference.  We spoke briefly that night.  I admired her drive and spirit.  Eventually, she earned her PhD in American Studies from Penn State, and she encouraged me to continue my education.  She also twice served as president of Vanity Club.

With Jeanine

With Jeanine at the 1st Keystone, 2009

But this piece isn’t about Jeanine.  No, I’ll let someone who knew her far better write that.

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day: Lá Fhéile Pádraig, “the Day of the Festival of Patrick.” It’s the traditional death date of Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  My maternal grandfather was from Belfast, so I have quick tempered Irish blood (along with Scots, German, and Polish — I’m a true American mutt!) in me.  In any case, it’s an official Catholic feast day, but most Americans use it as an excuse to get stupid drunk and pretend to be Irish.

It is also my late father in law’s birthday.  A stoic New Englander, born in Connecticut, he was a ship’s captain for merchant vessels and sailed the world for twenty years.  By the time I’d met him, he was retired.  He was fond of cheap scotch, so, for his birthday the first year Wife and I dated, I bought him a bottle of the Good Stuff: Glenmorangie. He absolutely loved it, and I got him a bottle for his birthday and Christmas every year until his death.  Scotch on an Irish holiday —  he appreciated the irony.  He died oh, 18 or so years ago — long before my feminine side reawakened.  As an arch conservative, I think I know how he would’ve reacted to my transition.

In any case, this column isn’t about him either.

I write a LOT about my dearest friend Lisa, dead these five years.  She once told me a story (which she later wrote on facialbook) about a shamrock.  Her words:

I was 8 (maybe 9) and I sat in a field covered in clovers off of Ellwood Ave in Canton. The year: 1969.

For hours many Saturday mornings, on my hands and knees, I would look through the clovers looking for the one with four leaves not three. For some reason (as children often do) I thought four leaf clovers were magical. If I found one I’d get just one wish and that wish would be…”I’d be a girl”. Being a girl remained the wish I wished and the dream I dreamed through many of my early years.

But I never found that Four Leaf Clover. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place?

As a late birthday gift, I sent her a sterling silver shamrock necklace on a silver chain.  She loved it, and understood why I’d sent it.  (Well, I sent a note with it.)  Again, Lisa’s words:

Lisa's shamrock

Lisa wearing the shamrock necklace

This past Saturday evening a package arrived with a special gift from a dear friend. Inside a beautiful four leaf clover pendant with a touching series of notes attached.

All alone in a field I failed to find what I was looking for. All alone through most of my life I failed to accept who I was. My problem was not that I was not determined enough…my problem was that I was always alone.

She wore it frequently for the next month.  Then she was gone — suicide.  Her wife asked me what, if anything, I wanted of Lisa’s.  I told her I wanted that necklace.  On the day of Lisa’s funeral, I received the necklace back.  Its owner lay not ten feet away in a coffin — she would never wear it again.  So I do.  I wear it very often.  It’s one of the few things I’d grab if there were a fire in the apartment.  To me, it’s absolutely priceless.

I wear the shamrock necklace to remember Lisa.  But this column isn’t for her either.

I still toast my father in law with Scotch on his birthday.  I liked him. While we had very different politics and beliefs, he would debate his points logically and calmly.  He kept an open mind.  We need more people like him these days.

This coming week will be the 11th annual Keystone Conference.  It is now the largest social Transgender Conference in the United States, thanks to the very hard work of Jeanine and so many others who shared that dream.  I’m sure the Conference will honor her memory for many years to come.  So will I.

St. Patrick’s Day marks the death of St. Patrick.  In truth, the whole celebration is about Remembrance.  It’s about the closing of a chapter, and continuing onward — hopefully better for having experienced that chapter.

My life was enriched by Jeanine, by my father in law, and by Lisa.  All left too soon.

I’ll raise a glass to all three on St. Patrick’s Day.

Because it’s about cherishing those who are no longer with us.  Absent Friends.  Loved ones who live inside of us.

May the Four winds blow you safely home, Jeanine.


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Sophie Lynne

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