A few weeks ago, I got a note from a reader named Justin in regards to a piece I wrote called “Cavern.” In his beautifully worded letter, he asked me to describe my friend Janet’s motorized wheelchair in order to create a memorial for her.
If you recall, Janet (a.k.a. ‘Pepsi’ or ‘Pehpsee’) has been a fixture here on the Eternal Sophomore because she is, bar none, one of the most important positive influences on my life. She was one of the very first people to adopt me inside the Myst Universe. She helped me win the Myst Movie writing contest with “A Trip Through the Linking Book“, a piece about how she, the Cavern and the entirety of the Myst Universe has impacted my life in a very real, very positive way.
Justin’s note shined light on something I have never really written about: the day Janet died. On the evening of December 28, 2004, I went to my computer after dinner to check in with my friends around the world. Upon checking my e-mail, I received a note that changed my world forever. It was from Katie Postma, gently telling me that Janet was gone. I sat staring at the words on the screen in disbelief. My mind just would NOT accept it. I knew Janet was down because of the surgery on her ankle, but I thought she was doing better! Next thing I knew, I literally crumbled into my ex-husband’s arms wailing, “No! NO! She can’t be gone! No!” and he held me while I wept uncontrollably and inconsolably for hours that turned into days. Someone might as well have set off a nuclear bomb in the middle of my chest because, as far as I was concerned, the world had ended. The very first person who I felt truly accepted me for who I was, was gone. My lamp in the darkness, my best pal, my sister, my teacher, my collaborator, my favorite peacemaker, would never light my screen up again with a “What’cha doin’?” It’s ten years later, and I can still feel the incredible loss.
Justin wanted to know some very granular details about Janet’s chair, its’ color, make, model, if there were any decals or stickers on it; a bevy of details that I sadly don’t have because she never shared that information with me. You have to understand that in all the time I spent with Janet in Cavern, through all of the projects we collaborated on – from how to publicize Cone Kicking and Eddie Soccer matches to mapping the D’ni Games Marathon Course – we never talked about what she couldn’t do. We always talked about what she could do or what we had plans to do together or projects we wanted to undertake to benefit our global Cavern family. To be honest, in the majority of time I spent with her, I never knew about her condition and how juvenile arthritis had taken its’ painful toll on her life until the very end. But if you knew Janet, that’s not a revelation that would surprise you. If you had spent even five minutes with the woman, you knew that she wasn’t about pain, she wasn’t about complaining, she was about solving problems and keeping everyone else’s spirits up when the hard times inevitably came.
Janet wasn’t about “I can’t.” Janet said, “I CAN.”
To put it succinctly, she never focused on herself, she focused on what the community needed. If I have ever been likened to the sticky stuff that holds things together, I’m convinced I learned those skills from Janet. She was a problem solver, not a drama maker, and I am convinced that she wouldn’t want to be remembered for her wheelchair, but for how she lived: a life spent humbly serving her community to the best of her abilities.
Janet taught me to always give more than I take.
Janet taught me to always greet everyone I meet with a smile on my face and love in my heart.
Janet taught me that even though life may deal you a pretty dismal hand, you have to do the best you can with what you have and don’t complain a word about it; just be grateful for what you have and get on with life.
Janet embodied one of my favorite quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations which says:
Take on life’s tasks like a soldier storming the breach. So what if you are lame and cannot scale the wall alone? Does your lameness prevent you from asking for help?
But, contrary to what you might think, Janet wasn’t the one who needed to ask for help. Instead, she was the hand reaching down from the top of the wall, stretching with all her might to reach out and help pull you up. She had this uncanny way of always finding the bright side of just about anything, no matter how bad things truly got.
But on that dark day when I thought all was lost and Janet “Linked to the Perfect Age”, I made my pal a promise: I would never let her legacy die, that as long as I remembered her and carried her words forward, she would live forever.
As her husband would later tell us, “Every morning she got up without fail and went to the computer to do ‘her work’.” Janet’s “work” was comprised of moderating several forums, doing full-time greeter shifts in Cavern helping out new Explorers, working as a part of the D’ni League of Activities (D’LA) to make the term “Explorer-Based Initiatives” a part of every community member’s vocabulary. She referee’d cone kicking matches…heck, you can name it and Janet was probably right in the middle of it. She ate, breathed and slept Cavern even more than I do! And that’s a lot! Her whole goal was to take on any task that had to do with maintaining high community morale. She was committed to “the cause” that was Uru; whether it was because she felt like it had given her her legs back so that she could run, jump and climb again, I’ll never know, but if it was for the good of the community, she was neck deep in it. She wanted Uru to succeed that badly.
But, there were two things you would never find her doing…being negative or hurting another living soul on purpose. I honestly believe there was not a single malicious bone in her body. Okay, she could be a pistol at times, yes, but truly malicious? No way.
So, with all of this in mind, I sent a note back to Justin that read:
Unfortunately, I have ZERO clue about what kind of wheelchair she used. She never shared that with me. In fact, every time that topic would come up, she would dodge it, go around it; it was one subject she didn’t really like to talk about because she LOVED the fact that she was accepted as a run-of-the-mill explorer: running, jumping and climbing just like everyone else. The reason why she loved Cavern so much is that no one ever treated her any different because of her condition. She wasn’t treated like she was in a wheelchair or judged because of her disability, she was just “Pepsi.”
and everyone loved her for it.
Stereotypes and disabilities go by the wayside real fast inside of a virtual world, that’s why she and I used to giggle, “You never know who is on the other side of the screen.”
That is why she loved the fact that Uru was also known as You are YOU, because it didn’t matter if you were sitting in a wheelchair or stood seven feet tall, you were loved for who you are, not how you sat, where you lived, or what color your skin was; all that mattered was that you put aside all the negatives and were genuinely who you were in your heart. (Believe me, Janet could spot a fake a mile off. She didn’t much take to folks that weren’t genuine, I can tell you that!)
Finally, I told Justin about how I remember Janet every day:
I think of an empty workstation with a can of “Pehpsee” clearly visible on the desk; computer and monitor on, notes strewn all around the desk (puzzle clues, maps, phone numbers), post-it’s stuck on the edge of the monitor with written reminders; all of it just waiting for her to come back, as if she’s just taking a break for a moment. Of course, you could simply add tire tracks on the floor to infer the nature of her chair, but that’s just me of course.
Janet would never want to be remembered for being “the lady in the wheelchair.” She would want to be remembered for the work she DID, and that’s the most important part.
The one thing she told me that will stick with me forever was the time where I expressed a lack of faith in my own talents. I could tell she was about ready to lose her cool with me when she said,
Don’t be afraid! Get involved, share your gifts, and you’ll find your niche!
The next day, I was an amateur sports reporter for the D’LA. Now, ten years later, I’m a journalist.
So, now here is where YOU come in. Yes you, sitting there reading the rantings of one of the many, beyond count, friends she left behind. I guess we’re still here to carry on Janet’s legacy, an initiative if you will, that reminds you, and everyone you interact with, to give more than you take, to greet everyone you meet with a smile on your face and love in your heart. Life is far too short to spend it complaining about other people and not being honestly grateful for what you have, from your health to the smile on your child’s face when you make the time to play a simple game with them.
Every day I look out into the world and see people complaining, being greedy and malicious pains-in-the-backside. I see people neglecting the needs of their fellow man, completely unaware of how much damage they are doing to everyone around them with their craptastic attitudes. This just will not do! Not according to Janet, not according to me, and not according to her legion of friends who carry her legacy forward every single day of their lives because they saw with their own two eyes what it means to live a life of humble service and never take for granted that they can run, jump, climb and be a positive influence on all those around them.
This is The Janet Initiative. It is following in the footsteps, yes, footsteps of a truly great woman who understood that sometimes we have to exercise patience when faced with adversity, that when life deals us not-so-favorable cards, it’s time to be grateful for what we DO have and make the very best of what we’ve got. And doing it ALL, no matter how badly it hurts, with a smile on our face and love in our heart.
If Janet could do that without flinching and not even whimper about her own pain while doing her part for her community, you can stand up and join her, can’t you?
Can you make a positive difference in someone else’s life without asking for anything in return? Can you be kind when you have no reason to? When your patience is tested, can you hold your wrath in check? Can you live without pride? Can you be generous instead of greedy? Can you be selfless in a way that sets a standard for others to follow?
I have a feeling you can. Like Janet said, “Just share your gifts and talents with the world, you’ll find your niche.”
Since it’s the New Year, it might be time to try something new. I suggest taking some initiative and help us carry Janet “Pehpsee” Burress’ legacy forward. Heaven knows, the world needs something much different than the negativity we’ve sadly become accustomed to, don’t you think?
Like a wise man once taught me, “It’s not about the say, it’s about the DO.”
Shift into positive gear. Do it for Janet.
Happy New Year everyone.