Debbie Marie (Wehrle) Walko
June 5, 1967 – July 8, 2012
Debbie touched so many lives that not having her among us anymore leaves an incredible void, a void that is initially filled with sorrow and loss.
But that’s the last thing that Debbie would have wanted, a bunch of people that she loved and cared about feeling sorry for her. She would have immediately started trying to make everyone feel better, opening with her magnetic smile, but quickly followed by her genuine personal touch and caring, and always ending with a laugh that you couldn’t help but share. Given the time, she’d make sure that every one of us left this church with a smile as big as hers.
I’ve often wondered over the 27 years that I had the privilege of sharing in Debbie’s life about where her indomitable spirit and infectious smile came from, and the amazing, incredible events of the past week have helped me to cement a simple understanding of Debbie’s joyous love of life. But to share this with you properly, on a level which would do Debbie’s spirit justice, I’ll need the words and wisdom of a man who shared Debbie’s inspiration in finding significance in the very act of living.
Viktor Frankl had the experience and insight to write a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl survived the horrors of the holocaust, and his losses stripped him down to the very last thing he had control of – the ability to choose how he responded to his situation. Frankl knew you could not control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.
Debbie certainly decided to face every situation every day with a smile, even the terrible disease that eventually took her life way too soon. So what did these two extraordinary people know that allowed them to smile even in the face of death?
Frankl’s experience in Auschwitz reinforced his key idea – that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, or power, or money or prestige, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning – 1, in work (in doing something significant), 2, in love (in caring for another person), and 3, in having courage during difficult times.
For most of us, finding meaning in just one of these areas would be enough; but Debbie, in her simple wisdom and joyous soul, found meaning in her life in all three areas.
Debbie’s life work was not selling copiers or slinging drinks, both jobs in which she excelled, by the way. Her real work, her calling, was being a mom. And she was the greatest mom ever. She truly enjoyed making sure that dirty uniforms were washed and ready to go for the next game, that every birthday party that she organized was perfect in ever detail, and that there was always a special little surprise in Trevor’s lunch or Jake’s overnight bag to remind them that mom cared. Mom’s greatest accomplishments are sitting in the front row – Jake and Trevor, know that no one could love you more, and know that mom found the greatest joy and meaning in simply being your mom.
Debbie also found incredible meaning in love, in caring for other people. She loved me with all her heart, loved even my numerous flaws and shortcomings. Debbie would always stop and devote her full attention to me when I wanted to talk about a book I was reading or a song that affected me, and we shared incredible soul talks about everything. We shared the highest of the highs and joys sublime, and I roped her into adventures that she is probably recanting now in heaven, while she quietly and steadfastly always reminded me that sometimes joys are simple and sitting right next to you. Funny, I always thought I would teach her something, but in the end she was my greatest teacher. I will love her always and forever, and a piece of my heart will always be with her.
Debbie also loved and was devoted to her family, always using her smile and patience to help wherever she could, whether helping her parents with their Divine Mercy efforts or explaining to them how to get that new phone to work. She went out of her way to always make time for her brothers and sisters, never missing a family event, always bringing her genuine thoughtfulness to everyone’s birthday gifts and personalized thank you notes. Debbie had the ultimate respect and love for her parents and genuinely shared in the strength of their faith; her sister will always be her best friend and soulmate, and Debbie’s visits to Georgia to be with Diane and her family were always the highlight of her year; she loved all the fun adventures and gatherings she shared with her brothers and their families, like wearing the funny green hats at the St. Patricks’s day parade or renting a boat on Lake Arthur; and of course she adored every one of her nieces and nephews, and they adored her back, as best reflected in Haylie’s beautiful tribute.
She also cared deeply for her community and her friends, putting the same extra love into service, whether it was staying up until 2 a.m. on a school night to make sure every kid at Adlai had there picture in the yearbook, or organizing the jog-a-thon or a homeroom party. But she made time for fun, too, playing wallyball and scrapbooking, and getting into way too much trouble with friends – we’ll save these stories for a more appropriate time…
Finally, Frankl supposed that there is meaning in finding courage in difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless, but we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. Debbie stared into the face of a terrible illness for the last four years, yet I bet many of you never even knew she had cancer; that was her choice, to face it with a smile. Even while being poked and prodded with needles, cut and poisoned with x-rays and chemicals, while losing her hair four times – she never let her situation diminish her joy in just being alive.
Nothing can illustrate this more than the incredible events of this past week…
Debbie knew the end was nearing, but she still pulled off another incredible ninth birthday party for Trevor, just a little over one week ago (June 30.) She knew what she was facing, what this terrible disease does to the flesh, yet even in the hospital, tethered to tubes and in pain, she still smiled. I will never forget the day last week when the doctor came in and gave her that talk that no one wants to hear, leaving no doubt about what would happen, only when. Debbie looked at the doctor and simply said “but that’s okay, I’m alive right now, and it’s beautiful.”
And near the end, she pulled herself together one more time, using all of her remaining strength, to give us one more gift, the gift of acceptance and goodbye. Peace and serenity punctuated the personal goodbyes she shared with everyone she drew to her bedside that beautiful morning. To the end, she was always giving…
Debbie’s passing was the most graceful and dignified spiritual experience I have ever had, and it was truly an honor to have been able to take part in caring for her.
Of course Debbie would not want a tribute to end any other way than with a laugh and a smile. So one more story…
At Subway for lunch just a few weeks ago, Debbie was waited on by a young lady who was obviously not in the moment, distracted I’m sure by her own problems and concerns. Debbie was always very particular about what she wanted, especially if it was for her kids. A series of questions from Debbie increased the counter lady’s impatience, and each time was met with a sigh, which of course raised Debbie’s ire. As sweet as Debbie was, she was no pushover, and you also didn’t dare push her buttons. Debbie had just one more change to her order, but this time when she asked, she added, “and can I get that without the sigh?” The young lady was caught off guard, looked up at Debbie, who of course was smiling even as she castigated her, and could do nothing except apologize and smile back, and probably didn’t sigh at anyone the rest of the day.
So how do we honor her incredible soul? How do we remember her spirit, her energy, her grace and quiet dignity? Well that’s easy, for Debbie showed us every day – smile. Just smile. Yes, life is tough, yes we all have real problems, but we can always choose how we respond to our situation, and the simplest response can make all the difference.
So while the loss we are all feeling now is real, Debbie would not want this to be a somber occasion. I’m sure we all have countless memories of when she made us smile, so take a moment to pull up one now, and decide everyday to “Live, laugh, and love.”
God bless you, Debbie…
Race For The Cure Family Photo. May 2012