(Written by Vanessa’s sisters, Christina Blust and Jessica Yaeger, and read jointly by us at the celebration of Vanessa’s life on March 1, 2014. We love and miss you, V.)
Vanessa was born blue. Mom has told us many times how it felt to have her second daughter born breach, where the doctors immediately whisked Vanessa away and left Mom and Dad alone without her, worried and unsure what was happening. Already they loved her fiercely.
Growing up, we girls always knew we were loved. The three of us, born within three years, were very close sisters who for our early childhood all shared one bedroom. Vanessa and Jessica shared an L-shaped bunk-bed, and several times Jessica fell out of her bunk onto Vanessa. For many years in this bedroom, toddler Christina fell asleep by banging her head against the wall and humming. That we all remained as close as we did through our childhoods is a testament to our sisterly bond.
Vanessa was in the middle, but she was always more graceful and fashionable than we could ever pull off. She loved to make a nice impression on people. Sometimes this extended into dressing us, so that she would not be embarrassed to be seen with us. For her preschool open house, she made Mom go change her clothes into something Vanessa picked out and approved of. We always complied with Vanessa’s fashion demands. We knew she would never steer us wrong.
For about a decade, we all swam competitively, which meant hours and hours in the car with Mom on the way to and from practice, and lots of time at swim meets for us to sit around making friendship bracelets and doing each other’s hair. Vanessa excelled at the butterfly stroke, thanks to her broad shoulders and strong arms. Mom used the long drives to chat with us, do silly car dances, and reinforce the messages that she held dear: that We girls can do anything and that there would be no wimpy women in her house. Because she loved us, she wanted us to feel brave and empowered, no matter what came our way.
Looking back now at family pictures from our childhood, we’ve realized that in many, we’re touching. Vanessa will have her hand on Christina’s shoulder, Jess has her arm around Vanessa’s, or Christina and Jess are sitting in the same big chair. We’re sitting on Dad’s lap. We’re holding Mom’s hand. We are protecting each other, holding each other up, and keeping each other close. There is so much love in these pictures.
Vanessa’s affinity for art started young. She liked arranging things, matching colors, putting things in groups and geometric arrangements. We all spent a lot of time coloring, and stapling, and gluing, and cutting. Some years, Vanessa’s entire Christmas lists were written with alternating rainbow colored letters. (If you’re wondering, she usually asked for clothes, and earrings, and craft supplies.)
She fell easily into graphic design once computers were in our lives. Vanessa was editor of the yearbook at Newport Central Catholic, and went on to major in graphic design at the College of Mount St. Joseph. Her skills at arranging, matching, and designing proved quite useful in her senior thesis project, where she picked the topic of service to the community. It was called “Make Your Mark!” She created print pieces and marketing materials for a fictional organization that provided resources for people interested in volunteering and bettering their communities. Her teacher raved about the elegance of the work and the way her concept could help people: A+. Vanessa was able to find a good job at Sterling Cut Glass, where she enjoyed her coworkers and got to utilize her design talents.
Throughout school and beyond, Vanessa had a tight circle of friends and family. Her community was purposefully small, and she was fiercely loyal to those she loved. Vanessa felt that the quality of her friendships was more important than the number of friends she had, even though nearly everyone she met loved her. Many of her closest friends growing up were extended family members. With her best friends, she truly enjoyed how honest their friendships felt. She didn’t care for drama, and she didn’t put up with people who were not kind. She sought to surround herself with good people.
Her honesty extended to the way she thought about herself and others. Vanessa did not let us make excuses or get set on one way of thinking. She always had good ideas for things that seemed impossible, but she also just encouraged us in general to *do*. Have an idea, make a plan, make it happen. She was almost impatiently supportive of us, wanting us to get to better versions of ourselves as quickly as possible. (We have a family joke that Vanessa’s Native American name would be “Vanessa No Patience”.)
For all of Vanessa’s ideas, it was often Billy who helped her make them happen. Vanessa met Billy Tiemeier in college through mutual friends. Vanessa loved to tell everyone the story of how, when she first met him at a party, she noticed him because he was helping everyone, asking them if they needed drink refills and then bringing them. Once Billy and Vanessa both got over their overwhelming shyness, they became inseparable. When she first told us about Billy, she was so excited. She even told Mom that he had all ten points on the “perfect boyfriend” list she had made in school for a religion class assignment.
Being with Billy meant she also acquired three brothers. She loved being the only sister to Tommy, Johnny, and Joey, providing the girl perspective for dating troubles and wardrobe questions and putting up with all their antics. The first Christmas after she and Billy were married, Vanessa was so excited that she got her own stocking at Billy’s parents Dick and Sue’s house. She also was quickly introduced to a whole new extended family. Luckily she was already used to our giant extended family, so she was ready.
Vanessa loved supporting her family and friends, and her support always came from a place of genuine caring and love. She really wanted the best for us and didn’t help others out of a sense of obligation or duty but out of love. If she wanted our family to spend more time together, she planned a party and invited us all (and made sure we came). A favorite annual tradition she started was Ham-a-palooza, where she not only fed us her Christmas bonus ham but made us pork-themed name cards.
Once Billy finally proposed to Vanessa (in the parking lot at her work), Vanessa quickly set about planning their wedding… which meant we were ALL now planning their wedding. She assembled her task forces and eventually we were trying on hot pink bridesmaids dresses. The two of us weren’t as excited about all the pink as Vanessa was, but we were happy to wear it anyway, because we loved her and Billy that much.
Vanessa was so excited to finally begin her life with Billy. They had a new house to decorate, plans to make, dinner parties to host and trips to take. Not only was she starting life as a newlywed, she was also using her design skills and enthusiasm to finally jumpstart our childhood dream of having a sister design business. All this excitement, hope and energy looking forward made her diagnosis of breast cancer less than a year after their wedding all the more horrifying.
That day when she told us that news, Vanessa started a tradition of bringing all of us ice cream so we could all process the bad news together. She so desperately wanted *us* to be okay, even though she was the one facing this hugely overwhelming challenge. So when her cancer came back in her bones, we ate ice cream together. When her cancer showed up in her brain, we ate ice cream together. We’ve eaten ice cream while crying together a lot.
However, Vanessa never let cancer define her. She never wanted to be pitied or felt sorry for. Through hundreds of doctor appointments and chemo treatments and surgeries, Vanessa never played the victim. She made a point to enjoy her time with those she loved.
For instance, when her hair was falling out the first time and she was devastated to lose it, she still laughed and called it “chicken-plucking” when Jessica pulled all the loose strands from her head. Once bald, which was very hard for our hair-twirling, fashionista sister, she still cracked up when Billy tried on her wigs for comic relief. She shaved Dad’s head when he decided to be in solidarity with her baldness.
Vanessa was also an awesome aunt to Max, Myles and Leo even through her grief at not being able to have children of her own, thanks to cancer. Mom was ever-present in doctor’s offices, often making silly faces to Vanessa behind the doctor’s back to make her laugh. One time Christina was looking up big words from a brain scan report to make sense of the news that cancer had then entered Vanessa’s brain lining, and Vanessa laughed and said, “Ah, so I’m insane in the membrane!”
Vanessa got frustrated when people put her on a pedestal or said that she was so brave — she believed very strongly that everyone has struggles and we are all facing things that require bravery. She knew that cancer was something thrust upon her, and she didn’t have a choice but to endure it as long as she could. Billy too did not choose this particular future with his new wife, but he showed bravery by being so present to her needs and remaining a loving partner.
When Vanessa learned she was stage 4, we all realized what it meant. We knew that stage 4 means, presently, no cure. We knew we likely did not have a lot of time left with Vanessa. She knew she didn’t have decades ahead of her to live out the life she had dreamed of. But when we asked her what she wanted to do with the time she had left, she struggled to come up with items for her “bucket list.” All she did want was to do things for us, and with us, and to help us. She wanted *us* to be healthy, to be happy, to be okay.
Vanessa remained grateful for the good parts of her life even as cancer took so much from her. In the same way that she always challenged us to honestly assess our lives and selves, she took time in her own heart to refocus with each batch of bad news. She asked herself each time: How could she still live fully? How could she still help the people she loved? How could she make a difference in the bigger world, even as her world became smaller?
Vanessa got a tattoo in the middle of all this that had a pink peony, her favorite flower, and the words “Live sincerely.” This was already our sisterly motto, and she really took it to heart as things progressed. She wanted to share this message with everyone. When it became clear to us that Vanessa was losing cognitive abilities due to the cancer going to her brain, the two of us decided to honor Vanessa by expanding on our shared motto and exploring how anyone could actively try to live this way.
This message was so dear to Vanessa and she wanted it to reach as many people as possible. But it was never just a catchy slogan to her. Vanessa REALLY did want everyone to live sincerely. It made her so happy to think of people trying to become their best selves and helping others.
When we (Jessica and Christina) were thinking about and trying to write this talk in a way that we could truly honor our sister, we kept stopping to marvel at how much gratitude we have, for her life. We loved her so much. We know we will carry her with us for our whole lives.
When Vanessa was born blue and instantly whisked away, Mom and Dad were so scared and so worried and loved Vanessa so much. As the end of Vanessa’s life drew near, we were just as scared and worried and loved Vanessa so much. We were struck in her final days by how little was left to say — our love was clear, and known. Her love for us was clear and known. So what we did say in those last moments could be summed up in four sentiments: Thank you. I love you. We are here for you. We’re proud of you.
It is a testament to how she lived that all that was left to express was gratitude, love, presence and support. We should all be so lucky to live this way. We’re so grateful that we all had her.
We wanted to end with some of Vanessa’s own words:
“I have come to realize how precious life is and how lucky we are to share it with the ones who mean something to us. There are so many people living lives with diseases or challenges that they did not choose, that they have no control over, but are just trying to make the best of it … Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has struggles. I for sure have had mine to share, but I know there are many others like me and many of you with your own challenges.
“I’ve said it before, but I really mean it … Live with passion. Live with intention. Live healthy. Live with no regrets. Live Sincerely. In the spirit of living sincerely, I would most appreciate for you all to look inward and maybe take some time improving your own situation, so you can be present in your own life. Life’s not easy, but I am challenging everyone out there to live, really live. If for no one else, do it for me.”