Last week Hedy and I attended the memorial service for Jessica Joy Rees.
The memorial was at the huge — and jam-packed — Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.
Jessie is the remarkable 12-year-old Orange County girl who died Jan. 5 of a brain tumor. The seventh-grader battled the insidious disease for 10 months, and started a blog and a Facebook page to increase worldwide awareness of pediatric cancer.
The service was at once tragic and sad, but also uplifting and inspirational. Tears flowed by the bucketful, particularly at my seat. People wept unashamedly, but spirits were lifted and soared with the promise of an eternity spent with Christ.
That's what Jessie fervently believed and anticipated, and that's what came across at her service.
The death of a 12-year-old puts life into crystalline perspective. No parent should ever have to bury a child. It's not the accepted order. But life isn't always orderly, nor is it fair.
More than 3,000 people walked from the service into the cool January night believing that it's incumbent upon each of us to focus on what's truly important in life. We need to hug more often, appreciate more often and love — yes that, above all — more often!
Paul, the apostle, wrote: "And now these three remain, faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love." Jessica exhibited all three daily, most particularly love.
Whether a person dies at 12 or 90, his or her time on Earth is brief, like a vapor, as the New Testament puts it. That vapor appears for a brief moment, then vanishes.
Jessie, in just 12 years, impacted this world in ways few of us can match in a lifetime. She was brave because she had supreme confidence in her savior.
NEGU. That's Jessie's slogan, now known throughout the world as "Never Ever Give Up." And she never did.
Her father, Erik, an assistant pastor at Saddleback, did a phenomenal job describing the life of his "Sweet-Pea," his pet name for her, to the assembled throng. How, I wondered, was he able to summon the strength to do that? It was amazing.
Jessie's tante (aunt) also spoke along with Jessie's cousin, fifth-grade school teacher, swimming coach and two friends.
But the person who moved me most was her grandfather — her Papa — Leon Skeie. I too am a papa, with a grandson and six granddaughters. I was drawn inextricably into Leon's story, and I wept alongside him.
Deep sadness and loss emanated from his spirit, but so too did unmistakable resonances of hope and love.
He and I have been the closest of friends for 40 years. We worked together at Orange Coast College. We pushed one another on long back-road training runs. He's the one who led me to faith in 1978.
Though his pain was evident last week, he did a magnificent job of introducing us to Jessie's indomitable spirit. The world has much to learn from her. Leon said his granddaughter always put herself fourth in life: God first, family second, others third, herself last.
I am humbled.
I'm not certain I could have done what Leon did, speak publicly during an exceedingly painful personal moment. A lesser man like myself might have broken.
But not Leon.
Iron sharpens iron (a reference made during the service to Jessie's suffering), and sometimes in the crucible of broken-heartedness humans are called to do something remarkable.
That's what Jessica did over the final 10 months of her life. That's what I saw Leon do the other night.
Come to think of it, 19 years ago this spring, I spoke at my own son's funeral. I didn't think I could. God gave me the strength.
Leon was there for me 19 years ago, and he's in my prayers now. That's what friends are for.
Nothing is worse in life than losing a child. Nothing. The pain never goes away. But the author of life brings healing.
Adieu, sweet girl. You're safe in the arms of your savior.
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.