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Patty Rogers: a spirited, loving gift -- and teacher -- to family and friends

Editor's Note: The following is a eulogy for Patty Rogers, delivered Monday afternoon at a funeral Mass in Wayzata.

Thank you all for coming. What a beautiful fall day to remember Patty Rogers. As many of you know, I have focused some of my recent writing on my sister Patty. I'd like to share with you today some memories that recall her gentle, loving, and frankly, spirited nature.

As a baby, Patty hardly ever cried. She lay on a blanket and a pink pillow on the living room rug, her little head slowly turning to find our voices or follow our movements. Because she had fine, soft, blond hair — so different from the rest of us, with our thick, curly, brown and black — she seemed like a tiny, fragile doll.   

Dad told us Patty was different. She wouldn't learn like the rest of us because she had Down syndrome. He said God loved Patty very much, that she was special, very special. God had given her to us to help us love one another more. She was a gift to our family. Blessed with a little angel, we had the opportunity to take care of her.

We helped her grow up, taught her to walk, and talk, and dress herself, tie her shoes, play marbles. She was slow, but eventually learned. Some things she learned really quickly, like how to get up on a chair to unlatch the back door. She never wanted to miss anything. Tom and Dan pulled her along in their games, forcing her to keep up with them. Mary and I kept track of her, tried to keep her in our room at night, coaxing her to "be a good girl." Jim and John taught her to say, "Cool, man, cool."

Mom and Dad became involved with a newly organized group for parents of children with disabilities. They met with parents from five adjacent counties in southwestern Minnesota. Mom described how comforting it was to discuss problems and concerns with other parents. When Patty was 18 months old and still couldn't walk, a kindly father told her at a group meeting, "Don't worry. It will come." And it did. Patty learned to walk, and then ran from that time on, out visiting all her friends in the neighborhood.

In September of 1959, the decision was made where she would go to school. There was no place in Marshall; at that time, the school district didn't offer programs for children with developmental disabilities. Mom and Dad, inspired by what they read and heard about in the chapter meetings, believed Patty could learn to read and write. They did not want to send her to an institution, where children were placed, and then often forgotten by their families. They didn't want to lose Patty.

Patty Rogers
Patty Rogers

They finally decided on a Catholic boarding school in St. Cloud, close to St. John's University — where Jim and John studied — about a four-hour drive from Marshall. The boys could visit Patty during the week. On some weekend breaks, Patty could come home with them, and for holidays, and for the summer.

Patty was 6 years old — the age when normal children go to first grade — when we all took her to the Children's Home. We kissed her goodbye. Mom cried. No one spoke on the way back home, not one word. That night, missing her, missing her climbing in bed with me, I cried too.

Years of summers, and holidays, and family picnics, and annual meetings followed. Patty never missed calling all her brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews, on their birthdays. She was in charge of the guest book for family weddings. She sang, danced, and played her harmonica whenever we got together. She read us her poetry, offered toasts and orchestrated riddle contests: "What does one light say to another light?" She'd pick winners, usually from the newest members of the family, those marrying in, but often she'd choose me because I'd sing my answer, "You light up my life … "

Dad was usually the first person chosen to give his answer in the riddle game. To be chosen first meant you were the big loser. Patty would smile at Dad's answer, measure with her thumb and index finger, "Close. You're close, Daddio. Close." She joked with him, her Daddio. She poked fun at his big stomach. She called him, "old man," and then giggled, covering her mouth. Dad would say, "What did you say?" and she'd giggle some more.

When our family moved to St. Paul in 1961, Patty moved to Hammer Residences in Wayzata. She has been part of the Hammer family since then.

In 1987, Patty and my brother Jim and I traveled back to Marshall, set on a legal mission. Months before, saying they were getting older, Mom and Dad had asked Jim and me if we would become legal guardians for Patty, to advise her, and be her caretakers. The state required the court hearing in Lyon County, the county in which Patty was born.

"I'm scared," Patty said.

"Nothing to it, Patty," I said. "Just tell the judge what you think."

The hearing moved quickly. A lawyer presented the legal papers, which Jim and I had already signed, to the judge, who nodded, and signed his name. He, in turn, presented the document to the clerk, who stamped the order. A simple, uncomplicated case. No one even asked Patty to speak.

"All rise." Jim and I stood. The judge swept out of the room, in a hurry, his black robes like stretched wings of a bat.

"Congratulations, Patty." I leaned over and gave her a hug.

"Great. It's all over." Jim reached for her hand. "Let's go."

Patty wouldn't take his hand. Wouldn't move.

"C'mon, Patty, Peggy and I are your legal guardians. The judge gave permission," Jim said.

Patty refused to budge; she sat, her heavy body solid on the wood bench. She glowered, her cheeks almost the same color as her pink sweat suit. Behind clear, plastic-rimmed glasses, her eyes stared straight ahead. She held a dry, callused hand over her mouth.

"People are waiting. We've got to go, Patty," I said.

She refused to budge.

It had dawned on me by this time that Patty had wanted to talk to the judge. I was weighing our options when Jean Moon, the social worker, approached. Could she help? I took her aside and asked — if the judge would be so kind — could he please come back in and ask Patty what she thought of his legal decision.

The bailiff announced his re-entry. "All stand, the Honorable George I. Harrelson again presiding."

The judge swept in, bat wings flapping. Patty stood. And answered his questions: "Yes, Judge, I am me." Smiling broadly, "Patricia Jane Rogers. Yes," nodding quickly, "you got that right, Judge. I am 33 years old. Oh, yes, Judge, I want my brother, Jim, to be my guardian. And, Marge, too, she's my guardian angel. Whoops. Just kidding." And then seriously, with emphasis, "I want her to be my guardian, Judge. Thank you, Judge. I know everything."

She shot through the swinging, slatted door of the railing, up to the bench to shake his hand, "I'm me, Patty. Thank you, Judge." Then she happily spun around, large hips swaying, and charged out of the room.

Patty was then working in the community in various jobs, receiving a twenty-year pin from Opportunity Partners. When Hammer downsized, Patty moved to a single-family home in Plymouth. She was featured in a Hammer newsletter:

Even though Patty — she now prefers the names Patricia, Trisha or Trish — has recently had a total knee replacement, she still doesn't miss out on much at Queensland, her group home. Whether it is a basketball, softball, or bowling game to play, or watch, a dance to attend, a worship service, or event at her church, a trip out for coffee, an advocacy meeting on behalf of her housemates and herself, a work out at an athletic club, or a cruise around the neighborhood on her three-wheel tandem bike named General Lee, Patty (Trish) glows with a smile and spirit that says, 'Life is great!'"

In the last five years, Patty has descended into the depths of Alzheimer's disease. Patty long suffered, but even through these years, she was a gift to others, touching their lives. And she was so well taken care of by loving housemates and staff. I share their point of view — as well as my parents — Patty was a special person given to us.

For our competitive family, she was an antidote to arrogance. We learned empathy and sympathy from Patty. And love. Love of music and laughter. Love of being and doing — of using up every part of ourselves, physically, mentally, emotionally, of "giving," in the words of my father, "one hundred percent."

I close with part of a poem Patty once wrote — the first stanza is on the prayer cards in front of church. Patty dedicated this poem, "Song for the Kind" to her mom, whom she loved dearly. I dedicate it to all of us.

We pray thankful Rainbow Club
Faith peace love inside God
Health may the peace and love of God
Thankful people at Holy Name Church
Warm peace love thankful kindness
Truth peace for beautiful love of my family
Thankful bright blue star in love sky
Thankful Irish song thankful Notre Dame
Angels walk to water beautiful warm love song

Marge Barrett teaches writing at the Loft Literary Center. Her daughter Katie is married to Matthew Kramer, whose father is editor and CEO of MinnPost.com.


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