How do you capture Joan in a few words? You don’t, and I can’t. It’s a bit like trying to capture a moonbeam in a jar. She cast so much light in so many ways, in so many lives.  Her life-light finally went out, but she has left sparks of light in all of us: her love of mankind in general, her family and friends in particular. She was, in her belief and work, a champion of those who suffer. She appreciated beauty: a flower, a play, a piece of music, a good meal, a good wine. 

When Joan retired, her toasters spoke of how Joan taught them to appreciate the arts. She was a “Frequent Flier” at the Newark Museum of Art. God knows how many of us were the recipients of the little lovelies she found in their gift shop.

She loved dance and music; the New Jersey Performing Arts Center was made for her.

It was how Joan expressed her appreciation that I really loved.  I’ll give you my best Joan impression: “Oh, isn’t that be-e-e-e-you-u-u-u-u-ti-ful!”

I have the privilege, pride, joy - and some frustration - of being Joan’s sister by birth and best friend by choice. The bond between us is - I just can’t use the past tense here - extraordinary. So please indulge this sister as I talk about my sister and her life. We did so much together. 

As little girls my mother dressed us alike. People would say “Are you twins?”

We’d respond in unison, “No, we’re two years apart.” 

After I turned 30, I’d say “No, she’s 2 years older!”

We always shared a bedroom. On Chapman Street as we got older our mother offered us separate bedrooms. We wouldn’t hear of it. We loved being together. We’d talk forever after lights out and listen to Yankee games so Joan could hear how her baseball Hero, Jerry Coleman, #42, was doing. I remember one night Jerry got beaned and Joan let out a scream. Our cover was blown. Our father rushed into the room and did she get in trouble! While Dad was angry, we both knew he was delighted that we shared his love of the Yankees.

We went to Camp Notre Dame in New Hampshire, St. Leo’s Grammar School, Archbishop Walsh High School and Salve Regina College. We did not go to law school together, but we did study for the bar. I held Joan’s yellow legal pads, I asked the questions and Joan answered them. Every now and again I’d say to Joan, “Are you sure you want to practice law? This is really boring stuff!”

We shopped until we dropped at many a mall. For the last several Christmases we’d find ourselves at Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center once again for a consultation. We’d always find our way to the gift shop and cracked up laughing about our capacity to find unusual, unique shopping opportunities.

Recently I met someone who graduated with Joan from Walsh High.  I said “You must know my sister, Joan O’Brien.”  He said “When I hear that name I think smart - she was the smartest girl in our class. You never had to worry about that silence when no one knows the answer.  Joan always did.” When she graduated Salve and took the Graduate records exams she was in the top 2% in the country.

Joan was not only smart, but deeply committed to her work. Her coworkers admired her not only for her legal expertise but also for the gently caring way she went about getting the right results. Her colleagues affectionately called her Saint Joan of  Newark! We are so deeply touched by the throngs who came to honor Joan yesterday. She made a difference in so many lives.

We grew up in a wonderful neighborhood on Chapman Street. Lots of kids, lots of fun, lots of bike-riding, lots of stoop ball. The boys used to call her Joan O’Beautiful. Of course they all wanted her on their team. I on the other hand wore glasses at age three  - glasses then were made out of glass and I was warned that they could break. Rather than catch a ball I’d put my hands over my face. So you can imagine I was not a first round draft choice. Joan would say, “Take me, take my sister.”  She didn’t want me to feel left out.

On Christmas morning I’d be afraid Santa had not yet left and Joan would always go downstairs first. For years we got allergy shots - I’d start screaming at the doctor’s door. Joan would always take my hand and say, “Kathy, I’ll go first.” When we had our tonsils out, the plan was, Kathy first, to contain the scene, but I had other plans. Joan volunteered to go first.  She wanted to show me it would be okay. When she was slipping away from me a few days ago, I couldn’t help but think she wanted me to know that it would be okay. Once again, she went first.

Joan decided to finish her last two years of college with me at Salve. I remember her asking me if I minded if she went to the college I had chosen. I was thrilled! Once again off we went together on a new venture. We fell in love with Newport, Narragansett Bay, Castle Hill, Five Mile Drive and the R.I. Lunch. My father sent each of us $5 every week wrapped in a paper towel inside an envelope. He said he couldn’t afford stationery while sending two daughters to college. Joan was the spender, I the saver. Without fail Joan would come to my dorm grinning sheepishly.  As soon as I saw her I’d take out my fives, fan them and say “Did you come because you missed your little sister?”

The night before I got married Joan and I were in our bedroom drinking Black Russians. She, in her most comforting big sister voice, said, “Kathy, you have nothing to worry about. After all, you are marrying a man you hardly know!”

Joan loved to travel and went to all sorts of exciting places in the world with dear friends. On two occasions Joan and I went to Europe at the behest of her good friends Madeline and Bill. Paris was wonderful but our trip to Italy was my favorite. Joan and Bob went together first, then Joan and I later. Bob said his trip was the hardest. I’d argue that mine was. All he had to do was help Joan get the general lay of the land - I got to get into all the details with Joan. She could take an hour to appreciate one fresco. Do you know how many frescos there are in Tuscany?

We stayed in Lucca and took a side trip to Assisi. We wanted one bag, to travel light. We had so much fun deciding what we could share: makeup, hair brush, deodorant, etc. We did take two toothbrushes. Then we had to decide who would carry the bag.  Joan said “Kathy, I have cancer, I’ve had chemo.” So I carried the bag. For the rest of the trip I called Joan “La’Chemo” and she called me “La’Burro”!

In the early years she was my protector. Sometime in high school I became hers. Little did I know then that I was a therapist-in-training. At night I would fall asleep first. Joan would be up reading. I was always a light sleeper. I’d hear her say, “Kathy , are you awake?” And I’d say, “Joan, I am now.”

She’d tell me about whatever was upsetting her. I’d get into the problem and before I knew it she’d be asleep and I’d be awake problem-solving. This continued until the end of her life. When she realized what happened she said, “Kathy, I did it to you again.”  She’d sleep and leave the worry to me. And I did it well.

Every year for what seems like forever Joan had her Christmas party. The menu stayed the same, tetrazinni, salad and cranberry mold, the balloons were always there and the cast of attendees rarely changed. What you didn’t know was the leadup. She would get overwhelmed and come to my house and ask me to help her get organized. We’d do lists and my job would be to take on assignments and then keep her on track. I’d call her up and say, “Did you do the molds today?” I’d hear a giggle and “I did one. I’ll do the others later.”  It was our joke. Every year we did the list, it never worked but Joan always thought it would. By her own admission Joan was “time-challenged!”

The party started at 4 PM. Sue Schneider arrived first with her Roll-Up Hors d'euvres. Joan would call from upstairs as her guests were arriving, “Kathy, is that you?”

I’d go up to her bedroom as Joan came out of the shower in her birthday suit. We’d both start to laugh, and she’d say, “I’m so glad you’re here. What do you think I should wear?”

On Christmas Eve at my parents’ home Joan would always want us to start early. We’d all be there, except for Joan. Then Joan would festively arrive, Christmas pins on, shopping bags in hand, and say, “Mom, where is your scotch tape and scissors and do you have any wrapping paper?”

In December of 1992 the jolt came. Joan was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. I kept saying over and over, “She just can’t die early; she’s never been early in her life! She just can’t!”

Then I found the stats on her type of disease. She had a ten percent chance of surviving five years. That was ten years ago!! She did what she always did.  Her death just had to wait.  

Joan was gentle but also stubborn and strong. She was so extraordinarily valiant. She made it so easy for us to forget that she was ill. Like the energized bunny, she kept going and going.

As always, she continued to live in the moment. She squeezed so much in; she had so much to do.

She had to see Brian and Greg get married and become fathers. She had to see me become a grandmother to Madeline, Bridgett and Dylan.  She had to see Todd marry, and spend as much time as she could being a part of the life of Riley. She held on long enough to see Cameron come into the world. I’m sure she waited so her Bob would have his grandson to help him when she left.

With great grit she saw Marc graduate from medical school.

She stayed long enough to help me say goodbye to our father. She knew I couldn’t do it without her.

She had races to run, S.H.A.R.E. Walks to walk with Joan’s team and with the financial support of so many of you.

She needed more time with Madeline and Bill, Ester and Vinnie, Sue and Bob, Debra and John, her friends from work, Law School, S.H.A.R.E. and her long-time high school friends, her dear friend Susan,  Kathy, Doreen, Irene and Ginny, otherwise known as The Golden Girls.

She needed more time with her Bob, more time to enjoy his wonderful meals, trips to Barnes and Noble with Riley and going out to dinner with friends.

With even greater effort she stayed to see our mother celebrate her 90th birthday. She was so worried about leaving her.

She would have squeezed in more if she could.

Joan was late, but she always showed up, and so she did for her death.

My gentle, stubborn, independent, private, loving, caring, giving, sister’s light went out on January 14. She left us with so many wonderful memories, so many special gifts.

In the last months of her life, when I knew the end was near, I’d be down by the shore and see a magnificent sunrise reflecting on the ocean and I’d think she would soon be a part of this. 

Since Joan appreciated beauty so much, I’d like you to see Joan’s beautiful spirit in whatever you enjoy. And Riley, who was Joan’s shining star, I want you to know Joan is now yours.

I can imagine hearing Joan giggle now, saying, “Kathy, I did it to you again.” So I’ll say, “Joan, I’m awake now. I’ll worry and do the best I can. Rest, my dear Sister, in peace you so deserve.”

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