In mid-September of 1998, my dear friend Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann learned that she had an aggressive brain cancer and a medical prediction of less than six months to live. The news was devastating to her two young daughters. Six weeks later, on October 25th, 8-year-old Lucy grabbed an onion out of the pantry, placed it on the dining room table, and announced, “Today is Onion Day.” She answered the quizzical looks of her family with, “Well, with all this dying going on, we have to have something to laugh about.” Then she explained the central ritual of the holiday she invented.
Jeanie outlived the prediction of her demise by several years. Two months before she died on New Year’s Eve of 2005, I was in the family’s Detroit home for her last Onion Day. Lucy, her older sister Lydia, her dad Bill, Jeanie, and I sat expectantly around the dining room table. Jeanie understood, even with her compromised mental capacity at that point, that the winner of the day would be the person who came closest to guessing the number of layers in the onion we passed around—and that the one left holding the last piece of onion was obligated to make everyone else laugh.
An average onion contains about 20 to 25 layers—attested by copious data collected from 7 years of annual Onion Day celebrations to that point. Her daughters encouraged Jeanie to guess first. Jeanie guessed that the onion had 3 layers. Lydia smiled sweetly at her mom and guessed that the onion had 274 layers. Lucy went next, guessing 526. Bill’s guess came in at 832 and mine at about 1,287. Then we passed the onion around, each peeling away a layer—22 in all—until we were all weeping and laughing together. Jeanie—the winner by far—was triumphant on her last Onion Day.
Homemade presents are always part of Onion Day. That day Lydia gave us each a jar filled with small stones, on which she had written words such as smile, hug, and tears. She offered them with a note that said, “When the time comes when we have no words, may these words surround us all and may our love and prayers be carried through them.”
Jeanie was indeed running out of words—and time. As we all sat at breakfast the following morning eating our oatmeal, she started a sentence and then lost her train of thought—a common occurrence in those last weeks. In frustration, she declared, “I’m having trouble finishing my…” We all waited expectantly…patiently…for her to say “sentences.” Long pause. And then she said “cereal.”
Jeanie laughed first. Then we all laughed. Heartily. Laughter sustained that beautiful family through their tragic loss. Even on the worst days, they were able to laugh. And when they ran out of words in the end, they communicated their love with tender glances and gentle touches. Jeanie died well, buoyed by love.
Two years ago I was present for the birth of Lydia’s son Isaac, playing the proud role of honorary grandmother. When we’re all together we still celebrate Onion Day, honoring Lucy’s childhood invention and our dear Jeanie. Last year I found an onion the size of a baby’s head—with an unprecedented 28 layers.
A few months ago, I began meeting with a group of medical professionals, artists, and activists with a vision for creating a center where people can live and die well. The mission of this endeavor, which we’re calling Dying to Live, is to “celebrate the joy and sacredness of the human spirit through the creation of an intergenerational living, learning, healing and dying village.” We’re an interfaith, ethnically and age-diverse group, involved in an unfolding effort that makes my heart sing.
As we step into this venture, I give thanks for the wisdom of an 8-year-old. I pray that our Dying to Live Center will be as multi-layered, mystical, and magnificent as an onion. I hope it will be filled with homemade gifts from the heart. And I propose the words that Lucy uttered on the inauguration of Onion Day as a motto for us to embrace: “With all this dying going on, we have to have something to laugh about.”