Mary B.'s eulogy to the woman who touched so many with her vitality and courage
Last month, San Diego lost a vibrant member of our LGBT community, Charissa Kolich. On Saturday, March 17, well over 200 grieving friends and family members gathered at Bali Hi restaurant, overlooking San Diego Bay, to pay their respects. Below is the eulogy that her dear friend (and erstwhile SDGLN correspondent) Mary Buckheit shared that day with those in attendance. It bears repeating, not only for those who heard it the first time, but also for those who didn't.
Hello fellow Chazaholics.
My name is Mary -- Mary B., as Chazzy would say -- and I’m here to say a few words on behalf of this ocean of beautiful people gathered here tonight lucky enough to call Charissa Kolich a friend. There are a lot of us!
And we are not exactly a subtle bunch, are we? Look at all these colors. It looks like Crayola exploded. I think WHEREVER Charissa is keeping an eye on us from tonight, one thing’s for sure -- she can’t miss us.
In fact, I was at the store yesterday buying these bright yellow pants. Now, please don’t be alarmed. It’s not that I don’t have any gaudy pants of my own. Obvs.
It’s just that I didn’t bring the full Valspar spectrum with me from my home in Switzerland when I quickly packed for a last minute flight here to San Diego on Monday.
I was in a rush, throwing arbitrary clothes into my suitcase, and while unique, Chazzy-inspired, vibrant fashion ensembles were encouraged tonight, I thought Swiss lederhosen would be pushing it just a scotch.
Although, as I say this out loud, I can practically hear Chazzy saying something like, “Buddy! The shorts with the suspenders? Are you kidding? You could totally get away with those tonight.”
So, I had to go to the mall and buy something for this occasion.
And there I was at Fashion Valley buying these bright, yellow pants, and the clerk checking me out held them in his hand over the counter and said, “Wow. I don’t know if I could pull these off!! Mustard yellow, maybe, but not bright, school bus yellow. I mean, it would have to be a really special occasion.”
And I said, "It is."
And he said, "Girrrl! What’s going on this weekend?"
And I said, "Well, actually these pants are for a funeral."
And at this he was a little taken aback.
After a pause, he lowered his voice and said with sincerity, “Wow. Must be a really awesome person if you wear this to their funeral.”
And I nodded and said, "Yes, she is."
And he shifted his weight and his voice picked up its sparkle again and he said, “So she was a TOTAL BLAST. And I’ll bet she wants her friends and family having a total blast celebrating her life. So do it, girl. Celebrate her brightly.”
And with that he tore the receipt tape from the register and passed me the shopping bag glowing from my incandescent yellow pants and I walked out of the GAP feeling strangely assuaged.
Is that what they mean by retail therapy? I thought.
It was as if he could feel Chazzy’s moxie. It was as if Chazzy’s essence is -- IS present tense -- like one of those sensor tags that sounds when anyone she is connected to walks through a doorway.
Chazzy was truly magnetically-charged. She could take the chill out of this great big room full of grief tonight using only the love in her heart. In fact I think she has already managed to do that. Can you feel it?
. . . Just this morning, at the small family church service, Chazzy’s Aunt Rosie spoke so eloquently about Charissa’s shining bright light. A flame that burned bright even throughout the two years that Charissa Kolich wrestled with inoperable brain cancer. Aunt Rosie called attention to Charissa’s impermeable and uninterrupted smile, her unflappable gladness, and her profound ability to console us.
Yes, somehow, Charissa would cheer us up in the 700 days that followed her diagnosis. A diagnosis that dictated a fate so incomprehensible, that all of us should sit here tonight still struggling to wrap our brains around what just happened. Our perfectly healthy, unfairly tumor-less brains.
We feel sadness. In some moments, I’m sad as dirt.
In those dark, heavy moments when I am starting to cry or break down completely missing her, I know that if Charissa were standing next to me, she’d be the first to smack me upside the head with one of those big mitts of hers and say, “C’mon buddy!”
Or, "I love you buddy." Or, "It’s OK, buddy, I’m right here."
Chazzy made it all OK. She made each of our lives way better than OK. She took the mediocrity out of life’s pedestrian moments and reminded us that they are all brilliant and incalculable.
Towards the end of her life, Charissa was taking a photography class where she learned how to adjust the brightness and saturation of photos -- like the remarkable shots you see framed on the tables around the room tonight.
This graphic rendering was not just Kodachrome coincidence. Charissa personified this process. Just as she saturated the photos she shot and developed, she herself augmented the intensity and colorful wonder of each moment we were lucky enough to spend with her. Look at your snapshots with Charissa. The ones we’ll smile upon forever. I dare you to tell me she’s not glowing in ever shot.
As Aunt Rosie said to me after the service at Saint Didacus Church this morning, “Chazzy would be telling us to put the fun in this funeral.”
So, first to Mr. and Mrs. Steve and Nina Kolich, we thank you from the bottom of our big red hearts for sharing with us the gift of your beautiful daughter. We had so much fun with her.
And to the rest of Charissa’s family -- her brother, Jeff, grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins and beyond -- please know that we are so full of love for you today and every day. Your Chazzy embodied such an authentic exuberance. Hers was an electric and extraordinary spirit.
Her enthusiasm was real. You could hold onto it. It got stuck in your teeth. If she was here, she would tell you if you had something stuck in there, too. And that’s a good friend who will tell you you’ve got something in your teeth! Not just let you sit there all night. Nope, not Chaz. Just one of the many reasons why I love her.
Charissa possessed authentic enthusiasm. It turns out, the word ‘enthusiasm’ comes from the Latin meaning, 'in theos' or 'in God' (that which is inspired by God).
. . . We sit here tonight a veritable kaleidoscope of not just Technicolor pants, but also an array of God faiths.
Personally, I believe that God is not something to be snatched up from outside or above. I believe God is that very thing which can be unfolded from a belief within you and within me. And no doubt that thing was exploding inside Charissa at a break-neck pace, even faster than those detestable, multiplying cancer cells. In spite of every single one of them, Chazzy’s good unfurled hard and fast.
All of the great spiritual teachers -- Jesus the Christ, Buddha, [Jimmy] Buffet -- you name it, have alluded to the god within. Inside everyone. These teachers spoke of the divine light we as human beings all carry in our soul. Because -- after all -- anyone who ever saw Charissa Evonne Kolich on a dance floor knows -- our sister certainly had soul. But in fact, we don’t have a soul. We are soul. We have a body.
So with that soul, we trust that as light and unconditional love is in heaven, even so, is it right here, always with us and within us, like Chazzy will always be with us now and forever.
I’ve heard God described as the highest, most illuminated and perfect part of a person. I think that part took up Chazzy’s entire 6-foot frame. I know it was definitely shining out those long boney toes of hers.
The truth is, it was brimming over, out and all around her.
That divine light and goodness or God-ness of Chazzy could be seen shining in her eyes. It is heard in her honest laughter, felt in her giant smile, echoed in her heart and learned in her love. That goodness was certainly central in her love for Cortney -- the love of her life. In her love for her family, her co-workers, friends and all of us gathered here in celebration of it tonight.
In these days now, as we think of Chazzy seeking the divine light, I say SHE IS that which she is seeking. She always was and always will be.
To get something you are seeking – anything, whatever it is you want, ever -- you must first GIVE openly. You must make room to receive, and you can only give away that which you already have, right? So in these intense moments when Charissa continues to give us life and vitality, we know that SHE MUST HAVE IT. Still. She must. Right this second. Right now.
Chazzy loved without the fear of loss. Even when loss was staring her in the face. Toe to long boney toe. The more life she gave to us, the more life rushed through her. She accomplished all that she was put on this earth to do, my friends. All that she is to be. To love. To create. To teach us.
She made perfect use of her divine gift and shared it most generously, to bring all of us smiling huddled around it. Around her.
. . . Every Christmas, Chazzy in fact gathered the group of us boys and swirls together at her apartments for the infamous Dirty Santa Christmas grab-bag party. The kind where everyone brings a gift and you trade and swap and swipe the best gifts from each other until they are all gone.
Let me tell you, those cordial Christmas swaps got real serious, real fast. Mostly because sometimes, people -- and I won’t name any names, Cortney, Kellie, Banda Beth, Katy, Aly, Julia, Rick, Andrew -- would re-gift something from a past year. For example, you could unwrap a present and see that it was the Snuggie someone had contributed back in ‘08.
And just as a blanket with sleeves is just too good and delightful to keep to yourself, so the light of Charissa is joyous, and merrymaking, and woven of laughable glee.
… Now don’t misunderstand me, my pal Charissa is of course, waaaay better than a fleece blanket with sleeves. My point is, we have to re-gift her. Back to the Allness of God The Entire Good -- which, may I add, finally answers the question of what to give the person on our list who has everything.
Charissa was given to us as a gift from God, and now, with nothing but gratitude for the time we spent with her wrapped around us, we must give her back to the light which she came from.
There are so many ideas and questions about that light to which we come and go, that it’s difficult for me to try and express this mystery in a way we can all understand, let alone agree on. But I hope that maybe we can find common ground in a basic lesson we each learned in high school.
Once upon a time, someone stood in front of us at a chalkboard and told us that energy cannot be created or destroyed. And we as citizens of the world accept that as an inherent truth. But that truth begs the question --- so where does all of Chazzy’s energy go?
Not long after Chazzy was first diagnosed, she called me up on a Sunday morning and she said ‘Hey buddy, I wanna come to church with you today.’ And I said, ‘OK Chaz, ten o’clock.’ And she said, ‘Great, I’ll pick you up!'
Cortney was out of town, and Chazzy’s condition was just starting to set in and her memory was just starting to falter and I remember thinking that I wasn’t sure if Charissa was allowed to drive. I’m still not sure if I should have let her drive that day, but Chazzy loved to drive. And we each lived just around the corner from the church. Each of us. Two miles, max. And it was a beautiful day out and she loved that Jeep of hers in the sun. Come to think of it, maybe it was her love for driving that Jeep that so moved her spirit to the altar that Sunday morning, but I’m pretty certain it was something more than that.
Anyway, we went to church, and we rocked up the aisle and tucked into a pew in the middle of all the people, and parishioners looked at her and her shaven head and seam of stitches as she knelt. But she just knelt there and prayed. And I knelt there and prayed. As I was there beside her, I wondered what she was saying. I imagined Chazzy, with her matter-of-fact and easy-going drawl, leveling permissively with God. “Well, I didn’t see this coming …”
When the service had ended, we got back in her Jeep and headed home. And as Chaz drove she said, “I feel good buddy. I needed that. That felt really good.” And she was driving and she drove past my street, and past hers, and I just sat there and we kept driving. And driving. And I didn’t really think anything of it until finally we got all the way down Washington and I just had to ask, you know? “Sooo where ya going, buddy?"
She let off the gas a little and looked at me; smiled one of those big Charissa smiles and then laughed and said, “Buddy, I have nooo idea.”
And we had a good laugh together, then. The kind that feels almost strangely like a good cry. But, just a little later she was dropping me off, just as well, at my apartment.
And I remember being pretty apprehensive as I closed that little Jeep door and leaned over and waved goodbye to her, but I know that eventually, all by herself, she found her way home. And now, I can’t help but think that day, months ago, was just a lesson we had to learn for today.
I don’t know where Charissa is going exactly. And maybe when she left us, she didn’t really know either. In fact, she probably had nooo idea. And we are a little fearful and apprehensive as we say goodbye to her, but I know that she found her way home. With a smile, too. Like always.
So in the peace of knowing that Charissa has made her way home safe and sound, let us quiet our minds for a moment …
May we become aware of the beating heart in our chest. Take notice of the beauty and the connection we share here tonight, suffused with Charissa’s energy, that we are each so blessed to absorb. We give thanks for the gift that has been given to us which allows us to stand in joy even after her passing, because we are entrusted with her beautiful spirit.
With each breath we are able to feel our connection to each other, thru Charissa and her essence, which no doubt lives on vibrantly, even still. She rounded us up here tonight with her great big lasso of love. She is the unifying spirit of joy and gratitude. She is the fiber that now connects each and every one of us to something bigger than ourselves. It is her love that has created this field of conductivity, gathering people together in love. So much love, it makes our hairs stand on end.
We gather in a oneness. In appreciation for her life and life in general. Charissa’s life has managed to make each of us more cognizant and appreciative of this next breath right here, this breath that we are so fortunate to be about to take. A simple breath that’s been given to us. Miraculously. Magically.
We breathe her in. And she fills us with this mysterious thing, you can feel it in your chest, this feeling that so many people wander in search of, trying everything to find and experience for themselves. This happiness and fullness. This thing that she fills us with is her divine light and it deploys in us the best, highest, most illuminated and perfect part of our being.
There is a story in the Bible about Jesus moving through a crowd of people and everyone was trying to get next to him. To touch him. To talk to him. To have a word with him. A piece of him.
… Anyone who has ever walked down University Avenue with Charissa Kolich knows what this is like. She is like a magnet. All through her life, people seemed to be drawn to Chazzy like cold hands to a campfire.
So as the biblical story goes, there was this woman who had been sick for years and years -- 12 years -- and she was one of the many in that bustling crowd around Jesus one sunny afternoon, and she said, "I know that if I could just get close enough to touch his shirt, I just know I would be healed."
So she weaseled her way through the crowd of people -- Side note: Have any of you ever been to a concert with Chazzy? I imagine the way she could deftly move through an entire grip of people at Cricket Amphitheater was not unlike the way the woman in this story weaved through the crowd in Galilee.
Anyway, the woman eventually became close enough to touch Jesus. And when she did, Jesus stopped and said, “Someone touched me. Who touched me?”
And his friends, the disciples were like, “Someone touched you? What do you mean? This place is swarming, everybody is touching everybody.”
And Jesus said, “Someone touched me. I felt the essence go out of me.”
And the woman there nearby said, “I touched you, because I knew if I did I would be made whole.”
And Jesus told her, “Your faith has made you whole.”
Similarly, it is a faith in Charissa and the meaning of her extraordinary life that makes all who touched her whole.
It is Charissa’s undying goodness and her interminable joy that heals our lives. And by heals us, I mean not only does she console our sadness, but our brush with her life also stands to heal our human hearts of their hardened and shadowy parts. And to remedy those dark parts of the human heart is truly to heal a life.
Because we have touched Chazzy’s essence, we now think twice about our petty dissatisfactions with life. Because of our faith in Chazzy’s goodness, we reconsider our resentments and cynicism, and quit finding faults with life. By knowing Chazzy’s story, we have been healed of apathy and ingratitude for every moment of this flawless miracle.
Chazzy has helped bring light to those dark parts of our heart, and this faith in her perfect life story helps make us whole.
All of this fullness and life-giving inspiration, all that we know to be Charissa’s divine essence, is her gift to us in the grab bag this year. Christmas comes early.
So, may we keep her spirit at hand, in the pocket of our ugly pants, and in every chamber of our hearts, forever more.
-- Mary Buckheit
In loving memory of Charissa Kolich
April 26, 1975 - March 13, 2012
Here is Mary B.'s video reading of the same eulogy for those who wish to listen in or see those crazy yellow pants instead of just visualize them!