Minneapolis, Minnesota

Destiny lives in the choices we make that result in dreams realized, deferred, or denied. Regardless of the intention or merit of one’s choices, they often substitute for what we originally wanted, whether for ourselves or others. Ten years ago, on Oct. 24, 1999, my niece Bernadette Lewis realized her destiny in a fatal choice at a railroad crossing in Baltimore.

A barren landscape of anguish, regret, and sorrow confronted her survivors with the loss of possibility and the futility of hope. Yet, while her dreams for herself had ended, 10 years on ours for her and for ourselves have continued, changed forever by the choices she had made.

In the climactic scene of Bright Star, Jane Campion’s current film about the 19th century Romantic poet John Keats, Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne receives news in England that Keats, her betrothed, has died at 25 in his rooms overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome. In her grief, Cornish is wracked by the suffocating spasms of angina pectoris and cries out that “I can’t breathe.”

Ten years ago, I could not breathe after hearing the news of Bernadette’s death, and believed I would suffocate in the middle of the night on a hillside above a lake. The intensity of my emotional turmoil in the months that followed exceeded by many factors that of the multi-year mess that had marked my coming out as a gay man many years earlier. I discerned few choices and no dreams in the wake of Bernadette’s demise.

Over coffee with my friend Florence, a retired dance educator, I asked when the pain would end. “It never stops,” she answered. “The intensity may diminish and surrender to time, but it will keep coming back. When it does, you need to let it wash over and through you.”

Every person experiences these dynamics from a different perspective. The members of my family have made new choices and adjusted their dreams in different ways. Bernadette’s mother, my sister Debra S. Lewis, published a book in 2007, Song of Bernadette: A Mother’s Memoir of a Daughter.

As I have done on other occasions before and since, I entered into the loss and gradually harnessed the power of its pain, bending it to new choices in pursuit of new and old dreams.

One of the choices led to the life-changing journey of a two-week tour of Kansas in 2000. My brother joined me for a few days from his home in Denver. We met new relatives who were more excited than anyone had been to see either of us for a long time. We found the lost roots of our paternal grandfather, and from there we found a story of family, country, and dreams stretching back nearly 400 years. The outcomes of those choices led to the launch of this blog and inspiration for a future book that ties the story together.

Three years ago, when I visited Baltimore and the place where she died, I told Bernadette all the news that had happened since, and told her that as long as we all lived, so would she.

Thwarted dreams can resurge and lure us to create new possibilities, testifying to the resilience of things we do not fully comprehend, and providing evidence that while people die, dreams never do.

Bernadette “Berni” C. Lewis passed away Oct. 24, 1999. She was 26 yrs old. Berni was born in Fridley, MN on March 15, 1973. She lived in Mpls until she was 11 and moved to Kenton, Ohio, where she graduated Valedictorian from Kenton High School in 1991. She graduated from Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA in 1995 with a Biology Major. Following graduation, Berni worked at Henry M. Jackson Foundation in Rockville, MD as an AIDS researcher until 1997 when she accepted a position at the University of Maryland. Berni loved her family, her soul mate, Su-hun, her friends, her dog “Lola” and the outdoors. Her future plans were to attend Medical School and become a rural family Physician. Berni is survived by her parents, Jeffrey & Debra Lewis of Ashland, WI; her grandparents, Kenneth & Millicent Vetsch of Monticello, MN and Dr. L. Clifford & Jacqueline Lewis of Mantoloking, NJ. She also leaves her sisters, Jenine N. Lewis of St. Paul, MN and Emily J. Lewis of Ashland, WI, along with her brother, Peter E. Lewis of Ashland, WI. A Memorial Service will be held in Washburn, Wisc., on Sat., Oct. 30, 11 AM at the Messiah Lutheran Church.

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