26 November 1997
Memoir by Michael Usey
A Birth and a Death
The essence of true religious faith is this: living life passionately; valuing people above all; creating beauty around you; and giving of your life for another. Teri Bentsen's remarkable but short life demonstrated all of these elements and much, much more.
Teri lived and loved passionately. She was passionate about Lee, her husband, lover, and friend for more than 15 years. They met in Michigan; they both worked in the same building; she an instructor in dental hygiene, he in dental school. But, ironically, they met at a weekend racquetball tournament 100 miles away from school. When Charlie, a mutual friend introduced them, Lee was instantly taken with Teri--the light in eyes and that exceptional mischievous smile. "You've probably already met Teri," Charlie said to Lee. "No," Lee said to her, "If I had met her before, I would have remembered." Teri was impressed with Lee's corny but lovestruck comment, and she came to love him deeply. "There's no person in the world as good and as honest as Lee," Teri told her friends more than once; "He's so good he squeaks."
She and Lee battled infertility together, an enemy which has exhausted many couples' love. Yet, for them, their struggle with infertility brought them even closer. In fact, in their late thirties, after over 15 years of being together, at a time when many couples find themselves increasing emotionally distant from each other, Teri and Lee were more passionately in love than ever before.
Once on another racquetball trip, when they were younger and money was tight, Lee and his racquetball partner came back to the hotel where they were staying, only to discover that Teri had ordered room service for herself--an extravagance on a tight budget. She was eating the remains of a hot fudge sundae. And under the covers of the bed, Lee discovered the remains of a second hot fudge sundae. Lee couldn't believe it while his racquetball partner, Lee Stocks, hooted and laughed. "But it was sooo good," Teri said in her defense. I have stood before families whose loved one had not truly lived before they died. This is not true for Teri. Everyone dies; not everyone lives. Teri lived.
Teri valued people above all else. She had an amazing chair-side manner; she made people feel cared for. She wanted to know her patients as people; there was no "assembly-line" health care with her. She loved them, and they love her. It was not uncommon for her to receive gifts from her patients; not many doctors inspire such warmth and admiration. When she first opened her practice, Teri listened caringly to every sob story and would often cut the bill--so much so that Lee had to counsel her to let her front office handle the finances.
This last Sunday morning during church when I mentioned Teri's death during the time for prayer concerns, several people immediately started crying--each of whom knew her professionally but who were touched by her in some deep part of themselves. One teenaged girl told me something remarkable when she heard of Teri's death; she said, "I always wanted her to be like her; in fact, I wanted her to be my mother." Teri was not afraid to know people and to be known by them. She was at the pharmacy one day, picking up a prescription, when the pharmacist complained a couple of times to her about a toothache. Instead of the expected, "Call me at the office," Teri said, "Open up and let me see." That immediacy in relationships was the norm for Teri. The standard joke between she and Lee was that she, when she met someone new (for she never met a stranger), she was prone to dive right in and say something (according to Lee's stereotype) like, "Hi! How's your marriage?" When I asked Lee what trait of Teri's he hoped Blaine would inherit, he shot back, "Her ability to touch people." To know Teri was to love her. Her warmth and empathy made her loved by those whose lives she touched.
Teri created beauty all around her. Her home and her new office exude Teri's verve and style. She had a intuitive talent for decorating, which, if you have ever been to her and Lee's beautiful home, you know exactly what I am talking about. She had the knack for fitting a room together so that people felt welcome and were struck by the splendor of the space. Plenty of people have the means to beautify their home; few have the rare gift of knowing what is truly beautiful.
Teri was excited about her merger with Todd Ouslely and the building of their new offices. This partnership was to complete her professionally, and she put her heart and soul in the design of their new offices. She had a gift for architectural flow; Teri poured over the plans, correcting the architecture's lack of knowledge about what was needed in an efficient dental surgery office. "Can I show you the plans?" she said to her friends, and she excitedly took them step by step through the beautiful rooms she created.
What was rare about Teri's gift for creating beauty around her was that she had both an eye for detail and for the overall vision of what a room might become. When they bought their home, it was new, and Lee naively thought it was finished when they moved in. How wrong he was became quickly apparent to him, but, as he noted rather large furniture bills, Teri console him, saying, "You'll be pleased to know that we are done with that room." I liked what Lee said to me, "In our marriage I was the picture frame; she was everything beautiful in between."
The role of funeral in the Christian tradition is to enable the community to grieve and to celebrate the way in which each of us experienced the light of God in Teri's life. It is to recall and celebrate the unique gift of God that was Teri Bentsen. Even her idiocrasies we will miss--her ability to get lost, for instance. Teri's lostness was legendary. Carol, her friend for many years, became so used to Teri being directionally challenged that, if Teri said, "I think we should turn left," Carol immediately turned right. Carol remembers a time in California she and Teri set off to go to the beach but somehow ended up in the exact opposite direction, high in the mountains. And she was known for being late; her friend know all too well about what they jokingly called "Teri Time." It is the passing of all of these things that made up Teri that all of us will miss. All of these traits--the noble and the comical--we must try to communicate to Blaine as he grows up, yearning as he will to know her.
To say what I hope is obvious: God had no hand in this horrible death. God does not take mothers, and certainly not at the moment of their greatest joy. Evil happens to all people, even the best and brightest of us, like Teri. And, God, our loving father, grieves too at the loss of Blaine's mother and Lee's wife. Without being glib I want to be clear: I believe Teri is with God, and looks on all of us in love. This does not put everything right, and it is fine for us to be angry with this deep injustice of life. But I do believe that she will be there in eternity to welcome with a hug both Lee and Blaine when they too cross over. I don't believe in praying to the dead, but I do believe it's fine to talk to them. Teri's death was so horribly sudden that none of us had the chance to say good-bye to her. I hope you will feel free to say goodbye to her.
A central mission in her life was to give birth to a child, this child, Blaine Christopher, a mission she completed nobly. In a real sense, she lived to give this child life. As she and Lee went to the hospital for the emergency C-section, she said to him, "If it's a choice between my life and the baby's, choose the baby's." But there was no choice to be made, fortunately, Blaine will not have to live with that burden. But her words were prophetic. She lived the last months of her life for Blaine, as she was totally focused on his safe birth. Blaine is doing very well at Women's hospital, a healthy boy who at birth weighted 2 pounds, 13 oz. He is thriving, off all medical assistance, and will probably be at Women's for another month--until he comes home to the beautiful room Teri designed for him.
The day after she birthed Blaine, she was uncomfortable in her hospital room. Lee had wanted her to go and see the baby, and to touch and hold Blaine. But Teri felt too bad. As Lee prepared to leave for the night at eleven Friday night, Teri felt better and wanted to sit up. If she could sit up, then she could sit in a wheelchair, they thought, so, late that night, Blaine's parents went to see him and hold him. They did, and the nurse took pictures, the Bentsen family together for the first and last time. It's a beautiful picture and memory, Teri holding her son whom she had for so many years longed for, hoped for, prayed for. Maybe it's a memory we all can live with.