A Year without Theresa Lang

By Amee Bohrer

For the past year, I’ve tried to live the way Theresa Lang did: boldly, with joy.

And a year later, I stand humbled.

How did she do it? How did she love so much, and pursue happiness with such zest?

Her short life, only 29 years, shattered the collective hearts of the Joliet community. I’ve never seen a memorial service packed the way hers was for such a young person. There was a line out the door. Usually you only see that for people who have been teachers or community leaders for decades.

I’ve never seen men cry the way some of my closest male friends did for Theresa.

A year ago, I was thunderstruck with how much her death affected me: for 15 years, Theresa had been an acquaintance. And yet I sobbed like she was a member of my family at her beautiful funeral Mass.

I had just been getting to know her better, she had asked me to go to a concert with her the weekend before she died. I had said no, thinking I would have another chance.

This year I’ve tried to be kinder. I’ve prayed more. I’ve cried a lot more.

I’ve laughed more.

I resolved that by the first anniversary of her death, I wanted to make peace with some old hurts and reconcile connections that were broken if possible.

I’ve dared to forgive, and asked for forgiveness in a way I never was brave enough to attempt until I lost the light of Theresa. I didn’t succeed in all my attempts; sometimes I was too afraid, and others I’m still working on.

But even in those situations, I have a new sense of empathy and compassion.

We met in youth group during high school, because our parishes shared a youth minister.

I went to St. Paul the Apostle, and she the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus, both of Joliet.

I don’t remember the first time I met Theresa, but I do remember a retreat we both attended at St. Charles Borromeo Pastoral Center, in Romeoville.

And because I’m a sentimental fool, I still have the affirmations from that retreat. I meticulously put them in a binder, and now I’m glad I did.  Affirmations were little notes we wrote to the other students, small group leaders, and youth group staff to make the experience special. Even if you had just met someone, you were encouraged to write them a simple note to say you enjoyed meeting them.

Luckily, I have two affirmations from Theresa saved. One is yellow, a piece of scrap paper, written in pencil. The second looks like it was ripped from a spiral journal or notepad, written in blue pen. Both times, she spelled my name right—a detail that many overlook. Some of my friends for years periodically spell my name “Amy.”

But Theresa paid attention to details. Both are signed, “Big Hugs, Theresa Lang.”

The messages were simple. But the point is, she took time to write them. At these retreats there were sometimes 20-50 people. It was impossible to write them to everyone, and some people chose to only write a few that were more in-depth, to their closest friends.

Theresa made time to write one to a girl she had just met, me.

Mostly, I regret that I never realized what an incredible friend was on the fringes of my life, and never ventured beyond being acquaintances with Theresa.

She was a blazing spirit. She hugged you with her whole heart.

When I feel a sudden urge to do something ridiculous and fun, that’s Theresa.

When I feel confident enough to talk to a stranger and find some little thing in common, that’s Theresa.

And when I can throw my head back and cackle until I lose my breath, that’s Theresa.

Common Sense #4: Joliet Polar Plunge a Fitting Tribute to an Empowering Friend

Here is my latest column, about our dear Theresa Lang. I’m working on a story with the details of the Polar Plunge, which will contain a few videos to really show what it was like and how much fun we had in her name! It’ll probably be done tomorrow or so. I interviewed a few people about her, and learned a lot of delightful things about her life in the process.

I wasn’t expecting this to run till Friday, what an amazing surprise. ❤

29 Forever: In Memory of Theresa Lang

Effervescent. That is the word to describe Theresa Lang, a friend who will now be 29 forever.

On Dec. 5, Reel Big Fish was playing in Joliet, and she wanted me to meet her. But my car had died a few days prior, and I didn’t want to swing the $25 ticket price. I’d never seen the band, but remembered how much she loved them in high school. She had a band t-shirt that she used to wear, when we met at youth group. I only wanted to go because she was going– to share it with her. But I didn’t.

We never know when it’s our last chance to call someone back, give them a hug, and make a memory. I found out the afternoon of Dec. 9, that I had missed my last chance to spend time with Theresa. I saw a status on facebook. Then another, and another.

No.

How can her light be gone?

I will share two videos that epitomize why Theresa is cherished by all who knew her, even fringe acquaintances. Last year she participated in the Polar Plunge at a local bar where she was a regular.  She jumped into an inflatable kiddie pool filled with icy water on New Year’s Day 2011– twice.

Both times with friends, and the second time, I was that lucky friend. First, she jumped with her friend Erik.

When I had arrived earlier, there was only one person there I recognized. The bar was packed, the band awesome. It should have been so much fun. But without any friendly faces around, I felt lonely.

Until Theresa burst in the front door, and I squealed! She gave me a big hug, and I was glad I had stayed. I told her I had already done it once, but was about to chicken out on round two. “I’ll go with you!” The first time I had jumped in alone, and it was anti-climactic without any friends around. But Theresa had the excitement of 10 people! After she finished her first jump, she emerged around the corner just when I was beginning to think maybe I’d rather go inside.  There was no way she was letting me get away with wimping out!

Jumping to keep warm, Theresa started clapping with anticipation. Her famous smile was there. It was insane for both of us to do it a second time–especially since she had just done it a few minutes ago! I had at least an hour or so to warm up. But she was so excited, she wanted to share it with me.  Theresa was like the Polar Plunge cheerleader, and her chanting began:

“Are you ready to go? Are you ready? Let’s go! Let’s jump now! Right now!”

Listening to the video, I’m not sure if that’s exactly what she said. But I’m grateful to be able to relive that moment through those videos– because THAT is the Theresa that everyone remembers and will never forget. Her enthusiasm was impossible to resist, and within seconds we were both jumping in, screaming! I shoved and splashed her, she giggled and hopped out,  like a smart woman! I plugged my nose, closed my eyes, and went totally under for the full experience.  Glorious. What a way to begin 2011!!

Without Theresa’s support, I might not have gone in at all a second time. But she made you feel emboldened, like you should  embrace adventure. These videos truly epitomize her generosity, her ebullient spirit. Afterward, we took a bunch of goofy pictures inside. We posed with a Santa statue.

Just being around her for a few minutes could warm your heart, because she exuded joy. But this memory of us on New Year’s Day 2011 is the most alive.

And that’s how Theresa lived her life– with gusto, jumping in with a giant smile.

And just like last year, I will celebrate New Year’s Day at the Polar Plunge. In tribute to her, I will jump twice– for Theresa.