Writer’s Block: Repurposing sadness for thanksgiving

During these last few days before Thanksgiving, we approach the second anniversary of my brother’s passing and I am again reminded of the many gifts Jeff shared with us.

Sue Austreng
Sue Austreng

Those sweet memories tug at my heart and expressions of thanks spill out.

Always practical and imaginative, my little brother had the unique gift of being able to take an ordinary object and use it in a new way.

Repurposing seemed to be second nature to my little brother. When he was just a kid, he’d take apart dad’s lawn mower or mom’s vacuum cleaner or the toaster or our little red wagon – whatever was lying around – and he’d use those “found” parts to fix or improve a toy or game or piece of furniture that he wanted to use in a new way.

Throughout his life he found new ways to use old stuff. He’d use discarded car parts or leftover equipment or old tools or scrap or whatever someone would say was “garbage” and use it in a whole new way.

For example as a grown up, when his Folgers coffee can was empty, he’d cut the can in half, sand the edges and use the resulting domed pieces as metal roofing for bird feeders.

He’d use old, mismatched pieces of silverware as candleholders, heating those forks and spoons until softened and then bending them so they could stand alone and support a candle.

Why, even at the end of his life, when chemotherapy was making him go bald, Jeff thought of some practical use for those handfuls of hair.

Instead of just throwing it out, he collected that hair, placed it on a plate outside and watched the birds use it to build their nests.

But Jeff wasn’t just practical and imaginative in repurposing objects. He was attentive and observant of people’s habits and routines, too.

You couldn’t get anything by him and he had a quirky sense of humor, re-interpreting even the most common expressions.

Take this, for example: When someone would cry out in exasperation, “Oh, honest to Pete!” Jeff would wrinkle his brow, cock his head and ask, “Who’s Pete and why do you lie to everyone else?”

And when filling out the forms at Fairview as he anticipated a bone marrow transplant, he entered his full given name:

Jeffrey Bruce Austreng. On the line where it asked for a “preferred name” he wrote “Healed.”

See, even during those dark, frightening and uncertain days, Jeff saw the lighter side.

He so easily gave so much to all those around. Even when he was the one needing care and attention, Jeff would be the one giving it. He’d be getting chemo or a blood transfusion or waiting for test results and nurses would ask if he’d like some juice or coffee.

He’d say, “No, thanks. But what can I get for you?”  And then he’d go and get it.

Once he brought chocolates and a bouquet of flowers to the chemo suite, just to cheer up the nurses because he thought they must get pretty depressed caring for people who were sick and dying.

Even though he was one of those sick and dying people, he was thinking of what his nurses must be going through and imagining ways to cheer them up. Why, he even laced his shoes with blaze orange or hot pink laces, just because he thought the nurses would get a kick out of it.

Once, early in his treatment, a chemo technician, recognizing that Jeff’s attitude was rather unusual, asked him if he knew what was happening … if he knew how sick he was … if he knew he might die …

And Jeff said, “Yes, but I know my Savior Jesus Christ, too. God’s got my back. What about you?”

Yep, my kid brother may have been my “little” brother, but he was a giant example of faith in times of trouble.

They say faith is confidence in things hoped for, belief in things not seen. Well, we all hoped for health for Jeff. We all hoped he’d beat cancer and live a long life.

But those hopes were not realized. No, the hopes realized were even greater: Clinging to the sure hope of his Savior, Jeff passed from this life to the next and now he’s living free of pain and fear, free of sadness and loss. He’s living a new life, whole and healthy and dancing on streets of gold.