This past September Gwendolyn Denise Eakers died after one year of living with pancreatic cancer.
Her humble upbringing began in the Central Area, as the daughter of a postal worker and a traditional stay-at-home mom. After her father died when she was seven, the family of three fell into economic hardship. Her mother became a domestic worker, and Gwen helped by waiting with her one year old sister, Gina, in long food bank lines. For most of her childhood she played surrogate mother to Gina, dutifully cooking, cleaning, ironing and doing whatever else was expected to keep the household running.
Gwen graduated from Rainier Beach High School in 1977, attended Seattle Central Community College, and subsequently graduated from Seattle University with a teaching degree in 1981. However, the job outlook for teachers was dismal then, and she landed a position as a full-time U.S. Postal Service letter carrier, where she remained for close to 20 years.
At around the age of 40, Gwen went back to school to became a Master Gardener. She could often be seen volunteering at Lowes on Rainier and the Columbia City Farmer's Market in the Master Gardener informational booth. Gwen volunteered as a food server at a downtown feed-in program, for the St. Mary's food bank, and as the Easter Bunny for the Jefferson Community Center's yearly Easter egg hunt. For many years she was on the Board of Directors for Carolyn Downs, a health clinic on 21st and Yesler serving disadvantaged populations. Additionally, Gwen worked part-time as a youth basketball and track Official for the Seattle Parks Department. This past year, Gwen had taken on the role as a spokesperson for Pancreatic Cancer Awareness and had plans for numerous fund raising activities.
Incredibly, on the home front, Gwen was even more involved and active. She engaged herself with both of her children's activities, attended PTA meetings, coached her daughter's track and basketball teams and could be seen mixing it up with her husband and stepson on the basketball court into her 40s.
Sundays were family day, and after the customary four hour stint at Curry Temple CME Church, Gwen would cook a meal for her extended family. She prided herself on retaining long held family recipes, her holiday and birthday cakes, made from scratch, were works of art unto themselves.
As a person, Gwen was gentle, soft spoken and quiet, but she had a unique way of garnering people's attention when she did. Gwen lived a clean and wholesome life. She did not smoke or drink, ate healthy, and exercised regularly.
Gwen took great pride in her African ancestry, particularly her black southern roots. She emphasized to her children and niece and nephew the importance of learning and remembering the hardships of their forebears. Her modest home displayed pictures of African American artists, artifacts, and numerous books penned by distinguished African American writers.
When Gwen learned of her cancer she chose to embrace it and continue to live life to the fullest.
"Do you ever think why me?" I once asked her.
"Why not me?" was her reply.
Gwen felt life in itself is a gift, and that our time here is an unknown. So, it is incumbent upon us to make the most of our lives since our existence is not guaranteed. Gwen's solace was her deep and unwavering Christian faith which kept her calm and self assured. Despite her terminal prognosis and the grueling pain and discomfort accompanying it, Gwen continued to work, attended various social and education events as well as traveled around America and overseas.
Like the scene in the movie "Forest Gump" where Tom Hanks is jogging around the country then stops because he is tired, Gwen kept on living a full life till one day her body told her to stop. The cancer catching her, Gwen left as she had lived: spiritual, serene, and peaceful.
This humble, dignified, and gracious woman embodied what is good and right about humanity. In her behind the scenes approach she accomplished much, touched many lives, and did so without fanfare or self promotion: a life distinguished by genuine compassion, fortitude, and a desire to help others.
To the astonishment of Gwen's immediate family, an outpouring of support appeared early this September at her funeral when this sweet and unassuming woman's life was validated by hundreds of mourners - fellow letter carriers, union brothers and sisters, postal customers, master gardeners, Muscular Distrophy Association people, park department personnel, church members, neighbors, school teachers, friends, acquaintances and a slew of extended family from all over the country - paid their last respects.
Gwen, in her unique, low-key manner, showed that at the end it is not the letters next to one's name, nor the amount of money or objects that one has accumulated, but the deeds one does day in and day out over the course of one's life that has the greatest impact on our legacy. I wholeheartedly believe Gwen's way is as attainable, honorable and meaningful of an approach to life as any I've ever seen.
Some may "want to be like Mike," but I'd rather be like Gwen.[[In-content Ad]]