I’ve discovered the one drawback to creating a family: when you lose a sister you found on your own, it is as hard to accept as losing a blood relative. It was too soon to have to say goodbye to Lisa Lepionka – I was just beginning to realize how much she means to me. I’m using present tense because she will always be in my heart and, if I am a worthy sister, in my actions.
If you’ve read “The Other Mother: a rememoir” you already know Lisa – or at least the part that intersected with Byrne Miller’s incredible life. She is the wise “collected daughter,” the tall Swiss-German dance student and mother herself who became an anchor in Byrne’s life. Byrne depended on Lisa’s judgment so completely that she entrusted her with the care of Alison, her only surviving biological daughter.
I met Lisa in a modern dance master class of a company Byrne brought to Beaufort, though I knew of her from interviewing her professor husband in my other life as a TV reporter. Writing that phrase “professor husband” still makes me smile: Lisa was actually his younger student when she fell in love with Larry Lepionka, across the continent at a University frequented by hardworking immigrants like herself. He is responsible for bringing her to his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina, by way of colleges in New England and dissertations in Switzerland and archeological digs in Africa. No wonder she seemed so exotic and confident to me; I was a twenty-something rookie who had never witnessed devoted, respectful partnerships that defined marriages like Lisa and Larry Lepionka’s or Byrne and Duncan Miller’s.
Where Byrne was flair and drama, Lisa’s was a calm devotion – to her husband and her son and daughter. I thought she was unflappable, that literally nothing scared her. Not even Byrne. The longest sentence I ever heard Lisa say was when she stopped Byrne from impetuously marching out of a terrible hip-hop dance performance at Spoleto. I held my breath, wondering how Byrne would react to Lisa’s declaration that it was disrespectful to members of the audience who were actually enjoying the performance. When Byrne sat back down without another word I knew that Lisa had a power none of us did. She was unflinchingly fair, deliberately kind and genuinely open-minded.
So I was stunned to find out that Lisa was actually intimidated by Byrne. It came out in one of many long talks, masquerading as interviews, during the writing of the book. Which made me respect her even more. She was brave even when it didn’t come easy.
It didn’t come easy this year. Yet she was so brave – meeting the news of every worsening diagnosis with the quiet determination to do whatever she needed to do to fight it. She told me that’s how she was raised. As soon as she or any of her five siblings were able to help around the house that’s what they were expected to do. “If you can do it yourself, you don’t ask someone else to do it for you,” she said as we were washing dishes one night after dinner.
From Lisa I learned that it is possible to be tough and gentle at the same time. That maybe the sign of truly loving something is fiercely demanding its best. Like public education. Lisa went down fighting for it to improve and for teachers to get the respect and remuneration they deserve. And the arts. If you support the arts you buy season tickets, you defend freedom of expression and you educate yourself as to the difference between attempt and mastery.
I’ve lost many friends and family members this year and each time I’ve figured out what to do and how to help by remembering how Lisa helped Byrne through hospitalizations and then Duncan’s illness and death. You don’t wring your hands and tell an ill or grieving friend to “call if there’s anything they need.” Lisa taught me you roll up your sleeves and show up. You change the garbage liners, you hang out the laundry, you check if the milk’s gone bad in the fridge. You ask what time your friend needs to be at the doctor’s, the lawyer’s, the funeral home and then tell her when you’ll pick her up.
So many of Lisa’s friends and family did just that, that she left us fully aware of her treasured place in our hearts. Sweet travels, my wise sister. We will dance together again — just on a different stage.
Lisa’s memorial service is Friday, September 19th, at the First Presbyterian Church of Beaufort at 4:30pm.