Welcome. And thank you for joining us to celebrate the life of a truly remarkable woman, Celeste Anne Steinhelper Wood. Some of you might know her by other names, and the one I hear most frequently is Cha. But I’m going to be honest. Cha is not a name I use with her, and I’m not totally sure you should use it either. Here is why.
When I first started hanging around this family, Celeste had a different nickname: Chessie. Not long into our courtship, her sister Heather informed me that I had not earned the right to call her Chessie, so I couldn’t call her that. I’ll be honest. I was pretty bent. However, I also had to admit that I agreed. Certain nicknames are special, and we should gain permission to use them. For example, I have permission to call Heather H, and that’s how I’ll refer to her today.
So it is with Cha. When our nephew Luke was young and learning Celeste’s name, he did the best he could to pronounce Celeste, but it came out, “Cha” or “ChaCha.” One day while shopping at Target, H called her ChaCha, and a lady next to them asked if that was because she was an aunt. Apparently, ChaCha is a Polish nickname for aunt. Celeste loved that idea, especially because Luke had first given her the nickname. So Cha and ChaCha became a part of her identity. But going back to my days of being warned off calling her Chessie, and rightfully so, I tried to stick with Celeste or C-Dub when referring to her. To me, to call her Cha is something that requires permission from her two favorite boys in the world, her nephews Luke and Brayden. She was their ChaCha first. Boys, she loved you so much. I can’t imagine an aunt ever loved nephews more. So as the rightful originator, Luke, and with her truly being your Cha, Brayden, I just want to make sure that it’s ok for the rest of these people to call her Cha. Is it ok with you guys?
The rest of you can call her Cha if you want. I’m sticking with Celeste.
Celeste Anne Steinhelper was born on August 6th, 1972 to Charles and Sharon Steinhelper. You heard from H about Chessie’s formative years, which I am not qualified talk about, so I will focus more on her adult years. But I want to take this opportunity to thank Chuck and Sharon for loving each other and giving life to Celeste. Chuck and Sharon, you did an amazing job raising Celeste to be the woman she became. The name you gave her means heavenly. She truly was, and she is. She shined in life. She will shine in death. And everyone here today is a testament to what you created. Thank you.
Celeste Anne Steinhelper Wood passed on July 20th, 2019, just 17 days short of her 47th birthday. 17,149 days. It goes by in a blink. And I think all of us would agree that it wasn’t enough. And yet, it was enough…..it was enough to create an extraordinary body of good in the world. It was enough to be a loving and beloved daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin, and friend. It was enough to get married, become a fantastic aunt, and raise a daughter into a beautiful young woman. It was enough to live an extraordinary life. And perhaps most pointedly to the core of who Celeste was in her 47 earthly years, it was enough to teach thousands of people thousands of lessons.
We are all the beneficiaries of Celeste’s lessons. And I would like to invite some of her closest friends to share the lessons they learned from Celeste.
One of the first lessons I learned from Celeste is that it’s good to have mutual friends. Good people tend to flock together, and so maybe it’s no surprise that we had multiple mutual friends in different circles of our lives before we met. We first met at a wedding of our mutual friends Jeff and Trisha Stanton. We were seated at the singles table, both of us just starting new jobs in education, and when I told her I went to Albion, she said, “This is a long shot, but I know one guy at Albion.” That one guy she knew happened to be my roommate, Drew Boyd. Some of you might know him as Andy.
I asked her out that night, although perhaps I didn’t exactly ask her out, so to speak. She shot me down, and she should have on that occasion. But a year and a half later Boyd and I were at a party together, and Celeste’s sister Heather was there. She persuaded Celeste to come over. She didn’t exactly turn down my attempts to…..date her that night…..although she didn’t exactly make it easy for me. After the first time I kissed her she responded with the memorable words, “What was that for?” I thought it was obvious. But perhaps it wasn’t. And another very quick lesson I learned from her was that I better have a plan with this one. But I was thankful for our mutual friends and our multiple opportunities to get together and fall in love because let’s be honest, apparently I needed multiple shots to accomplish that feat.
But I finally got the job done. Yes. I got it done. And I’m still a bit amazed about that. Because if I’m being honest, I was not exactly serious boyfriend material. Recently, I thought back to that night. On Saturday July 13th this year, as we were waiting to be discharged from the hospital, we were sitting on her bed, holding hands, and crying about the news we’d been given. The cancer was overwhelming her body. Celeste said, “I guess we’re not going to get our miracle.” I understood what she meant, but typical of so many moments in our marriage, I had to voice my disagreement, for once perhaps hitting the right note. I told her, “I got my miracle 21 years ago when I somehow convinced a beautiful young teacher to fall in love with a graduate school dropout with no job.” That was my miracle. And nobody is taking that one from me.
For our one year anniversary of dating, Celeste taught me a series of lessons with one theme. She wrote a book for me. It was a book exactly like her 2nd grade students at Pine Tree Elementary were writing. It was titled, “Have I Ever Told You Why I Love You So Much?” The book is a 17 page love letter to me complete with pictures of our 365 days together. It is probably the one keepsake I cherish most in life, and it made a world of difference in how I viewed myself at the time. By teaching me how she felt about me, showing me how much she loved me, I gained a new understanding of my worth and importance in this world. Imparting a transformational understanding such as this is no small thing. Indeed, it might be the most important thing we can teach another. To show another how much he is valued is to give the gift of love in a profound, life altering way.
On one of the pages she wrote, “You mean so much to me, that the world alone cannot hold my love for you.” And isn’t that coming full circle? Her ashes belong to earth, but we truly need more than the world to hold our love for Celeste now.
Not long after that I decided to buy a ring and ask Celeste’s parents for her hand in marriage. That’s when I received a second highly memorable turn of phrase from a Steinhelper. I sat with Celeste’s father, Chuck, on their back porch. I asked for his and Sharon’s permission to marry Celeste. Chuck looked away, sighed, and said to me, “We knew you kids would do something stupid like this.”
Well we did that stupid thing. We tied the knot on July 15th, 2000 and entered into marriage. Her sister Heather was her maid of honor, but just as Boyd was my Best Man, I think a better title would have been Best Woman or Best Sister because she was. She was as dedicated and loving a sister as you’ll find.
But our marriage, oh man was that an adventure. A beautiful one to be sure, but an adventure with ups and downs. Being raised an only child and never having been married before, perhaps I wasn’t too surprised to learn that I didn’t know much about being married. What DID surprise me was that despite not having been married before herself, Celeste knew absolutely everything there was to know about marriage. And she soon started teaching me everything I was doing wrong. I was a decent student. Probably give myself a B or a C. I doubt if Celeste would have graded me that high at first, but we worked on it.
One of the most important early lessons she tried to teach me was how to argue. She never explicitly told me how to argue, but she showed me again and again….and again…..and again. I’m embarrassed to say how long it actually took me to catch on, but when I did, it brought a wonderful transformation to our marriage. I taught it to many of my therapy patients over the years, and I’d like to teach it to you today if it’s allright with you. Is that ok?
Here’s how the lesson goes. It starts with a question. How many people does it take to argue? In other words, what is the minimum number of people it takes to enter into an argument? It takes 2. So how many people does it take to end an argument? One. If you have one person attempting to argue, that’s not an argument. That’s a rant. And nobody wins a rant. I was that ranting fool for a long time. But I figured it out, and argued less and less throughout our marriage. It was a wonderful improvement.
And there’s more to this lesson. After one person exits the argument, the rant eventually dies down. And when this happens, an interesting thing occurs. When boiling emotions and hot heads have cooled, what once looked like a problem doesn’t look nearly as bad anymore. It’s amazing how many problems simply disappear when we don’t actively argue about them. And if a real problem exists and needs to be solved, it will come up again, but that problem will never be solved in the heat of an argument. That problem will only be solved when emotions are calm and minds are clear. Trust me folks. Exit the argument. End the rant sooner than later.
Some of the best lessons I learned from Celeste were simply informational. One day in the fall of 2004 we were cleaning and getting ready for Chuck and Sharon to come over and have dinner. As I went to unplug the vacuum Celeste shoved a little white stick in front of my face. At first I didn’t understand how to read the code on the stick, but when I looked at her face and saw those beautiful blue eyes sparkling with life, I knew that she was carrying a new one.
She carried that baby with a fierce pride and protection, and on July 8th, 2005 we welcomed Emerson Marin Wood into the world. The birth was slightly complicated. The doctors had to rush Celeste into an emergency procedure to stop her bleeding. Baby Emerson went to the NICU. Celeste went to the OR, and I was left all alone in the hallway. It wasn’t how I pictured the moment of becoming a father. About three hours later momma and baby were stable and ready to meet. I had the distinct honor of picking up Emerson out of her crib on wheels and introducing her to her momma. I think placing Em in Celeste’s arms is my favorite moment of my life, but the rest of it with those two was also pretty magical. The greatest honor of my life has been my front row seat to watch the two of them shine as mother and daughter. Emerson, I know that you understand mom loved you. She showed you every single day, even when she was on your butt, especially when she was on your butt. But as every parent here knows, you cannot possibly adequately understand just what you meant to mom or how much she loved you. Perhaps someday, if you choose to and are blessed, you will have your own child, and then, and only then, will your capacity for love burst through its previous boundaries. Only then will you truly understand the love a parent has for child, the love your mom had for you.
Celeste lived with a certain fire. She was a commanding presence. She hurled herself at life with an extraordinary force. One of my favorite t-shirts she owned simply read, “Savage,” on the front of it. She was. And yet, through her first 44 years, if she had a kryptonite, H and I agree, it was physical pain. Up until 2016 she was the healthiest person I ever met. I think she almost always felt perfectly well. Through 21 years of teaching the only time I ever remember her being sick was when she got pink eye. So maybe it’s not surprising that any perturbance of her system felt so incredibly wrong. At the time of her diagnosis, I only personally knew one other person who had had pancreatic cancer. His name was Scott Ammons, an Albion alum. Scott’s physical and mental strength were legendary. His nickname wasn’t Cha. His nickname was The Allmighty. And pancreatic cancer took him from this world at age 40. All I could think was, “If pancreatic cancer killed The Allmighty, what is it going to do to my poor wife who hates physical pain?” Well, let me tell you. Celeste had a few more lessons in store for us.
She taught school for 21 years, but I think some of her greatest lessons, the ones that reached the most students and will have the most lasting impact, happened after her retirement. Diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a killer than can take its victims in a matter of months, Celeste was not about to go quietly. In fact, she didn’t plan on going at all. And she sure as hell wasn’t going to be a victim.
She chose to be a survivor and a victor. We found Dr. Sahai and his team at the University of Michigan Hospitals, and over the course of two years she was poked and prodded and poisoned and scoped and scanned. Her body gave way to her disease or the treatment on a daily basis in one way or another. We almost lost her in April of 2018 when the cancer closed off her small intestine and bile duct. She was down to 90 pounds and a fourth attempt at unblocking her bile duct when a young doctor named Ryan Law, a fellow Spartan undergrad, stopped her breathing on command so that he could accurately visualize her insides and make a final attempt at boring a stent through her intestine, liver, and internal spaces until it finally pierced the bile duct and bile flowed easily through this most unnatural tunnel. Man did she love that. Two Spartans saving a life in UofM hospital.
Even with her bile duct unblocked, the docs thought she had only a few months to live. They started her on a palliative dose of another chemo. But the life in Celeste was not to be denied. She got stronger and stronger, and with her increases in strength, the doctors increased the strength of the chemo doses. And she just kept getting stronger. Until she didn’t.
And when she no longer got stronger. She got tougher. She got braver. And she taught us all about courage. Here are three things to know about Celeste’s teachings on toughness, bravery, and courage.
One: We are all tougher than we think, and we need not know we are being tough to manifest toughness.
Two: You can’t be brave without being scared.
And three: If you constantly tell yourself, “I’ve got this,” you will only ever be wrong once.
Celeste constantly reminded herself, “I’ve got this,” and she did. Until she didn’t. I’ll never forget our last accomplishment together. I was trying to nap on our bed when I awoke to H entering the door frame of our room. In her next step Celeste came into view. Celeste had her arm around H’s neck, and H was doing her best to hold Celeste by the torso without hurting her, which was difficult to do at that point.
“She wants to take a shower,” H said to me, but when I met her gaze I saw the fear in her eyes while her head shook no. I shared her fear. Even though showers had been Celeste’s ritual and refuge for pain for two years, a shower was a seriously dangerous activity for someone so unstable on her feet. I got up and helped H get Celeste seated on the bed. The three of us debated for a few moments about whether a shower was going to happen or not. H and I were on the no side. Celeste was on the yes side. H and I lost. Celeste beat us one more time. I don’t know why we ever entertained the idea that we were going to win that battle.
So we hatched a plan. I got the most stable step stool I could find and placed it in the shower. I got on shorts and soaped a wash cloth. Then we hoisted Celeste off the bed, and the three of us made a sort of tripod. I faced backward with Celeste’s arms around my neck. I held her under the arms. H grabbed her torso. Locked together, we began to step toward the shower. We feared Celeste would collapse at any moment. Her legs simply couldn’t bear what little weight her body had on it anymore. At the thresholds Celeste could not lift her leg high enough to get over the hump, so H had to grab her legs and boost them, one after the other, from behind. Finally we got to the shower. I turned on the water, and with great effort we cleared the final hurdle, another threshold, and we entered the shower. She held my neck, and I held her under the arms while H scrubbed and rinsed. When she was done, Celeste was too spent to begin the journey back to the bed, so I eased myself onto the stool, and she sat on my lap. And we just sat and hugged in the running water. Then H shut off the water, dried her off, dressed her, and we made our way back to the bed and tucked her in for one last sleep.
It was a heroic effort. It was a heroic life. And she went out still teaching lessons on toughness, bravery, and courage. Her body has returned to the earth as ashes, but even death cannot extinguish her light.
As I lay on that bed now I am physically alone, and yet in my heart and mind I know that I will never be without that beautiful woman who shined in this world as bright as anyone I’ve ever known. And as I lie on my bed I can look up and see one of the first gifts she ever gave me: A miniature sailboat.
Celeste had a knack for using nautical themes to teach lessons. I think most of you are probably familiar with her affinity for anchors, and her sister has a tattoo of an anchor that reads, “Hope is an anchor for the soul.” And I’ve lost count on how many new anchor tattoos we have out there.
Here is a confession. I am not a huge hope guy. It’s not that I don’t understand hope. It’s not that I don’t have hopes. It’s just that hope is about the future, and as I get older I find it easier to forget the future and deal with the now. Throughout the last two years I’ve really had to focus on being the deal with it guy. When trying to move a mountain, someone has to be the first to look at that mountain and say, “Which rock needs to be moved right now?” That was me. That was my role.
But today my role is different, and I want to point you toward hope, the last lesson I learned from Celeste. If hope truly is an anchor for the soul I want you to remember one fact: An anchor does its essential job when it is unseen. Just as a boat anchor must disappear beneath the surface of the water to do its best work, sometimes hope has to seem lost before you realize it is the only thing keeping you from being washed away in the storm. When all hope seems to be gone, consider that it’s just disappeared beneath the surface momentarily in order to do its most important work.
Hope is an anchor for the soul. But to me, boats, like the one in our bedroom, symbolize both my earliest and latest nautical lessons from Celeste. Here is why I love boats so much. They are a reminder that we have some say about how we travel our journey, but so does the wind and water. There are always elements of life we have no influence over. We simply have to deal with them the best we can. That’s a humbling truth. And yet, in that dance with partners that exert their forces against our wills, there is room for us to be empowered and room for hope. This canoe has a story of hope that I want to share with you now.
On a sunny fall day in 2017 I received the gift of an unexpected day off. Celeste and I took a drive north of Clarkston, and she wanted to stop at an antique shop. At the shop I found this canoe, and she bought it for me to put in my office. I keep it in my office as a reminder of Celeste’s love for boats, her lessons and gifts to me, and her ability to remain empowered when so many others would have given up in the face of adversity.
The canoe is a reminder that control is an illusion. When things are going our way, it doesn’t mean we have control. It means factors out of our control are going in our favor at the moment. That’s a gift, a fortunate occurrence, a blessing, but it isn’t an excuse to pat oneself on the back for receiving fortune or a reason to confuse true control with composure, command, or influence.
Like the paddler of the canoe, we have influence, but so does the water. When we paddlers have perfect influence over the canoe, we have command of it, but that’s not the same as true control. It just seems that way.
When the water rages against our will, it is not the time to say, “Oh no, the water is in control!” and surrender our own influence. That is the time when we must be most assured of our own power to see the situation differently and do what we can to exert our influence upon the world around us. The canoe is a reminder to balance humility and empowerment.
When the clouds gathered, the winds roared, and the storms raged, Celeste just kept shining. I hope we never lose sight of her shining light in our lives. She was one of a kind. And we are blessed to have her as ours.
Thank you for loving Celeste. Thank you for coming and honoring her. May she always be with you.