Remembering Alison

by Leslie Turk

Jeff Gremillion delivers a touching eulogy, capturing the essence of his longtime friend.

"I did not want to go; [I was a] scaredy cat," Jeff says of being talked into parasailing with Alison circa 2009. "And then they would do this thing where they would 'dip' you. Meaning that after they got you up in the air they would bring you down again and splash you in the water. Again, I said, 'please no.' Of course, we did it anyway. As usual, she was right. It was huge fun."

A Mass of Christian burial was held Monday at 1:30 p.m. for Alison Neustrom, Sheriff Mike Neustrom's daughter who succumbed to pancreatic cancer Sept. 10 at the age of 42.

While Alison left her friends and family - and especially her beloved husband Dave and 2-year-old daughter Ceci - way too soon, her impact will long be felt way beyond the people she was closest to. For Alison touched many, many lives in her short time here. In a eulogy that captured the essence of Alison, longtime friend and founding IND Editor Jeff Gremillion reminded the hundreds who attended her funeral of her "extraordinary grace" and kindness and how she loved, loved, loved so deeply. She loved everyone.

And I mean everyone.

But mostly, each word Jeff spoke - each description of the full life she led - reminded us why the world would be a better place with more Alison Neustroms in it.

Below is his eulogy:


In 1991 when Alison I were in college at USL, a couple years after we first met, Natalie Cole recorded a song by that title - a duet with an old recording from the '50s of her father, Nat King Cole. Alison and I really, really liked this song. Probably a bit too much. To the dismay of many of our other friends, we sang our own duet of it. Often. Loudly. Badly. (For someone from a musical family, and who famously loved music, having a beautiful singing voice was, like me, not really among her many gifts.)

But she could make a joyful noise to beat the band. And I can still see it: Head cocked back just a little bit, like she really meant it. That barely tamed tumble of golden curls bouncing as she belted it out. Baby blues a-blazing.

When I play our song back, in the iTunes in my head, I'm moved by how perfect the lyrics are for what we're all feeling today:


That's what you are.


Tho' near or far.


In every way.

And forever more

That's how you'll stay.

That's why, darling, it's incredible

That someone so unforgettable

Thinks that I am

Unforgettable too.

And there's so much you could never forget about Alison.

She was born and raised right here in Lafayette, to the future Sheriff Mike and his most lovely bride, the incomparable Ms. Ceci. Never on earth has a child truly admired, and taken joy in her parents, more than Alison. [To Sheriff and Ms. Neustrom:] And I believe she lived up to your example of compassion for others, of understated but radiant spirituality, of loving life and reveling in this South Louisiana culture, and of selfless, endless love for your kids - which you've demonstrated over the past year in ways no parent wants to even imagine. It all started with you, we all thank you for your gift of Alison to all us of.

As a child, Alison was a feisty little tomboy who once observed while looking at childhood photos of herself something like, "Good luck trying to get a comb through that hair." She was the second of six kids. And how she loved those brothers and sisters. I knew her for 25 years, and even my earliest memories of her are all wrapped up in Neustrom siblings.

Kim, Alison, Vanessa, Emily. Steel Magnolias. Ya-Ya Sisters. Pick your Louisiana literary reference. [To the sisters:] Y'all have truly been her best friends. I'm sure some think it's unfair that the four prettiest girls in Louisiana are all in the same family; I guess those people will just have to deal. ... She. Loved. Being. Your. Sister. Y'all showed her such loving strength, all her life, but especially over the last year. You put your lives on hold to be there for her, in whatever ways she needed. And your support became both her sword and her shield.

Ben and Tom. "The Boys." [To the brothers:] If y'all live to be 100, you'll still be "the boys" to this family. You don't need me to say it, but you were in her heart and on her mind all the time. She was a proud and protective big sister, and she adored you both.

So many of Alison's friends, old and new, have observed this unique Neustrom bond. It is a great bond. And it was as essential to Alison's life as oxygen.

She went to Saint Thomas More high school and then, like I said, to the school formerly known as USL. To so many of us who came to know her in those days, she was that ray of sunshine who lit up the room without trying.

One woman who says she didn't even know Alison that well in school wrote me and, from a distance, described Alison as well as anybody could, as "a giggly, curly-haired girl who was utterly impossible to dislike." A quarter-century later, that woman still remembers Alison campaigning for the Student Government Association and how "genuinely enthusiastic" she was about it. She won, by the way.

In college, Alison began to understand her gift for lifting up and inspiring those who suffer, by thinking, and researching, and persuading, and gently leading. She did a lot in various leadership roles at USL, but the one I remember best was bringing the massive, auditorium-size AIDS quilt to campus.

Remember, this was the very early '90s. AIDS was still a poorly understood, terribly stigmatized killer. But she was, in her typical way, softly and thoughtfully and totally committed to what she thought was right. I can still remember meeting the mom of a young man who had just died of the disease, and how healing it was for her to be surrounded by this vast and beautiful representation of love and solidarity and tolerance.

(Alison was pretty big on tolerance. Never in a showy, holier-than-thou way. It was just so clear and simple with her. She didn't abide any hint of racism, or sexism, or homophobia. Just didn't. Ever.)

Also, among her greatest hits at USL, she oversaw Lagniappe Day one year. As you may know, this old university tradition is the biggest crawfish boil and beer bust you've ever seen.

There were many sides to Alison. She was so very kind, yes, and she was committed to her principles. But she was also a fun, fun girl.

We danced about a million miles across the McKinley Street Pub, and later the Blue Moon. Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" was one of our songs. (If her eyes weren't so darn beautiful as it was, it would've been a shame they weren't actually brown.) She indeed loved music, especially folky-pop-type music, especially strong, cool women like Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Indigo Girls and Annie Lennox. And, as her Uncle Joe noted in the beautiful obituary he wrote, she loved sunshine and sunflowers. She also enjoyed talking sense into Republicans. And festivals. And great food - especially Cajun, of course, and especially Ms. Ceci's gumbo. And tasty cocktails, especially those prepared by her master-mixologist husband.

And, believe me, she wasn't above playing jokes on people. One friend of hers from San Francisco described Alison this way: "She sure was mischievous for such and innocent-looking person."

She knew that I am a major scaredy cat when it comes to scary movies and things that go bump in the night. So, for more than two decades, and as recently as just a few months ago, she would call and make sure that I was home all alone on a very dark night, and then she would say stuff like, "Jefffreeey.... Whateevvvver you do, don't look out the window. They're out there, looooking at you.....


I'd freak out. And then she'd laugh. Hard.

But mostly when we talked, she wasn't trying to prank me. In fact, like a lot of her friends, I often looked to her for thoughtful, kind-hearted advice on everything from breakups to career matters. And she was not afraid to ask for advice and encouragement herself - and not afraid to cry. But much more often than not, hers was the shoulder onto which the tears fell, and she was the one offering council and perspective and nonjudgmental guidance. "Trust yourself," she would say to me. "You make good decisions."

You know, when we talk about unforgettable Alison, there's one thing that actually might not come to mind. Did you recall that she was a Ph.D. with degrees in sociology and social work from both USL and LSU? So that would be "Dr. Alison Neustrom." She also did post-doctoral studies on a prestigious fellowship out at Berkeley. If she were here right now, she might very well be the most highly educated person in the room.

But she did not put that on display. Instead, she was always unassuming, always disarming, always genuinely sweet. Her first instinct was to never make anybody feel inadequate. To never make anybody feel bad, or worried, about anything.

Like the time when a clumsy, horrified waiter spilled ketchup on her wedding dress at the dinner just after she married Dave. She was far, far more concerned with the waiter's feelings than with her dress. And she loved that dress, like brides do. But she immediately - and I mean without a split second of hesitation, without even looking at the stain - began comforting him. "It'll come out," she said. "It's not like I'll wear it again anyway."

And Dr. Neustrom was extremely accomplished in her work, which, unsurprisingly, was all about helping people, easing their suffering, giving them voices. She started out working for the court system in California, researching and advocating for the interests of children.

Then she came home to Louisiana, because we needed her. She worked under two governors - including her beloved family friend, Gov. Blanco - as a leader in the Louisiana Department of Social Services.

And although she loved working on public policy - I think she felt that was how she could do the most good for the most people - she was no policy-wonk bureaucrat. It was at Social Services that Alison, through not only Hurricane Katrina but also later Hurricane Gustav, personally took charge of efforts to make sure that thousands of people hit hardest by the storms, especially children, had access to basic necessities like food. It doesn't get anymore real than that. She was on the front lines, and got by on little or no sleep, for days. Her colleagues from the time still remember how hard she worked and how much she cared.

She spent her last few work years as a highly regarded executive in the nonprofit world, fine-tuning and furthering her mission.

She was very good at what she did. But, in thinking of Alison's career, I was really struck most by something her mentor and friend, Ann Silverberg Williamson, the former Secretary of Social Services, said about her. Ann said this: "Alison was more than the jobs she held, though she did each one with passion, determination and excellence. When she became a devoted wife and then mother, her life took on an added dimension. [It] allowed us to witness even greater beauty, [magnified] through the prism of her spirit."

[To Dave:] Make no mistake, Dave. Finding you, falling for you, marrying you, bringing little Ceci into this world with you, was, without a doubt, her greatest accomplishment. And it was the answer to a lifetime of wishes. You are a dear man of quiet, peaceful valor - her perfect match - and I thank God she had she had you.

And I thank God she had the whole Carner family. [To the Carners:] You've all been rocks. Like the Neustroms, shining examples of how to love your family, come what may.

Before Alison met Dave, she sometimes wondered if she'd ever find her soulmate. And she wondered if she'd ever have a child of her own. These were things she wanted above all else. We'll never know why God did indeed grant her these amazing blessings, but for such a short time.

But I'm so grateful he did answer those prayers of hers, before he gave her this last, hard test of her extraordinary grace.

Through her battle with cancer, she was upbeat and openhearted. Although she had her vulnerable moments and expressed apprehension, there was far more laughter than tears. She downplayed the heartache and the hardship, and emphasized the love she felt from a huge network of friends and family. She gave so many of us a first-hand, completely unforgettable lesson in how to handle pain and loss.

And she gave many more a glimpse through cyberspace, with her warm and down-to-earth blog on the Caring Bridge website, which last I looked had more than 22,000 visits. From her very first post, just days after being diagnosed, when she wrote, "Life is beautiful and heartbreaking," to her final post, just 16 days ago. She ended that post with what had become her regular sign-off: "Love, love, love, Alison."

She also taught us a lesson in what matters. She didn't waste time with bitterness or regret. And not like in that Tim McGraw song, with skydiving or bull riding. She spent as much time as she possibly could, at home with Dave and Ceci, being as normal and even mundane as possible.

She made a point to tell me how happy she was, just a few weeks before her health took its last bad turn, that she was strong enough do be left alone for a few hours with Ceci, to look after her on her own. What would seem like such a small, ordinary thing to most parents - maybe even a burden at times - was to Alison, in her final days, more meaningful than climbing Mount Everest.

And when the time came, she surrounded herself with her loving family, and left this world just as she had lived in it: "gently but powerfully," which is how Vanessa put it.

A gentle but powerful force of nature.

A force of nature like the Mississippi River, as it rolls past Baton Rouge, where Alison spent so much of her life, and made her dreams comes true. As it pushes on, with slow but sure momentum, nearing the end of a very long journey, from distant glaciers all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Like the springtime songbirds of the Atchafalaya Basin - over which Alison drove so many times, eagerly, happily - on her way home to Lafayette. Those hundreds of millions of orioles and warblers and others, on their way up from the Tropics to Louisiana, going the entire length of the Gulf, in one long, hard flight - their tune blending with the splash of the gators and the chirp of the crickets, among the cypress trees.

A force of nature like the summertime fog of Northern California, that drifts in from the cold Pacific, through the Golden Gate, and into the City of San Francisco - where Alison started her career and touched so many lives. (Did you know that not one but two of her friends out there give her credit for introducing them to their future spouses? And did you know she was single-handedly responsible for introducing king cake to the Bay Area?)

A force of nature like a waxing moon, ascending like truth, in the southeastern sky over the Gulf Coast - casting down its sterling light in an elegant, shimmering path that stretches out from a shiny shore all the way to a dark horizon. A gorgeous moon over that sandy, salty seaside, where so many of Alison's happiest memories were. With those many, many O'Keefe aunts and uncles and cousins in Biloxi. With me and other old friends at my family's place in Gulf Shores. Places where her soul was light, and her joy rose high with the tide.

(I imagine a waxing moon, by the way, because that's what the experts say will appear over the coast on Oct. 5, 20 days from now, on Alison's 43rd birthday).

I know that each of us, in our own ways, will reach out for her spirit. It helps me a little to imagine where I might find her.

In the timeless march of a mighty river.

In the gently rolling fog that envelopes a great city in wonder.

In the symphony of songbirds.

In the gathering of moonbeams upon a peaceful sea.

Also, of course, I know that if we're looking to feel Alison's presence - a bright flash of friendly cornflower-blue eyes; a cascade of blonde curls; an innate sense of optimism about how wonderful life can be - we don't have to look any further than a precocious child named Ceci.

You know, even before she knew she had cancer, Alison began the work of sending that little girl soaring into the future on eagles' wings. She had a linen banner made and placed above Ceci's crib. It reads: "YOU ARE SO LOVED. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING."

That was Alison's message to Ceci. I'll close with an anonymous friend's message to Alison, which I found so moving - and so Alison. An unknown person gave a very generous donation to our fund to help Dave and the Neustroms and the Carners raise and educate Ceci. On the website we're using, there's a place to leave a comment along with your gift. And so, without a leaving a name, and keeping his story to himself for now and maybe forever, this anonymous friend of Alison's simply wrote: "For being kind to me, at a time when others weren't."

Goodbye, Alison. You are unforgettable. And we love, love, love you, too.