This weekend, friends and family gathered to celebrate the life of Renee DiAugustine Bower. There were several gatherings over the weekend for the community to bring their stories and provide connection and comfort to each other. Renee was my friend too, and I wanted her to have the final rite deserving of such a bright light, so I offered to be her celebrant and am forever grateful that her husband Derek gave me the honor. Earlier in the week, I met with friends and family to interview them about their most treasured memories about Renee, her biggest accomplishments, the dreams she was working toward and what the legacy is that she leaves behind. I had the privilege of writing Renee’s Obituary, Funeral Service (read Renee’s Obituary here) and on Friday, delivering the Life Portrait Eulogy in downtown Berwick, where Renee dedicated her life to building and enhancing her community. I am sharing it here so that Renee’s loved ones can find it when they are missing her and want to be reminded of all the ways she was, all the ways she influenced and touched their lives.
Life Portrait Eulogy
She was born on January 21st, 1991 at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, to her adoring parents, Lori Roinick and Joe DiAugustine and welcomed enthusiastically to the family by her big sister Becky.
Renee was a beautiful big-hearted little girl with sparkling brown eyes and wide smile that came easily. Her first favorite movie was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which she happily watched on repeat on the family’s worn VHS tape. She was creative and sentimental—she never got rid of anything. Like most children, Renee hated cleaning her room, but that didn’t mean that she was sloppy. From a very young age, her mother Lori remembers that she took personal pride in how she dressed. She was very particular-her clothing had to match! This hometown girl built friendships in those early days at Holy Family School and carried them throughout her life. And if you asked her what her favorite meal was growing up, she would say anything her Mom Mom served at family dinner.
As a teenager, Renee attended Berwick High School, Go Bull Dawgs!!!. It was during these years that Renee really blossomed into her own. She was a natural leader and well-respected by her peers and teachers alike. Always active and involved Renee was a member of distinguished honors. She had developed a reputation among her peers as a “genius and a big nerd” … Yet, she had this uncanny ability to connect with and become friends with anyone and everyone. Time outside of school was spent with friends–watching Austin Powers on Friday nights at her dad’s house, and soaking up the sun on summer days playing in her gram’s pool.
During these years in High School, Renee was elected and served as president for the Berwick Leo Club, the mentoring arm of Lion’s International, a community service organization whose mission is to “join individuals together to give of their valuable time and effort to improving their communities and the world”. The Lion’s motto is “kindness matters”. And Renee took these lessons to heart and carried these tenets out into the world.
College years were more of the same as Renee pursued everything with a spirit of excellence. Renee DiAugustine was a name frequently spotted on the Dean’s List for her academic achievements. And in those hours spent outside of the classroom, Renee continued her education in building lifelong friendships, serving her community, and leadership development in several honors societies. Always, stretching herself to try new things, Renee also joined a country dance club, the fruits of her time in it have been a great source of laughter and inside jokes in the years since.
A vibrant young woman and natural leader, Renee is who the professors turned to when they needed to hire a teaching assistant for their courses. After four years at Bloomsburg, Renee graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology with a double minor in Gender Studies and Sociology with a concentration on children, family and youth.
A grandfather’s recollection of his grandaughter’s life: A Star in the Heavens Above, a poem written by Thomas Roinick. During the service, Thomas stood next to me at the podium, holding my hand to give his strength as I read his poem aloud.
At the start of the second semester of her junior year, something big and life-changing was about to happen to Renee. A boy she had known from high school, a guy who was as much of a jock as she was a nerd, a fun-loving “country boy” named Derek Bower, drove out to see Renee in her on-campus apartment, for her birthday. The two of them stayed up all night talking–Renee lounging on her dormitory-issue bed and Derek sitting on the floor leaning back on the thin mattress. They talked about everything and anything…their families, hopes, dreams, dramas and stuff that made them laugh—it was a real heart-to-heart, never running out of things to share. Derek remembers that the following night, he drove out to Bloom and they stayed up again talking into the wee hours of the morning.
The connection between them was so easy and natural and exciting, that Derek decided the next step would be to see if Renee could pass the ‘friends test.’ The particular test Derek devised was taking Renee out to a remote cabin in the woods with his brother Jacob and two best friends Dave and Robert Albertson in his painstakingly restored 1985 Chevy Blazer (with seat belts just installed for the occasion!)…in the middle of a snow storm.
Growing up, Renee’s dad Joe, was not an overbearing type–-but he did have just a few very reasonable guidelines to keep his daughters safe as they stepped into adulthood. One of his rules was ‘don’t ever put yourself in a position where you are the only girl’. On this one occasion where Renee disregarded her dad’s rule, she ended up following another more universal principle she had been taught by her family—and that was the importance of trusting her intuition. She listened to the little voice inside her and decided to trust the bond that had been developing with Derek. At the end of the weekend Renee had not only passed the friends test but the five-some became responsible for a new tale told by locals–the Legend of Black Forest.
A couple weeks later, on March 15th, 2011, Derek and Renee shared their first kiss. Neither of them can remember exactly what went off–a siren, car alarm, shooting on the television- but there was a loud noise that startled them and pulled them back from that first blissful kiss. Somehow Derek ended up on his back twisting on the ground in all the commotion, waving his hands around, exclaiming, “so many emotions!” They laughed about that moment, when they officially became a couple, for all the days they had together.
Derek says that he credits Renee, and her kind and easy influence, for helping him grow leaps and bounds from the 20-year old man he was at the start of their romance to who he is today. Two years after that first ‘so many emotions’ kiss, Renee DiAugustine became Renee Bower. Derek and Renee intertwined their lives with abandon. There wasn’t anything that either of them did without the help and support of the other. At family and friend gatherings, you would ALWAYS find Renee perched on Derek’s lap. Throughout all their years together, they were in constant conversation.
Secure in her marriage, as a newlywed, Renee turned her attention to helping her Pop Pop fulfill his last big wish—to save the Berwick Theater.
The Berwick Theater is where Renee’s grandparents Vincent and Lucille had gone on their first movie date (back when it was The Strand), legend has it that at the end of the night, when he walked Lucille back to the car to take her home, he wrote “I’m going to marry you” with his finger in the condensation on the window. Decades later, Vincent bought that same theater, it was one of the many businesses he had opened in his life long pursuit and commitment to preserve life and the community in historic downtown Berwick.
Renee was the sixth generation of her family to make a life here in Berwick. And when it became clear what needed to be done to save the theater, Renee started a fundraising campaign so that they could convert to digital instead of reel. She worked with the Berwick chapter of the United Way to create a non-profit designation for the Theater, and it became the Berwick Theater and Center for the Community Arts.
Back in those early days, any normal person could have looked at the seemingly insurmountable task before her and cut their losses, but Renee’s response when asked about her determination to make her Pop’s vision a reality was, “Failure isn’t in my vocabulary…it’s just not an option.”
There were quite a few articles and television pieces done to showcase this unusual inheritance, of how Renee took up the mantle to save this downtown fixture. Jamie Colby, the host of Strange Inheritance finishes her profile episode impressed by, just 23-year old Renee, “Some people are driven by money when they start their business,” she says, “some are driven by notoriety. But Renee is driven by something more meaningful: legacy. What often starts out as a burden, becomes an opportunity.”
And that’s how Renee saw this challenge, not as a burden but as an opportunity. And there were so many opportunities that emerged from those precious and challenging days when Renee and her Pop were working together on the Theater, and Derek and Joe were hand-making and restoring all the things for their upcoming wedding celebration. Joe restored a giant popcorn machine and an old candy bar from the theater into a bar for cocktails, Derek built a make shift table and a custom dance floor. Derek jokes that he had to build everything because they were cheap, but Pop saw the situation differently. Pop, who had spent his life adapting in business and starting new ventures, was instrumental in helping Renee and Derek transition all the work they had done building custom pieces for their wedding, into a full fledged rental business. Forget Me Not Rentals.
Renee worked diligently for years before she could even pay herself. And being able to see opportunities where they weren’t obvious, must have been a trait that ran in the family, because years after she graduated, Renee would be invited back to campus to speak to other students about how she used her degree, leveraging and adapting her whole education to start her own business and how she created her own path as Executive Director at the Theater. Renee loved giving back to others, especially people in transition and give a word of encouragement. She always looked forward to her annual visit back the Bloomsburg to speak as a mentor.
Renee and Derek enjoyed a relationship where they each had absolute faith in the other as a partner—there wasn’t anything, and I mean anything that they couldn’t accomplish together. Derek remembers in the early days of Forget Me Not, Renee came home one night just beaming with excitement—she had just sold their first big wedding for 250 people. They’d need about 25 tables and by the way, the wedding was next week! At that time, they had a few vintage furniture pieces and the china from their wedding in inventory, but once Renee had an idea for something, it was full steam ahead, nothing could stop her, not even lack of inventory.
The next morning she and Derek were at Lowes at 7am buying the supplies they needed to make 25 tables, in batches. Derek had never done woodworking before, but they knew they could figure it out. They got through the week, with Derek building a few tables at a time, Renee would apply the polyurethane and as soon as they were dry, the tables would get shuttled over to the venue. They always laughed when they remembered the grandfather of the bride coming over inspecting while the reception dinner was still being set up, the grandfather, admiring one of the new tables, leaned in close and took in a lung full, “wow, they even smell fresh too!” he said with wonder.
When Declan was born on April 27th, 2016, Renee transformed into her best self, being a mother came naturally to such a compassionate, affectionate and giving person. With his arrival, came excitement, joy and the courage to chart her own future. Declan was and is the perfect mix of both his parents and he was easy love. Renee cherished her “amazing little family” and loved snuggling with her “little doodle” in the morning after coffee and taking him to visit her favorite place—the swings in the Evansville Park across from her uncle’s house—the place where Eddie Donlin snapped her favorite candid photo of her and Derek from their wedding day. Renee just delighted in giving Declan the best education she could from the start, whether of it was teaching him to count as a baby, or signing him up for every enrichment program in town—he was going to be prepared to seize the opportunities that came his way in life.
As a colleague and collaborator, Forget Me Not provided Renee the opportunity to create new friendships with other creatives in the wedding industry. And just like that Dean’s List in college, her styling and event collaborations can be found celebrated in the top wedding magazines and blogs.
So many people trusted Renee to create a warm and artful atmosphere at their weddings—the most important day of their lives. And she earned that trust in spades in the way that she infused her thoughtfulness into her customer service and business relationships. Often tinkering on set ups up until the last second. She was the consummate professional.
While building her business, she was sure to support and promote the small businesses of her friends too. Her best friend Candice Mock shares that, “she can’t think of anyone outside of her own family, who has helped her become a better person” as much as Renee did. They were like “iron sharpening iron with ideas and encouragement” as they grew their businesses together, navigated newlywed life and became mothers at the same time. They say that a rising tide lifts all vessels, and Renee lived this philosophy of generosity and cooperation throughout every aspect of her life.”
Her friend Kristy Rice shared that all of her memories of Renee are centered around her “tremendous generosity of spirit and self.” Before they had the opportunity to even meet and become friends, Renee had just heard of Kristy and that she was going through the adoption process. Renee volunteered, insisted really, that Forget Me Not help with Kristy’s adoption shower, Renee and Derek completely outfitted the event for 100 people, setting up and tearing down and would not take no for an answer.
When it came it time for Kristy’s son Isaac to celebrate his second birthday, Renee volunteered, again, to help. Isaac’s birthday was to be the first event Forget Me Not hosted in their new event space. Kristy remembers that Renee, Derek, Lori –the whole family was involved, putting up dry wall, installing light fixtures all to ensure this little boy’s birthday would be a bash to remember– all because Renee genuinely wanted to give back and to ease the burdens of a fellow creative. These were indeed extraordinary gifts to be on the receiving end of, but these gestures were not out of the ordinary for Renee. Renee was a “beacon of generosity.”
I was recently going through my emails, texts and Facebook messages, trying to grasp hold of the digital footprint that Renee left—proof of all the things we planned and talked about—proof of our connection. I saw an email from February 2013 that made me curious, because I didn’t think that I had known Renee for so long. The email was from djslammer76—Derek Bower inquiring if I was available to officiate a wedding ceremony at Barn at Boone’s Dam, June 1st, for him and his fiancée Renee.
It would be a few years after this, that I would actually get to meet and work with Renee through the wedding industry. And then I became her friend through our collaborations and her involvement in my Bacon & Lox Society. Two years ago, I asked Renee to do something kind of crazy. I asked her to pack up a truck full of their furniture, drive it to Stroudsburg, and then set up a communal table and seating for 50, oh yeah, and a lounge, in the middle of remote McMichael’s Creek, and she would need to have it all packed back out of the water at the end of the event before the last of the sunlight was gone and it was pitch black too.
Bacon & Lox Society Full Circle Meal, 2017 Photo M2 Photography
“Yes! Count us in!” was Renee’s immediate response.
Earlier last year her answer was the same when I asked if she could set up a communal table for another gathering of creatives on the frozen ice of the Delaware River—this ice dinner event was an exercise in “how we could create something beautiful and help each other not only survive, but thrive in difficult times.”
“Yes! Count us in!” was Renee’s immediate response.
Everything about Renee communicated this truth—“You can count on me.” And I knew I always could. Renee wasn’t able to attend the ice dinner in the end, she had just started chemotherapy and wasn’t feeling well. But she still made it all possible, Derek was there early and then again late dropping off and then picking up all the chairs, tables and rugs on the ice.
End of the night, Bacon & Lox Society Ice Dinner, photo Rob Yaskovic
This summer, we did the creek dinner again, the formal name of this gathering is “Full Circle Meal”, and I can say this now, because it’s in the past, this year was even crazier. Water levels were the highest they’ve ever been and we extended the length of our table to 60 creatives. Renee and her faithful crew showed up early in the morning and started unloading all the furniture, wading across the deepest part of the creek, which was still thigh high.
Forget Me Not crew wades into the thigh-high creek to start setting up the Communal Table.
At the end of the event, instead of complaining about being exhausted, Renee marveled in gratefulness as everyone turned their attention and joined their efforts to pack out the creek. Attendees set up an assembly line of sorts, passing chairs and tabletops and legs out of the water and up the hill and back to the truck at the end of the night. The way Renee processed difficult things into opportunities and saw the beauty and power in simple acts of cooperation was a rare trait, and one that I admire her very much for. That, and her can-do attitude.
Put yourself in the way of beauty, Redfield Photography
Friendships–the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Redfield Photography
For the last two years, Renee was giddy and proud to lend her talents and inventory to outfit and style the tent and the communal tables for Farmers, Friends and Food United—Berwick Area United Way’s Farm Dinner and annual campaign kick off event. And when Giving Tuesday came around, it was the Berwick Area United Way’s programs and efforts that Renee amplified to her circle of influence. Most recently, she raised awareness for the prescription food program United Way facilitates through the Beyond the Blend Market, helping local families in need make healthy choices.
In the fall of 2017, the world stopped turning when Renee was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Derek dove into the details of the disease and treatments. He became an expert, much to Renee’s chagrin, in the world of cancer podcasts.
A lot of plans shifted when Renee first got sick two years ago. Energy and efforts were now focused on Renee healing, and she restructured their business model to be able to prioritize time with family and their community commitments.
And it worked! She did heal. Renee spent this last summer in remission and with a renewed lease on life.
The first round of chemotherapy had made it near to impossible for Renee and Declan to have a physically affectionate skin-to-skin relationship while she was under going treatment. Having to stay arms length from her little doodle was torture to Renee. Now that she was free of the limitations of those strong drugs, nothing would keep her away from her son. She spent the entire summer of her remission, soaking him up. Together, they’d hike with a stroller from mid-Berwick all the way up and down east Berwick—stopping at Grandma’s, Mom Mom’s and then the park, every day, on repeat.
In a very short matter of time, Derek says it was three days max, Renee was able to accomplish the ultimate life goal of every Italian mother across the world and throughout history—Declan went from being a Daddy’s boy into a full-blown Mama’s boy. She devoted all of her energy to savoring Declan.
She reinvested in the things that mattered most to her: family and her community.
When her six-month scans came back, on the day of the second Farmers, Friends & Food United dinner, showing that the disease had returned, she and Derek compartmentalized the news for the next two days. Renee was so excited and proud to be hosting a beautiful styled event for her hometown. The proceeds and friends raised at the farm dinner, would go far to benefit her community. Once the tables, chairs and every rainbow goblet had been collected and packed up, they gathered to make a new plan for how to beat cancer again.
Never once did Renee think that she was going to die from cancer. For someone so organized and obsessed with planning for the future, she didn’t spend any of her last days preparing for them to be her last. She was resolute in her optimism. In a Facebook post to her friends back in November, she announced that the Hodgkins Disease had returned and she was optimistic about being treated at a new medical center, she told everyone that she had already started this new treatment and that it “had already yielded noticeable results.” She said she felt “at peace” and knew that the road ahead would not be easy, but she was resolute, she wrote, “I know I’ve got this!”
Cancer helped Renee focus her priorities. She said, “I’m living my life every moment that I get.” Her time with family, friends and the commitments that brought her fulfillment, unapologetically got moved to center stage. She was grateful to her MVP, Derek and looked forward with anticipation for his new wood shop to be completely set up this winter.
In her last weeks, she was still sowing seeds and nurturing dreams and projects for her family and community. She was getting her hair done, having holiday family photo shoots, continuing conversations, working on projects, hunting for a house, and going on a trip (for the first time ever with out Derek)–with her “bestest friend and momma” to Cape Coral, Florida. Lori and Renee were working on a new business together, to expand staging and styling home interiors and this trip was their first venture.
Over the years, Lori and Renee always enjoyed working together on styling and design projects. They loved growing their special relationship and making plans for the future. When Renee got sick, Lori’s hands-on involvement in the day-to-day made it possible for Declan to be with the whole family in the warehouse-making his own magical childhood memories like going for rides on the pallet jack. The whole family has been involved in growing the business but no one has been more influential on the aesthetic direction of Forget Me Not, or it’s growth over the years, or on Renee than Lori. Renee trusted, admired and depended on her mom.
Renee was a big believer in the power of affirmation and speaking good things into existence for her life. Two months ago, Renee and Derek found their dream house—it was a mid-century modern masterpiece, with a flat roof, lots of right angles and right out of a Mad Men episode. They were under contract and spent several nights sitting in their car in the driveway visualizing and fantasizing about the life they would have in that house—they could clearly see them as a family working to fix it up and playing with Declan in the yard as he grew.
As she battled this disease, there were two visions for the future that sustained Renee and gave her hope: The first–She was going to beat cancer, her hair was going to grow back and she and Derek were going to renew their vows at Promise Ridge (I would officiate this time.) With this vision of the future in mind, Derek had Renee’s engagement ring and wedding band redone this Christmas to include stones representing strength, endurance, love and peace. The second vision, was that they were then going to go on a Family Honeymoon and take Declan to Disney World and just enjoy all the wonder and imagination… just the magic of being together.
Sunrise over Promise Ridge on the morning of Renee’s funeral service.
Derek shares that his faith in their ability to do anything and overcome any obstacle together was so absolute that neither he nor Renee realized just how grave the physical situation had become when she was admitted to the hospital almost three weeks ago. She was going to pull through. Because that’s what Renee does. What the doctors found was that remnants of the first round of chemotherapy treatment from the year before had reacted in a negative way to the cocktail of drugs in the new treatment causing lung toxicity and ultimately Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome.
For the first time in her life, Renee was going to have to go under sedation and into a medically induced coma in an effort to address her breathing. Always, playful with her sweet Derek, the last photo she posed for was her sitting forward on the hospital-issue mattress, making a silly face while blowing into a spirometer.
About 10-minutes after they started the anesthesia, a nurse came running out to the family, saying that Renee was asking to speak to her step-mother Angela. The last thing Renee said, before she gave into the sedation, is she asked Angela to please promise to “take care of my dad, Declan and Derek.”
Renee’s heart beat for the last time on December 29th, 2018. Derek, the love of her life, partner, sweetheart, best friend, daddy to her sweet handsome boy, was there by her side. He had “assumed the position”—holding her hand tightly, for last time. Renee was 27 years old … she had built and accomplished more and loved deeper than many who get three times as much of a chance. She was not alone at that moment, she was surrounded by all her favorite people, her father Joseph, his fiancée Angela, her mother Lori and her boyfriend Rick, Derek’s brother Jacob and his fiancée Lindsay were there too.
As mourners came into the Mayo Funeral Home, they were invited to contribute a flower to the Community Remembrance Arrangement, where every flower assembled had a meaning that embodied part of Renee’s legacy. Kristy Rice created take away Remembrance cards with some of the flowers that had been selected to honor Renee for their symbolism.
At the end of the funeral service, I explained that, “Anyone who knows Renee though, knows that she would be uncomfortable being the recipient of this outpouring of affection and admiration—she was much more comfortable being the giver. So in her honor, I’m going to ask everyone here before you leave, to take a piece of this arrangement with you.
“As we prepare to head back out into the world, please bring Renee with you. Do something kind in her memory, extend grace to someone who is hurting, volunteer, sign up for BeTheMatch.org, dream a really big dream and then work hard to make it come true, talk to her son about her legacy…these are the ways we will keep Renee alive and honor her memory.” -Alisa Tongg, Celebrant
watercolor by Kristy Rice
Remembrance keepsake watercolor by Kristy Rice.