Robert Devine won’t ever forget the offhand remark that Emily—a new friend at the time, for him as well as his big sister Kelly—made about four or five years ago.
Though the siblings had only hung out with her a few times, Robert recalled Thursday, Emily “looked at Kelly and me with a shocked expression on her face and said, ‘Oh, I thought you guys were twins and best friends!’ ”
“This worked out great for Kelly, because of course she’s seven years older than I am,” Robert, smiling and surrounded by family, told hundreds who packed the pews at St. Philip Church in Norwalk during a Mass of Christian Burial for Kelly Devine.
“After that, I could always count on her greeting me with, ‘Twin, best friend!’ Every picture of us on Facebook would include the caption ‘T&BF.’ That night, Emily captured our relationship perfectly without ever knowing it. She noticed in even just a short amount of time that I saw a lot of myself in Kelly, and Kelly saw a lot of herself in me. Kelly was not only my big sister—she was everyone’s big sister.”
In a funeral service marked as much by laughter as by tears, and a familiarity that spoke perhaps to a family’s love for pastor and parish, the Devine siblings—Kevin, Robert, Daniel and Kim—remembered their sister as a joyful and endlessly selfless person who loved her family most of all, even as she subjected them to boy bands, kept an untidy room, cheated at Monopoly, cross-dressed one of them as kids and drank all the milk.
“She never put herself first,” Robert said during a tribute. “It could be as little as when she bought me my first CD at Sam Goody—remember that store?—yes, it was the Backstreet Boys. No, I’m not proud of it. Or when I was studying English, to keep reminding me to never end a sentence with a preposition. For example, she would tell me never to say, ‘Who are you going with?’ but it was OK to say, ‘Who are you going with, jerkface?’ Even as we speak, there is a big box of books in my car that Kelly just gave to me, thinking I could use them to help my students.”
A teacher in New Canaan Public Schools for 15 years, most recently at the high school, and a longtime swim coach at Norwalk’s Shore and Country Club, Kelly Devine passed on April 7 following a brief and sudden illness. She was 36.
Her passing drew visceral tributes across a wide swath of the community, expressed in person at a wake whose attendance nearly overwhelmed Collins Funeral Home, as well as online in letters, social media posts and comments. Tributes from students, friends, parents and colleagues described an inspiring, effective teacher and coach who influenced their lives immeasurably.
So many people came to the Mass—led by St. Philip Church’s pastor, Father Michael A. Boccaccio and attended also by St. Aloysius Church Msgr. William Scheyd—that those arriving once it was underway had to be ushered into the few available seats, while those already seated were instructed by Boccaccio to squeeze in and so ease the fire marshal’s mind.
During his homily, Boccaccio said that he had no answer to the question of “Why?” that he himself and others had been asking since Kelly Devine’s untimely passing.
“There is very little we know, but there’s a lot that we believe,” Boccaccio said. “However, there is one thing I definitely positively know and I will share that with you. In the reading from the Gospel account by John, he says that He prepared a place for us. And we believe that, and actually in the second reading from St. Paul, the second letter to the Corinthians, he talks about the same thing, saying, ‘There is an eternal place planned for us.’ He uses the image of the tent.”
According to Boccaccio, St. Philip Church itself—the curved lumber above its nave sweeping toward the altar—was designed to resemble a tent, a thing that travels and is not established, because it symbolizes “the journey that all of us have in life.”
And that journey, he said—to the “place” described in the Gospel passages above—comes to “a place not only of order but also of beauty.”
“I believe that,” the pastor said. “I cannot prove that, nor am I going to try to. I don’t have the answers, as I said. The only thing I know is that we believe in what was spoken: ‘I prepared a place for you.’ There is a very interesting introduction to that passage from John in which Jesus says, ‘Have faith in God.’ OK. Then says, ‘And faith in me.’ The reason for the ‘and,’ I believe, is because He knows how difficult it is for us to understand and believe this. Hence He begins by saying, ‘Don’t let your heart be troubled. Calm down. Live with faith. You believe in God, please believe in me, too, because what I am telling you is that I prepared a place. So that where I am you also may be.’ And that is why we are here.”
According to Boccaccio, those gathered for the service were not there “because Kelly has died.”
“We are here because Kelly has been raised, like Jesus,” he said. “Another way to say the exact same thing, and I have always wanted to say it as a Mass of Christian Burial, is a line that you will hear in what is called ‘the Preface.’ For those who believe in the Lord, another expression of death, an early expression of death—those who ‘sleep with the Lord.’ For those who sleep with the Lord, life is not ended. It changed. And if I may add, it’s a lot neater. Life continues. It does not end. As tearful and emotional as it is, she is still your daughter, still your model, still your sister. She is still that. She is still a member of this community.”
Boccaccio recalled that Kelly Devine and her father, Jay, shared in the “passion reading” at St. Philip which takes place on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
“And I don’t know exactly which year it is, nor will you remember exactly which year it was, but all the sudden during this week, the video in my brain played and at one point, Kelly had the script in which she said, ‘And then Jesus said, It is finished, and bowed his head and died.’ Well I want you to hear her proclaim an extension of that. This is finished,” Boccaccio said, sweeping his hands in front of the congregation, then turning behind him, “that Easter candle—a symbol of eternity, a symbol of life forever—that is now mine. That has begun. This human condition, this tent—delete. Life eternal—begin. I don’t know that. But I’ve got tell you, I believe it so firmly. I invite you to open eyes and hearts and faith, and say, ‘Kelly, be happy. Rest in peace. And straighten up your room.’ ”
The Mass included readings from Ecclesiastes 3:1-11, II Corinthians 5:1, 6-10 and John 14:1-6, the hymns “You Are Mine,” “On Eagle’s Wings,” “Be Not Afraid,” “Song of Farewell” and “How Great Thou Art.”
Each of Kelly’s siblings spoke in turn.
Daniel Devine said his relationship with Kelly “got off to a little bit of a rocky start.”
“You see, when Kevin was born, Kelly badly wanted a little sister and was pretty much disappointed in that regard. Her solution? Dress me up as a girl, put makeup on me,” he said, drawing laughter from the room.
“After that brief experiment with cross-dressing, Kelly was the perfect big sister. She was, in fact, the leader of our little sibling clan, always looking out for us. If you needed something, Kelly had it. Advice, whether you asked for it or not. She had a purse that was basically a 7-Eleven: gum, Purell, snacks, toothbrush—she carried two toothbrushes at all times, saying she needed ‘a backup.’ She was particularly concerned about her pale Irish skin during the many hours spent together at the beach or pool, forcing us to put on sunscreen with SPFs so high we might as well have been covered in a blanket. We all looked up to her and in many ways, we followed in her footsteps.”
A swimmer and coach who liked an occasional beer, Kelly “had a big personality that was full of joy and laughter,” Daniel recalled.
“She entered a room with more flair than Cosmo Kramer, opening up doors dramatically, hands in the air, big smile and her trademark, ‘Hi, friends!’ I’m going to miss her near-daily texts, in which she passed along her pearls of wisdom about teaching, the latest gossip or just to tell me to ‘Turn on MTV 2 immediately’ because a ‘classic episode of Saved By The Bell’ was on. She loved her family above all else and I guarantee if she could spend a day doing anything in the whole world, she would just plan a big, fun-filled family event. Actually I have to take that back, it would come in a close second [to a day] at the beach with Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom she was obsessed.”
Though she taught English and her persona was as a literary person, Kelly “would never use words when an emoji would suffice,” Daniel Devine recalled.
“The last text she sent me on Thursday afternoon, when I asked how she was feeling and if she needed anything, was, ‘Nope I’m all set,’ followed by an emoji of a blonde girl smiling with her hand up. That’s how I remember Kelly, as a smiling, cheerful, beautiful soul who loved life, loved her family and was the best big sister I could possibly have hoped for.”
Kevin Devine said he had a tough time writing his tribute to Kelly at first, and decided to honor her by describing what he experienced in the wake of her passing. That included poring over family photos where Kelly appeared always to be front and center, noting that “without Kelly around, we realized that we weren’t running out of milk every two days,” and sharing in many stories about Kelly with family and friends.
“On Sunday night a number of friends changed their profile pictures on Facebook to pictures of Kelly,” Kevin said. “I never knew someone could have 19 best friends, but I think Kelly did. By Monday night, we were sitting in my parents’ dining room, surrounded by pictures and listening to music and playing cards. We didn’t have to force ourselves to think about Kelly—she was there. When the music got stale, it reminded me of the time Kelly and Sarah forced all of us to listen to Backstreet Boys for over an hour last summer, and wondered why everyone had gone to bed. We decided to play Monopoly, and I got to tell Kim the story about how Kelly would cheat on me every single time growing up, and I never figured it out until about two years ago. I guess that’s what big sisters are for.”
Kim said she had “one of the most unique and special sister relationships” with her sister.
“She was the babysitter my parents didn’t pay,” said Kim, a long-awaited little sister who wasn’t born until Kelly was 18 and off at the College of William and Mary.
“Kelly became my advisor and the best teacher I ever had. She fostered not only my love of reading but also my love of writing. My junior year English teacher assigned us to write a letter to the most influential teacher we ever had. I did not have Kelly as an English teacher, but I mailed a letter to her just the same. I concluded the letter by saying, ‘You know how much you have done for me for the past 16 years. Maybe, just maybe, it will make up for the fact that you missed my birth. You have shown me that there is life beyond high school. You have helped me through countless English assignments and supported me when girls were being Regina Georges. Plus you introduced me to the Backstreet Boys and Kelly Clarkson, so you’re obviously a positive influence. You really are a teacher in every sense of the word.’ ”
Before she had the means to buy birthday and Christmas presents for her brothers and sister—“or maybe I had the means and I just didn’t want to buy something for all four of them,” Kim said—“I used to write my siblings poems and stories as presents.”
“In fifth grade, I wrote Kellly a piece creatively titled ‘Sisters,’ which highlights Kelly as my best friend, mentor and confidante over the last 18 years. In the letter, I wrote to her, ‘Even if she eats too much cheese, drinks too much milk and does crazy dances, my sister is always there for me. And I just want to thank her for being who she is. I think she should never stop being that person, and the lessons I have learned because of her are invaluable.’ Kelly was not only my teacher, she was my supporter in everything I did. She came to all of my swim meets. She liked every single picture I posted on Facebook. And when I was in middle school, she was the only family member brave enough to endure what she later described as ‘a nightmare’—thousands of screaming pre-teens at Taylor Swift’s Madison Square Garden show.”
The last text that Kelly sent to Kim was “a terrible pun about my upcoming English quiz on stressed and unstressed syllables,” she recalled.
“ ‘Good luck, don’t stress too much. Try to stay unstressed.’ Kelly waited 18 years to have me, and I was only able to have 18 years with her. But I think my infinitely sage fifth-grade self summed up our relationship pretty well: ‘I never feel too sad when Kelly is here, because she is so wonderful.’ I know that although we are two very different people, I can tell one thing for sure: Nothing can stop us from being sisters and best friends forever.”
His wife Cathy standing by, Jay thanked many of those gathered for the Mass, including the choir, New Canaan Public Schools, Shore and Country, parish, funeral home and Boccaccio himself: “Father Boccaccio was with us from first moment that we found out something was wrong, right on through this and he has been a tremendous source of inspiration to us.”
Robert Devine recalled how his big sister “was never shy about telling people how I followed in her footsteps by becoming an English teacher and a swim coach.”
“She would tell people, ‘Oh, I’m kind of Rob’s idol.’ I could never truly bring myself to own up to it and give her that satisfaction, I knew I’d never hear the end of it. So Kelly, I’m owning up to it now. I’m a teacher because of you. And I’m a coach because of you. You inspired me in ways you never knew. But even you could never, ever inspire me to like Justin Bieber. And I am in no way sorry about that.”
Saying that many of Kelly’s group text messages to the family ended in exclamation points—“ I think that’s a great way to describe her life,” Robert said—he called his sister “a DJ’s greatest dream” who would only get off of a dance floor for “a really good plate of nachos.”
“And they had to be good,” he said.
“As I scrambled for Christmas gifts on December 23rd, she’d text and say, ‘Oh just take some of mine—I have extras.’ Who has extra Christmas gifts? Just last week, I had a discussion with my seventh-graders about how you never fully appreciate something until it’s gone. Kelly, I never said it to you nearly as much as I should have, but I love you with all my heart. I can’t wait until the day we meet again, and I can hear you give that familiar greeting I know too well. Because, to me, you will always be—always—my twin and my best friend.”