David Cook: The remarkable life of Jean-Marie Lawrence

·4 min read

Jun. 26—My soul, what a life.

When she was 7, Jean-Marie Lawrence was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy. First thing doctors told her? You'll never ride a bike.

Guess what she did.

"We went outside and took the training wheels off," said her mother, Barb Sweeten. "I pushed her and she rode."

It became a defining moment.

"From there, anytime somebody told her she couldn't do something because of her disability. I said: 'You can't do it like they do it, but you can do it,'" Sweeten said.

In high school, Lawrence — still able to run and walk, but needing her wheelchair more and more — played soccer, joined the marching band and ROTC.

She was voted senior princess in high school. (She grew up in New Jersey, then moved here, graduating from Red Bank High.)

In 2012, she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee.

In 2018, she ran for Tennessee House of Representatives 26th District, winning 36 percent of the vote.

She held multiple degrees, went skydiving, white-water rafting, helped organize our city's Women's Marches.

She was an emergency planner for the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

In 2016, Gov. Bill Haslam appointed her to the Tennessee Council of Developmental Disabilities. Later, she joined the national council.

"Jean-Marie stands out as one of the greatest disability advocates that I have ever worked with," said TN Council executive director Wanda Willis.

Eleven days ago, Lawrence, 34, died from what appears to be natural causes.

So many people are grieving; of all her accomplishments, Lawrence seemed best at simply loving others.

In a city defined by able-bodied outdoorism, Lawrence — unable to move her legs or lift her arms — represented another type of body.

Her life was devoted to accessibility: Can your building accommodate me and people who look like me?

Can your heart and mind?

"Her work for disabled rights is unparalleled, I think, in our city's history," said friend George Merriman.

At a recent Chattanooga Football Club match, the crowd memorialized Lawrence, a huge fan. A minute of silence was followed by a minute of song. Merriman, a song leader for the Chattahooligans, wept.

"I miss her so much," he said. "She charged into every adventure we ever had with a mischievous smile and her infectious laugh."

Years ago, as her body began to need a wheelchair more, Lawrence was initially embarrassed. In photos, she told her mom: Don't get my wheelchair in the picture.

That changed.

"As she got older, she'd say: 'Make sure you see all of me,'" her mom said. "My proudest moment was when she accepted her life the way it is. When she was happy just being Jean-Marie in a wheelchair and not trying to hide it."

Make sure you see all of me.

And I want to see all of you.

"She was truly a steadfast warrior and a ray of light for all," said friend Marcus Ellsworth.

Ellsworth remembers Lawrence — or "JM" — leading the flag corps in a recent Chattanooga Pride parade.

"That was JM all over," he said. "On the frontline at every chance, leading the way, and overjoyed to be among her people."

Living downtown, she loved Thursday night at the bar, Sunday afternoon at the pool. Lawrence, hair dyed in bright colors, would wheelchair to potlucks, balancing a Crockpot down Market Street.

She sang karaoke, traveled overseas, performed at local comedy clubs.

"Now, let me address the elephant in the room," she'd begin, as she slowly maneuvered her wheelchair — and oxygen tank — onto the stage. "Yes ... I'm from New Jersey."

"She had such an incredible confidence in herself," said her friend, Tammy Taylor.

This is the sweet irony: Lawrence, unable to access many places, offered access to others, her love helping people gain entry to our truest selves.

"JM was one of the first people to simply accept me at face value," said Joel Willis. "Jean Marie excelled at loving people without judgment It is hard to express how different my life is because of Jean Marie."

Can the city paint a mural of her? Issue a proclamation in her memory? Prioritize accessibility?

"JM demonstrated radical love, acceptance for others and advocated for radical accessibility," said Ginger Moss, who organized the 2018 Women's March with Lawrence.

A celebration of her life will be held Monday, July 5, from 6-9 p.m. at Gate 11 Distillery. (A GoFundMe — "Jean Marie's Life Celebration" — will help pay for the medical costs and the event.)

On the night she died, she'd gone out with friends.

"I had never seen her shine with so much light, love and confidence before. Her eyes glistened," said friend Paige McDaniels. "We shouted dreams to the sky, while announcing things we wanted to let go of, that no longer served our highest selves. She spoke on how she was ready to let go and fully embrace who she was, no matter what others may think."

She left the bar, the moon and stars overhead, rolling into the downtown night.

Make sure you see all of me.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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