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Life is Short

November 18, 2011

She was just 38 years old. Diagnosed 20 months ago with Stage 4 Renal Cancer. She fought a valiant battle. She left behind an adoring husband, a daughter in high school, a son in middle school, a multitude of friends and family. She was a bright light, a light that never dimmed, but got brighter as she worked her way through this unbelievable ugliness with courage, humor, and unwavering faith.

We went to High School together, many moons ago, long before marriage, and kids, and responsibility and carpools came along. I have brief glimpses of her in my memory. Blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, porcelain skin, a quick wit, a ready smile. We ran in different circles. But I knew her name. I knew who she was. I liked her, just didn’t know her well.

A friend of a friend had passed along a link to a fundraising page. I clicked on it, and was struck instantly, like a blow to the gut. How could it be possible that someone her age, someone just a bit younger than me, could have cancer? And Stage 4? What on earth? How had they not found it earlier? She had a family, she had a future, she had so much yet to do, so much life to live. Surely, the sheer will of those around her–her husband, her parents, her children, her church–would pull her through. Surely the power of prayer was greater than this monster. It had to be.

I began to follow her journal and my initial reaction to the injustice of the whole situation began to fall away. Not of my own accord really, but because she was never focused there. She was positive, she was certain, she was fighting, she was making the most of every second, every hour, every day. She did not complain. She did not curse God. She did not wonder why. She just pressed on–through chemotherapy, several rounds; through radiation; through the loss of half of her hair; through the loss of her independence; through her eventual coming to terms with her imminent mortality.

I looked forward to her posts, because they were filled with her particular brand of humor, and because they represented hope. She was still there, still writing in bright pink font–such a great picture of the person that she was, still fighting, still hanging on to every precious moment she had with her family. A miracle could still happen. In early October, she decided to do one last-ditch round of chemo to maximize the time she had left. We prayed for her, fervently, around the dinner table. By mid-October, it became obvious that she was in significant pain and the chemo was not doing the job they’d hoped it would. She decided to stop.

She wrote one final entry, the end of October, focused on the inspiration that all of her friends and family and commenters were to her. She wrote about gift of freshly fallen snow, and her daughter’s Homecoming that weekend–her joy at experiencing that one last time.

Within a week the pink font was gone. She had been moved to hospice care. Just a few days later she was gone. I knew it was coming, had known for several months. Of course I knew after they moved her to hospice. But the notice in my email box that there had been a journal update made the tears spring to my eyes. I didn’t even have to read it, I already knew. I was truly grateful for her passing–for her pain to have come to an end; for her family to no longer have to watch her suffer–mostly because I knew she was free of the disease and dancing with her Lord. Still, it washed over me immediately, a wave of sorrow that still hasn’t entirely lifted.

I suppose it’s because she was so close to me in age. I identify with her on that front. I’m also a wife, and a mother of kiddos the same age as hers. How can a mother possibly cope with knowing she’ll leave her children and husband behind? When I think about my goodbyes to my favorite people on earth, it’s almost more than I can bear. A high-schooler and a middle-schooler. How will they navigate without her? How will her husband of 20 years ever be able to go on? What did she feel like knowing that she would leave them? How many tears did she shed at all that she would never see? Graduations, Prom, weddings, babies being born. And how deep is their pain now that she’s gone? She was a force, for certain. The hole she leaves behind is enormous.

But she also left an amazing legacy. She journaled for them, TO them, about the things she wanted them to know. She encouraged so many people, a large number of whom she would never meet. She was hopeful and she filled others with hope. She made people laugh; she joined people together for a common goal; she gave people a glimpse of what true faith looks like–faith in the face of incredible adversity; she walked this life out with amazing grace; and her love of life made everyone else examine their own… including me.

It was warm this morning as I drove into work–sunshine-filled, birds singing; traffic flowing along at a steady hum; puffy, cottony clouds in the sky; snow-capped mountains in the distance. I thought about her family, preparing to say their final goodbyes to her and I reflected on my own life.

What if today were my last day here? Did I love my children well? Did I make sure to tell them something uplifting instead of just being crabby about morning chores? Did I give them the tools to live their lives with conviction and confidence and faith and hope? Did I give my whole heart to my husband? Did I make him my top priority? Did I share light and laughter with those around me? Did I share my faith? Would those close to me remember me for being someone who gave unselfishly, loved unconditionally, laughed with abandon, enjoyed my time here, and served my God well? Did I live powerfully? She certainly did.

It didn’t feel funereal–the sun, the birds, the snow, the brilliant sky. No, it felt like a day crafted especially for her–one made for laughter and celebration. And I prayed that her husband and children and family and friends were doing exactly that, celebrating the incredible person she was and the awe-inspiring legacy she left behind, through their tears.

I think she would have liked this one: I’ll Fly Away

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