I'd planned to post something different last week, but on Wednesday things suddenly changed. I lost a very important person in my life. A woman who I'd known since age five, who was like a mother to me growing up, who later became my friend--passed away after a four year battle with cancer.
I've lost people before in my life. My grandparents. A cousin. Friends of the family. Friends in high school, college and graduate school. From a young age, I haven't been immune to death. But this shook me in a way that I hadn't experienced or anticipated.
I suppose I was in denial over the severity of her illness, over the idea that this battle-- her persistent and courageous fight for her life-- could end different than I'd imagined. Every one of my aunts on my mom's side of the family, including my mother have had cancer. Have fought cancer. Have made it to remission. I was used to this by now. The diagnosis. The fear. The surgeries and chemo and radiation and alternative treatments. But up until now, the stories had all had happy endings.
When I found out, the only word out of my mouth before the tears began was, "What?" My brain denied what I was hearing but the tightening of my heart and the shortness of breath that accompanied my crying told me this was something I'd known was coming but didn't want to face. And now it was all too real. Undeniable. Heartbreaking.
I know that the natural accompanist to loss is heartbreak. Know that anyone who loses a loved one feels their heart break with grief. But this has been the resounding response from everyone dealing with the loss of this woman, from those who knew her well to those whose lives she touched only briefly. People are heartbroken. No other word seems to measure the pain quite so well.
At her funeral she was described in many ways. Exceedingly intelligent. Warm-hearted. Generous, kind, loving, loyal, funny, opinionated, strong and passionate. A woman who graduated from law school and loved raising her kids. Who later taught adult immigrants English. A bibliophile who could readily debate any topic in conversation. A prankster who loved to have fun. A cancer patient who worked with Amy Klobuchar to address the growing problem of drug shortages for treatment. A woman who made you feel like the center of the universe any time you talked to her. A genuinely good person.
To me, she was a steadfast cheerleader. Someone who supported me as I made pursued dreams that many found unrealistic and foolish. Who made a point to push me towards my goals, even when I was dragging my feet. She's the reason I started write again. She told me that I was a good writer, and because I hold her opinion in high esteem, I believed it. I began to pursue a passion that I'd let fall by the wayside.
I can't begin to measure the effect she's had on my life. I can't explain to people the profound sense of loss I feel knowing she's gone. And right now, my heart breaks knowing that I wasn't able to say goodbye.
But she didn't want goodbyes. Even with her family she didn't acknowledge that the end was approaching until it was inevitable. It wasn't ignorance or denial. It was an unwillingness to let this disease stop her from living her life. She lived every day, every hour, every minute, every second to the very fullest. She fought against her illness until her very last breath and she did it for the people in her life who loved her. No one knew until the end how ravaged she was with pain. She didn't show it, she didn't talk about it, she didn't complain. She just lived. She truly understood the gift of the present moment and made every effort to live that way.
I thought about writing her a letter in the days leading up to our plans. It was my fault, after all that we'd delayed our coffee date due to my "busy" schedule. I believed I'd still see her, but just in case what I was hearing was true and she really wasn't doing well, I needed to connect with her one last time. I didn't want it to be a goodbye, and I know she wouldn't have either but it was important to me that she know how much she meant to me and the profound influence she had on my life. Once again though, I "couldn't" find the time to sit down and write that letter until yesterday--the day after her funeral.
Writing that letter was one of the hardest things I've ever done. As I wrote, I wanted to believe that somehow, someway my words would make it to her, but I knew that the letter was mostly for me, to deal with my grief and to work towards peace. But as I wrote, I realized that more than anything, I can honor her memory and her impact on my life with the way I live mine.
I can find the present moment as exciting as the prospect of the future and as important as the memories of the past. I can make time, real time-not social media or text or email time-to nurture my relationships and to connect to the people I care about. I can put away my damn phone and focus on the person in front of me. I can refuse to give in to the glorification of busy and no longer put off the important stuff in life--family, friends, connection. I can give hugs that leave no doubt as to how big my love is for the person on the other end. I can find every opportunity to throw my head back and laugh uproariously, as she often did--and I can do this as much as possible. And mostly, I can live every day down to the minute, recognizing that while it's easy to take for granted, and easy to forget, that this moment is the one that matters.
In loving memory of M.M.M.