In quiet moments…you recognize what is critically important in life and what isn’t…don’t crowd out that which is essential.” -Richard G. Scott
A year ago, this month, my 24-year-old daughter Rose lost her best friend.
Just writing that line thrusts a tight ball of grief to my throat. My eyes tear up and I am overcome by the memory of that utter tragedy—a lovely, kind, 23-year-old wife and mother who lost a battle with cancer.
As I write I am looking out the window of my writing studio. A grey fog hangs softly over towering evergreen trees on the Salmon Creek Trail, just down the hill from our home. Stark silhouettes of leafless deciduous trees lay bare against the sky.
Winter has its own austere beauty, but one is reminded of all that is missing— leaves, flowers, warmth, and a certain aliveness. The earth is pared down to its bare essentials.
What is truly essential became clear to my daughter’s friend in her last days. Other than her extremely short hair, no one outside of her family would have even known she had cancer. She was in pain, but she had a bright smile. Her body actually looked robust and her friendly blue eyes were clear.
At her last doctor’s appointment, he gave her the news. All that could be done had been done. He said she had three weeks to three months to live. I saw her one week before she died, shortly after the doctor’s appointment. By her appearance I felt sure she would have the full three months.
Though it was January, the day we met was a warm sunny day. The window was actually open and a gentle breeze wafted into the room. She told me she had some important things she wanted to do before she left this sphere. She wanted to go to the beach with her whole family, she wanted to spend as much time as she could with her 2-year-old daughter and her husband, she wanted to complete one last painting or drawing, and she wanted to have a girls night out with her mom and sisters. Other than sorrow and concern for those she was leaving behind, she was at complete peace with her death.
She had been living life as a reflection of her deepest values. Of course she would have liked more time. She had hoped to accomplish more, but felt comfortable with how she had used the time she had been given. She had honored what was essential to her—finding and following her spiritual path, getting an education, flourishing in her work as an artist, marrying the love of her life, and becoming a mother.
When I left that sunny Thursday, I told her I would come back again the next week to visit. But by the next Thursday she was hospitalized. I kept my promise, but I was too late. I did not know that she had died until I walked into her hospital room and saw her lifeless body, her husband and father standing next to her. Even in death, her body looked beautiful and utterly at peace.
The brief visit I had with her before she died has continued to be a reminder to me of what is essential in life.
With the New Year it is tradition to set goals. And it is easy to get distracted by what is not essential—how much we weigh (unless it is a health risk), how many books we have read and intend to read, how far we have run…
I do have a goal about how far I want to bike and walk this year…but I have also been contemplating what is essential—how I can live more true to my values; ways I can treat others better; and practices that honor my spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being. I have stated them in a few simple phrases of specific intent and action.
What if, in this New Year we focused on what really matters to each of us? What if we considered what is most essential in each of our lives and set our goals based on that?
Incredibly, all six of my daughters were home just a few days before the funeral of Rose’s friend’s death. Sarah had come from Michigan, Suzette had arrived from Utah, Amanda came over from her home deep in the Columbia Gorge, Rose took the ferry and then the train down from Vashon Island, we were joined by Annie and Maria who at that time lived in the area. All of them knew Rose’s friend. They had been friends since they were 8-years- old.
Long before the death, my daughters had planned a surprise mother/daughter retreat at the beach for me to honor my 60th birthday. Rose’s friend passed away just three days before the retreat was to begin.
Knowing we would be home in time for the funeral, we went ahead with the beach trip. It actually felt essential—it is so rare that we are all together at the same time, and the men in the family had already been lined up to babysit the grandkids. Once we were on the beach, I was so thankful that Rose had all of her sisters to put their arms around her as she grieved. There were a lot of tears by everyone on the beach trip along with late talks into the night and long walks on the beach. But there was also laughter and celebration for all that there is to be glad for in life.
On the day after we got home, our entire family filled the back row of the church for the funeral.
We were changed, not just by her death but by her life.
She knew what was essential.
Many years ago, I came across a poem I can’t fully remember or find. Some of the words have been hovering over me all day, others I just can’t reach. . . . but its message seems to belong here. If any of you recognize it, please let me know who the poet is so that credit can be given.
It goes something like this: Don’t tell me how many miles you ran . . . tell me the story of the grass, how it sprung up as you passed, the wind . . . don’t tell me how many miles you ran, tell me whether you reached at the last . . .
photo by Sesjusz