There was a twelve-year-old talking on the sports radio station in Jack’s truck. Or so it sounded to my fifty-three-year-old ears. Jack explained that he was a former University of Minnesota football player. So he’s not that young.
Well, he sounded young to me. I think back to when I was a kid and how every adult fit into one category for me. Old. My dad was fourteen years old when his brother was born and not much older when his youngest sister came along. I remember visiting my grandparents as a child. My aunt and uncle were always there at my grandparents’ house. Of course, they were! They weren’t much beyond their high school years and still lived at home. I thought they were cool. They gave my sister and me their old forty-five records. We took them home and listened to the Beatles and Lobo over and over and over again. My parents didn’t have forty-five records. Dad listened to the polka station on AM radio in his car. Mom had Elvis’ G.I. Blues and a Charlie Pride album that she’d play on the stereo which resided in our living room.
Still, I didn’t draw the distinction between my dad being an adult who held a job, owned a house, was married and had four children … and my aunt and uncle who were technically adults, but still very young adults. All of them fell into my mind’s very vague category of “old.” I was young. They knew everything and they were old.
Now I’m old. Sometimes I feel definitely old. Especially when I look in the mirror and notices the “eleven” lines between my eyebrows and the smile creases around my mouth. Most of the time I still think of myself as young though. I try to maintain that mentality. Maybe keeping a young heart and mind will help me live longer and better. Or just help me live better while I’m here.
When I was a child, death and funerals were such shocking and traumatic events. I was in second grade the first time I truly experienced the heartbreak of losing someone I loved. It was my sister’s godmother. Our families were close. Kenny was just a year older than me and I remember crying over the fact that he would have to face the world without his mom. I was just shy of my eleventh birthday when my grandpa died. It felt like I cried forever. I couldn’t imagine how any of us could ever be happy again.
Fast forward to old me. Lately, I’ve had thoughts of stocking up on sympathy cards so I’ll always have one at the ready. Older relatives, and parents of friends are leaving this world with some frequency these days. It’s an inevitable consequence of an ever-widening circle of family and friends, as well as having lived this long so far. And the older I get, the better I seem to cope with it. My faith has matured and my fear about the afterlife has significantly decreased with age. My sadness is often accompanied by a fascination and something along the lines of jealousy at the thought of the beautiful place I imagine and believe people go when they leave this world.
Regardless, I always still feel a bit shell-shocked at the news of a terminal diagnosis or death, especially when it comes much too soon. Even though death is a given, an inevitable, I guess I’ll never fully get used to it. I was reminded of this recently when I learned that a high school classmate’s life had been derailed by cancer.
I didn’t know Dee well at all in high school. We were not friends. At best, I can say that I knew who she was, and I’d be surprised if she knew who I was. She ran with the in-crowd. I was awkward and painfully shy and did my best to start forgetting my high school days the minute I graduated. A couple of months ago, Dee sent me a FaceBook friend request. I wasn’t entirely surprised. I’ve received my share of friend requests from people I barely know or don’t know at all. Besides, I know some of the high school crowd like to maintain connections with as many classmates as possible.
I didn’t think much about Dee’s request, and merely noted with mild interest a handful of posts she made on FaceBook. She seemed to be doing well and living a good life, at least as far as I could tell from the highlight reel of social media. And then one day, she posted about her cancer diagnosis. It’s bad. Really bad. I’ve been following her updates lately and can’t help compare her situation to that of my best friend who passed away three years ago at the age of forty-seven. Dee wrote a New Year’s message reminding all of us to wrap our arms around our own lives and loved ones. She said most of us don’t know when or how we will die. She doesn’t know when, but she knows how. She’s working with a palliative care nurse, so I know she has accepted that the end is coming, and coming soon.
Dee is heavy on my heart every day. I’m not entirely sure why a person I barely knew then and barely know now remains so present in my thoughts, although it stands to reason since when I think about her, I think about my best friend. I think about Dee every day and I pray for her. I pray for a miracle for her, and then I don’t know whether or not to hope for it. I prayed for a miracle for my best friend. I never for a moment believed she would actually die until I was sitting next to her hospital bed, holding her hand and praying for God to take her from the pain she was in. She died the next morning. The miracle I was hoping for did not happen.
Maybe Dee is so often in my thoughts because I’m supposed to do something for her, even if that is merely to pray. Maybe it’s to remind me that life is short and there may not be endless days ahead to do all the things I want to or should do. Whatever it is, the thought of her continues to remind me to be as happy as I can be, to relax, to be gentle with those around me and forgive often.
Today as I think about Dee, I am grateful for my health, to have come this far protected from trauma and disaster, and for the blessing of an imperfect yet beautiful family and wonderful friends. Today I will be grateful for the single day that lies before me and not worry about the ones ahead. Today, I am very grateful that a person I barely know so poignantly reminds me of what is truly important. And I will continue to pray for her.