My friend is dying.
It’s shitty, and ridiculous, and completely unfair. She’s my age, with two young children and a husband who adores her and brothers and parents and a community who loves her…and she’s dying.
I read her periodic journal posts about how’s she’s dealing with her diagnosis and her grief at leaving her wonderful life much sooner than she ever anticipated or would want. Then I read the comments and tributes and consider my memories of her and know that she will be remembered as a deeply caring, joyful, strong, fierce, kind, funny, sweet, and most of all loving person who made this world infinitely better by her words, her work, and her presence.
And I wonder…how will I be remembered? How do I want to be remembered? Will they match up? Will I be thought of as a flawed human being with some gifts, or a gifted human with some flaws? If I died tomorrow, what would my children remember of me? My husband, my sisters and mom, my extended family? My colleagues and friends? My congregations? What words would come to mind when talking about my life? And if given the chance for reflection before death, what will I celebrate? What will I mourn? What will I regret?
One of the best parts of my job as a pastor is doing funerals. Really! Yes, it’s hard, of course, and some have been more difficult than others, but I truly enjoy talking with families about their loved ones. I get to know them, get a glimpse into someone’s life if I didn’t know them, and learn new facets of their lives if I did. I get to hear, over and over again, what people value about their relationships with other people.
Very rarely, I have encountered someone whose life was so difficult–or who made the lives of those around them so difficult–that the strongest emotion at their death was relief. Yet even then, there was a poignancy to the grief, a gratitude that there could now be healing, and a regret that it could not happen while the person was living.
Mostly, though, what I hear is that people are remembered for the ways they show up, their unique and quirky habits and personality traits, what they pay attention to, and the ways in which they love. It’s the smiles and grandkids’ baseball games and perseverance through hard times. It’s the eye-rolling jokes and the holiday decorations and the phone calls. It’s the quiet strength, or uninhibited dancing, or collecting buttons. It’s the collective conversations, stories told a million times, moments around tables and campfires and hospital beds. Any regret I encounter is usually that they aren’t sure their beloved person knew how much they were loved.
When I was in college, a beloved high school English teacher of mine lost her husband, also an English teacher at the same school, very suddenly of a heart attack. He was only 51, and seemingly quite healthy (in fact when he died, he was training to run a marathon). I returned to campus for a special event of some sort, and got to see the yearbook committee offer her a copy of that year’s edition, as it was dedicated to his memory. She gratefully and tearfully received it, and shared a story about him that had happened maybe a week or so before his death. They were washing dishes after dinner, and he stepped back from the sink. She looked at him warily, thinking he was going to grab a towel to playfully swat her with. Instead, he stood behind her, wrapped his arms around her, and asked her if he told her enough how much he loved her.
That’s the question I’d ask myself, I think, if given the opportunity at the end of my life: did I tell people how much I loved them enough? Did I let people know how much they mean to me? And not just my family, but folx I am less close to as well, through my actions as well as my words? Did I show up, did I pay attention?
Or, I suppose, I could ask myself that now. We can ask ourselves that now. And if we’re not sure of the answer, we can take action.
I’m sad that my friend is dying, but I am so grateful I get to tell her how much I value her presence in my life before she’s gone. It won’t wait for her funeral. We don’t always get that chance.
Who in our lives do we need to ask, “Have I told you what you mean to me?” Then tell them. Share the favorite memory. Ask the questions. Laugh, cry, sigh, share a meal or a virtual hug. And tell them again.