More than once in a while, I am reminded my personal catastrophes are not so catastrophic. More than once in a while, I am reminded of my friends who died young and can’t weigh in their thoughts on my so-called problems. More than once in a while, I pay these friends my respects and give gratitude for their fine example of what it means to live.
DEBBIE: Debbie was my dear childhood friend. She was one of the happiest people I ever knew, even though she was sick all the time. Allergies were a constant problem, but chronic asthma was her kryptonite. It was a constant threat hidden behind every corner. Debbie giggled as if she was constantly being tickled, but she also wheezed and fumbled for an inhaler whenever she laughed too much. I felt helpless when she had an asthma attack and responsible for its onset if I somehow made her laugh too much. It pained me to witness her own body punishing her in the midst of untethered, innate happiness.
Debbie was in her early 20’s when she made plans to marry her long-time boyfriend Keith. She was so in love and deserved the level of happiness that awaited her. A few months before her wedding day when she was still aflutter with details of bridesmaid’s gowns and bouquets, I received a phone call saying Debbie had a severe asthma attack and had been rushed to the hospital. Then, another call that she had developed pneumonia while in the hospital. And finally, the unforeseen crushing news came: Debbie had perished at the hands of asthma.
I was devastated. My best friend was gone. Even though I realized her daily fragility, I didn’t comprehend that asthma could take her life. But it had. Lousy asthma. It had finally gotten the better of her.
Frankly, when I tell of Debbie’s passing, I have to purposely tap into that moment in time. When I think of her, I don’t typically envision her in a hospital, struggling. Rather, I remember her vibrant smile, her warm spirit, and her ability to laugh in the face of discomfort and pain. I remember her focused on a goal–to live a simple and happy life, to love and be loved.
HARRY: What can I say about Harry? I could write volumes about Harry because his spirit was always bigger than his body. He and I dated when we were in our late 20’s. Although he was a handsome fellow, his real beauty was rooted deep in his soul. His laugh was a celebration of life itself–bold and eccentric, spontaneous, from the gut, and with a bit of that Three Stooges “gna-gna-gnaaa” sound to it. When Harry laughed, it seemed EVERYONE within earshot turned to see from where “that sound” originated. Those who didn’t like to laugh might’ve leered at him, but those who wished they could laugh as easily as he did, smiled spontaneously in response. Harry spread joy. It was a natural consequence of being near him.
Four years after Harry and I broke up, I met him again and knew I missed him. His hug when we met again was as warm as summer. I knew one day, not too far away, we would get back together.
Then, another three months later, a hurricane came through our area. Amongst the chaos, a set of railroad-track gates malfunctioned in the town of Farmingdale resulting in a train striking a car, instantly killing the car’s driver. I remember the moment my Dad slipped the newspaper clipping in front of me at our dining room table. His fingers seemed reluctant to let the paper go. As I read the article, my mind tripped up on the driver’s name, Harry M. of Farmingdale. I reread it. And again, and then looked to my father as if to ask he erase the words. When his expression revealed he could not, I quickly collapsed into a puddle of tears.
I didn’t know how much I loved Harry until he died. His passing has been the single most crushing sorrow I have ever experienced, and his spirit has remained with me ever since. I’ve long relied on his ‘advice’ in my life. I have consulted him whenever I’ve felt something ‘wrong’ in my relationships with men. I remember how Harry loved and respected me and how good I felt as a result. So, yes, a train may have taken away Harry’s smile but it could not claim his warm, kind, joyful spirit. I can still hear his beautiful, bold laughter resonate in my ears. All this and more is Harry’s legacy.
BOB: I dated Bob when I was in my early 30’s. We met in college, where I’d returned to finish my bachelor’s degree. He was a dreamer who enjoyed sailing, philosophical conversations, and an occasional cigar dipped in cognac. Though intelligent, he was never pretentious. Habitually relaxed and positive, he mostly saw the bright side of life, but he also saw what the future might bring. Both his parents had died before age 50 from cancer. Though we didn’t discuss it, Bob likely suspected the same fate awaited him.
Rather than run himself into the ground with fear and self-destruction, he lived his life well, eating healthy foods and exercising often. For a while, we both moved up the ranks of karate together, but eventually went our separate ways. When I saw him again a few years later at a friend’s wedding, I’d learned he even earned that black belt that eluded me. He wrote, dreamed, and fixed a crusty old sailboat so he could sail on the salty seas. Mostly, he denied pressures to conform to a lifestyle he could not embrace.
And then he died. I got the news a year after the fact from one of our mutual friends from karate. Like a heartless pirate, lung cancer stole his life in the same way it had stolen his father’s life. Some ten years after Bob and I split, he was gone. He never saw his 50th birthday, but the influence of his life wisdom remains with me today. He lived in the moment. He imagined what his life should be and he made it so. AND he was genuinely happy as a result.
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The loss of these three individuals has had a significant impact on my life. Besides leaving me mournful, it has kept me mindful of my own good fortune. Life has its struggles. It may even give us more than our share of pain and challenges. And yet, in the midst of struggle, we are still blessed to be here, to still have a shot at a happiness only WE can control.
Whatever good I do, whatever strength I manage to conjure from within when life seems tough, whatever opportunities I seize to see the world in a beautiful light, I do it for them: Debbie, Harry, and Bob. I do it to honor them. I do it because they no longer can. My life is emptier without them but, oddly, would not be quite as full with meaning without the loss they represent. Because of them, I live with the awareness that it is only through the grace of a Higher Power that I am able to live, laugh, and love.