I've spent much of the last week thinking about a woman I didn't know and never met.
Her name was Emilie Lemmons and she died of sarcoma last Wednesday in Minnesota at the age of 40, leaving behind her husband of five years and two little boys who are just two and a half and nine months old.
Emilie and I lived somewhat parallel lives. We were exactly the same age, both journalists by trade, both mothers of two boys born after we'd hit that awful "advanced maternal age" designation. We both got very involved in planning our weddings on the Knot, hers just a year after mine, and both went on to join private message boards that spun off of the Knot. We knew some people in common, but somehow our paths had never crossed until two weeks ago, when I saw a post from someone wondering how to help a mom friend who was entering hospice care and preparing to die. There was a link to the dying woman's blog and for some reason, I clicked on it. And I read Emilie's final entry in the online journal she'd been keeping for two years:
(I'm actually purposefully not embedding this link, hoping you'll take the time to read it.)
I found myself reading that final post over and over again, and, naturally, reading backwards through Emilie's blog, catching up on the lovely life that I sadly knew was close to ending. People often marvel at the "strength" and "courage" of the terminally ill, sometimes, I suspect, because they don't know what else to say. Emilie had both strength and courage in spades, but what really struck me most was her grace. That she had the presence of mind to think that her last days, though of course agonizingly sad, might also be "amazing" and "spiritual"? I was humbled, to say the least.
Over the next few days, I thought of Emilie often, as I went through the motions of my day as a stay at home mom. Just knowing that she was out there somewhere, wondering how many more times she'd get to see her boys smear oatmeal on their heads, or hear their laughter, or do...anything shamed me into slowing down and being in the moment with my own kids, forced me to attempt to let go of the multitude of meaningless crap I let exasperate me daily. I spent a lot of time instead just drinking them in, savoring their sweet-smelling post-bath heads, their cockeyed smiles, their hilarious outbursts. ("Mom, is it ok if I take my cape off for breakfast?" a Superman pajama-clad Ethan recently asked me with priceless earnestness.) Cruelly, Emilie knew with absolute certainty her days were numbered; she passed away just five days after that last post. But in the bigger picture, aren't everyone's? Shouldn't we all be living that way?
There was a bit of deja vu surrounding Emilie's death for me. Ten years ago, I spent months working on a long Washingtonian story about the suicide of U.Va. student Sean Bryant. Spending so much time with people who'd been completely traumatized by Sean's sudden death, I came to the stunning realization that there's no one moment in life when you get to stand on a trophy platform and formally announce how much you appreciate and love your friends and family -- that if you aren't fully present and engaged in all those seemingly insignificant day to day encounters, you've missed your chance.
For a long time after I finished that story, I felt like I had suddenly developed a sixth sense, the sense of living powerfully in the present. I found myself truly engaged in every moment I had, no matter how incidental. I could die tomorrow, I kept thinking. I could wake up tomorrow and a friend could be gone. For a while, it was wonderful. I followed Anna Quindlen's advice and "treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less." But I have to be honest: eventually, it was tiring. I often felt fearful. And maudlin, always wondering if a goodbye would be my last. With time, that sixth sense faded and I fell back into my old ways.
Until now. A stranger's death -- though this one anything but sudden -- has once again shocked me back into remembering what's really important in the end. But as I sit back and try to make sense of the unbearable heartbreak of Emilie's loss, I realize I don't want to have to be confronted with the cruelest twists of fate thrust upon others to relish the blissfully uncomplicated life I lead by contrast. I wish I could just be satisfied with how good I have it in Bedford Falls without Clarence having to concoct the terrifying, noir-ish bad dream sequence. I want to find that happy, middle place, somewhere in between spending every moment looking for the anvil falling from the sky, and living in oblivion, rushing through the doing it to get to the getting it done. I still want permission to be grumpy and unreasonable some days without feeling guilty that I'm not dying. And I don't want to become some insufferable Polyanna, feeling like every diaper change is a blessed, revelatory event for which I should be thankful. I just want to vow to live more....mindfully, grateful for the treasures I've been given and ever cognizant that none of them are permanent.
Adorable husband? Check. Two healthy, sunny children? Check. Roof over my head, food in the pantry, friends to laugh with? Times on Sunday, wine to drink, hot baths at my leisure? Check check, check, check. I could go on and on and on. It's all there, the important stuff. I know it is. It is for most of us, really, isn't it?
Rest in peace, Emilie. And thank you.