Yesterday I saw open grief at a memorial service for a friend. I can’t tell you how refreshing that was.
Photographer and Kansas City Star restaurant critic Lauren Chapin had just turned 50 when she basically dropped dead at the gym. Lauren was a trim, energetic, happy wife and mother of two teenaged daughters she adored.
She was in perfect health, everyone thought. But she had a previously undiagnosed condition, an aneurysm/AVM. The first symptom proved fatal.
At Lauren’s 100-percent no-BS memorial service, I saw tears, confusion and longing. A little regret that there was no time to say goodbye. No time to at least try to express the inexpressible.
Because of the family’s generosity and the quick action of doctors, Lauren’s organs went to desperate patients somewhere. The family was grateful for this thin silver lining.
I did not see suppressed anger. I did not hear rationalization or false optimism.
One daughter said through her tears: Mom, I thought you’d live to be 100. The other daughter said: Mom, I thought you’d live forever.
Several people said: Don’t forget to tell people you love them. Don’t forget to give your loved ones hugs and kisses every day.
A coworker mentioned Lauren’s incessant, annoying cell phone ring of chirping birds. Breaking down, she added, “What I would give to hear those birds again.”
A few years ago Lauren’s husband Tim lost a 39-year-old sister to pancreatic cancer despite the total absence of risk factors. She lived just five months. At a cancer event I attended, Tim read his a portion of his eulogy for her. He said his sister spoke of an invisible wall. She could see her brothers and sisters around her hospital bed. “I don’t want to be on this side of the wall,” she said. “I want to be on the other side, with all of you.”
Yesterday at Lauren’s service, the wish for some time to say goodbye was palpable. Even a few difficult months or weeks. Our minds reject a model of illness so sudden and final. There’s supposed to be the dark cloud of symptoms, the anxiety of tests, the dread of the diagnosis. And then the hope — however feeble — of a second opinion, and treatment.
Of course none of that would be a picnic, but it gives you time. Time to hold a mother’s hand in a doctor’s waiting room. To cry together. To view and hold old photographs, and laugh. Tell stories to each other. Time for final words to take to their graves, and your own, someday.
We can’t accept illness as a dropping anvil, and then nothing.
And yet, she could have died in a car accident. Anyone can. So why does Lauren’s death feel so wrong, I asked a friend.
We decided it was because every day we buckle our seat belts. We watch traffic. We’re reminded we could be hit by a car that comes out of nowhere. But even then, we picture injury. Maybe life-threatening injury.
But we cling to the vision of a few weeks or days — hell, even a few hours — to kiss a wife, daughter or mother on the forehead and say what a privilege it was to walk the earth with her.
Yesterday the irony of the moment seemed lost on noone. How could death come to someone so adventurous and embracing of the here and now? Lauren was not wealthy, but she found a way to study at Oxford and, throughout her life, travel the world.
One coworker told of a quick foray into a nearby shop of South American imports. Lauren and her friend went their separate ways in the store, but came back together holding the same pair of $149 boots. The friend, noting the high price, tried to inject some reason into the discussion, but Lauren finally ended it all with: “Life’s short. We’re awesome. We deserve it.”
The grieving family did not get the chance to say goodbye to Lauren. But maybe Lauren was saying goodbye every day by the gutsy way she lived. As her sister put it, Lauren’s main legacy was: Say yes. Say yes to life.
As a proud contrarian, I’m known for my disdain of the positive-thinking dogma that’s rammed down everyone’s throat. But in Lauren’s honor, I’ll do a backflip. I’ll be a contrarian on being a contrarian. Or at least I’ll try.
I’ll try to dream a little bigger. If Lauren were here, I’d bet she’d say, with a smile: I dare you.