When it comes to living, how long is long enough?
After people die, the first question always seems to be, how old were they?
If they were over 60, somehow that death doesn’t seem as tragic or untimely.
I lost several young friends — one in high school from drowning and another to cancer at age 37. Definitely their lives were not long enough. Their imprints on life had barely begun. Both friends were at crossroads in life — their whole magnificent lives before them and yet …
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Being in my 60s, I am attending more funerals and memorial services than weddings and baby showers. I have buried both my parents and have attended too many funerals for friends who were far younger than me.
Just this week, I lost a precious friend who would have been 91 in February. Although she spoke about being ready to die, she lived fiercely to the very end. Riddled with pain and the increasing inability to walk, she forced herself on her exercise bike daily and spent her precious last few months at pain-management and alternative-medicine offices. She might have felt she was old enough to go, but while she was living, it was a life infused with passion.
Her journey made such an impression on mine and those of so many hundreds more that we are not able to let her go. She was not famous or a community activist or someone whose name would pop out of the news, but she was a confidante to the lost, a childless mother to many and the inspiration to several generations.
I hadn’t seen her for about a month, as I was battling a severe cold that I worried I would share. Then went on vacation. Upon my return, there was a message from her saying she would be out of town for two weeks, and she would see me later. I learned the next day she had died.
Her 91 years were not long enough for me. I wanted more of her fierceness, loyalty, passion for justice and righteousness and love. She might have been ready to join her precious husband and those who went before her, but I was not ready to let her go.
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes an ordinary person extraordinary. Maybe for my little friend, Herky, it was her unbridled love and acceptance of all she met, and her magical ability to make everyone feel special. She was much more a listener than a chatterer and when she left a message on the phone, it was with a booming, welcoming voice that belied her tiny frame.
In the 11 years I was blessed with her friendship, I was amazed and motivated by the love that enveloped her — but I shouldn’t have been. It was in giving that she received. She had never had her own children but was a cherished Okason or Obachon (Japanese for mother and grandmother) to many relatives and friends. The commitment and adoration they showed her was infectious.
A nephew drove up from the Bay Area every week under the pretense of cleaning up after her dog and taking out her trash. He accompanied her on her myriad errands for the entire day and put her to bed before making the four-hour trip back home. A niece drove from Southern California every month to check on her, and others took her to weekly dinners, luncheons, doctor’s appointments and errands. We fought among ourselves for those privileges.
When I would comment on their dedication, they would humbly counter that it was that privilege and her love that kept them coming.
She was a child of the Greatest Generation, an alumnus of a Japanese internment camp and a widow, but she was Wonder Woman to us all. Until recently, she kept volunteering at her church and at the hospital, where she accumulated 30 years of service. Although she could barely walk and refused to take a wheelchair, those who loved her kept cadence with her slow, deliberate and measured gait. Above all, she maintained her independence and her dignity.
My friend was not famous, but she was rich beyond measure. Her life, for me, was not long enough. The imprint she left on so many was so deep and so ingrained; leaving has left a profound and deep chasm. And we still want more.