A chill at the half-century mark prompts a new focus on life

I've been thinking a lot about death lately.

No one's, specifically. But in the past couple of years, we've lost a number of people in our lives – many of them too young. It was making me sad to sit through funerals and Facebook postings that were filled with so many warm memories, sweet thoughts and great stories about the people who had died. Stories those people weren't going to get to hear.

I remembered a friend of mine telling a story about a family friend who was in the final weeks of her battle with cancer. She invited everyone to her home for her own "funeral" - one that she would be able to attend. She wanted everyone to see her while she was still able to sit up and talk, not attached to wires and tubes, lying in a hospital bed.

He said at first he felt a little uncomfortable, but she was so upbeat and happy. And as people started sharing stories with her, it evolved into a really cathartic and sweet event. Everyone hugged her as they left, knowing it was likely the last time they would see her.

For most of them, it was. She died a month later.

My partner turned 50 this year. She explicitly requested no big parties, no surprises, no fanfare. Fine. But I was determined to do something.

I sent out probably 300 emails and Facebook messages to people from every stage of her life. Some have known her well for decades; some met her a couple of years ago and cross paths with her occasionally. I asked everyone for secrecy and a story: "When you have a moment, could you please share a Betsy story (or two) with me? It could be how you met her, some adventure you went on together, some memory of her that stands out, whatever strikes you. Heartwarming, funny, embarrassing ... all stories are welcome."

Over the course of two months, the stories rolled in. They ranged in length from one sentence to two pages. They covered her childhood, high school sports days, college years, her first jobs, houses she'd bought, parties she'd thrown, help she'd offered. Some were really funny; others instantly brought tears to my eyes. All of them oozed love in their own way.

In all, I collected 88 stories for her book. I took the stories, found photos that went with darn near every one of them (thanks, Facebook!) and put together a book using Shutterfly.com. It quickly became clear the project was as much a gift to me as it would be to Betsy. Getting to see just how much she is loved by so many people moved me deeply and made me even more proud of her.

One night at home, with little fanfare and a couple of weeks before the big birthday, I poured her a glass of wine, sat her on the couch and presented her with the book. It probably took two hours to read it all. She cried, she laughed, she cried some more. She laughed a lot.

She now lovingly refers to it has her "I'm not dead yet" book. She can flip through it any time she wants. It's a permanent reminder of so many of the great people and stories of her life.

Last week, we learned another childhood friend of Betsy's had died unexpectedly – only two months shy of his own 50th birthday. His Facebook wall quickly filled with old photos and great stories about his life and what he meant to people. The memories were sweet and the sense of loss was palpable. And it made me sad, again, to know that he'd never see those stories and enjoy reminiscing with his friends and family.

This has led to a midsummer New Year's resolution of sorts: Tell people I love what I love about them. Whether it's a Facebook post, a handwritten note or a hug over a beer, I'm going to do it more often. I'm going to thank people for what they've added to my life, share a funny memory I have of them and generally work harder to let people know I appreciate them.

After all, we're not dead yet. Time to focus on living.

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J Schneider
Mon, 08/11/2014 - 10:26am
Thank you for sharing this story. It's heartwarming and a gentle reminder to tell the people you care about that you do care about them. None of us knows how many tomorrows we have.
bill fullmer
Wed, 08/13/2014 - 11:11am
Thanks Robin. wonderful perspective and reminder.
Robin Miner-Swartz
Sun, 08/17/2014 - 6:34pm
Thank you, J Schneider and Bill. <3