Recently, I found myself sitting in a hospital room staring at a childhood picture taken in Cobden, Illinois a lifetime ago. As I gazed at the beloved faces of grandparents, aunt, uncle, cousins, parents, and siblings, my heart was stabbed with a pain that was poignant and an ache that was deep. In my mind’s eye, one by one five faces vanished from the picture. They were the faces of the loved ones I have lost through the years since that picture was snapped. I looked at myself as a child in that picture. I studied the face of that young girl who had yet to experience the many losses of the years to come. How little I knew. How precious that time was - and I didn’t even realize it.
It seems like it is just too easy to overlook the people in our lives. We make the assumption they will always be there, and sometimes take risks with our relationships that are, as we look back with hindsight, petty. When I was a young mother, my grandfather became angry with me over the church I was attending. I was equally angry with him for judging me in a way that felt very unfair. We grew distant from each other, and after a few years had passed, Grandpa got cancer and died. It happened very quickly, and I never had a chance to make amends with him. Over what? A silly argument about a church. Petty. I never thought about him dying and not being around any more, and suddenly he was gone. If I had the chance now, I would go back and fix that broken relationship. I can look back and see that Grandpa just wanted the best for me. He was truly afraid I had made a decision that would cost me my soul, and his anger stemmed from his love. But at the time, I had to be right, I had to have the last word, winning the argument and not being the first to apologize trumped the value of a life-long relationship. I was so foolish.
Ten years ago, I lost a sister the day before Thanksgiving. Ironically, I started to call her the weekend before, on Sunday, but then decided it could wait because I was going to talk to her on Thanksgiving Day. Three days later, she was gone, and I never had the chance to make that last phone call. I know I can’t beat myself up over it, but I don’t think I will ever stop wishing I had made that call on Sunday. After all, I could have talked to her on Sunday and then again on Thanksgiving Day. Or at least on Sunday, because I didn’t know how short her time was.
I have learned a few things from losing loved ones to death. First, I need to always remain aware that I never know when it is the last - Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthday, vacation, or day I will spend with the people I love. I can’t walk around in morbid dread, but I must, must, MUST cherish every moment I get. I must hug a little longer, give an extra kiss, and say “I love you”, one more time. I need to live in the moment, not focusing on events that are coming next, or my texts with someone who isn’t even there, but I need all of me to be fully present and aware of those around me. I need to absorb the precious memories, and experience closely each one so I can treasure the time in my heart when we are not together anymore. I have to listen, not just with my ears, but with my whole being - to the cadence of a voice, the rhythm of a speech pattern, and with a desire to understand the meaning of the conversation.
I also must remember to be thankful every single day for the people in my life. Even those who have hurt me have made me stronger. I dig deep to find gratitude for them. But those who have loved me have made me who I am. I am thankful I know them. I am thankful for their thoughts, and ideas, and kindnesses. I am thankful for their presence on Earth, and in my life. I am thankful for love, because even though it can hurt like crazy; without it, life would be raw and lonely. I have to admit, I am pretty sure every time I have lost a loved one there were moments when the pain made me wish I had never loved in the first place, but the passage of time eases the heartache.
Just be sure to hug your loved ones tight. Hold onto them a little longer than necessary while you can. Love deeply, and without reservation. Forgive, and restore relationships. Someday the faces in those photographs will not all be there - but the memories of those precious moments you had together will remain.