The invitation arrived on Facebook. "A Celebration of Life." Our dear friend and colleague, a beloved alcohol and drug counselor, was losing her heroic battle with cancer. Several years of hope and medicine had not led to a cure, and she was now facing her looming death with equal parts of courage and acceptance. A woman who spent a lifetime giving to others and helping to save their lives was now asking for one favor in return. To meet with everyone she touched and hear the loving thoughts and wishes we expected to provide posthumously--while she still could.
Of course, we all promised to attend. Home visits by hundreds of people were out of the question in her fragile state, but a few hours in a huge bingo hall were safely doable, with caregiver assistance, a wheelchair, and portable oxygen. We welcomed the opportunity to see our friend, colleague, mentor, and/or loved one one more time, and personally share our heartfelt wishes and thanks. But, the idea of penning and delivering a eulogy for a valiant woman gazing into our tearful faces had some attendees fretful. Praising someone who has passed is easier than finding the words to express one's feelings to someone who is visibly dying. For many, the sterile environment of a closed casket and a prescribed ceremony is the closest they have come to touching death. What do we say; what should we say? And are we strong enough to greet the face of mortality with whom our friend had come to grips?
The walls of the massive hall were papered with messages of hope that our host had shared over the years with her clients, inspiring them to embrace sobriety and a new future, and to keep hope alive. Rows of tables with brightly colored tablecloths and tethered heart shaped balloons filled the giant room, which was quickly filled by boisterous attendees of all ages bringing food and non-alcoholic drinks for a tasty and sober potluck. Our friend, whose dynamic strides had given way to a seat in a comfortable wheelchair, belied her frailty with a fiery warmth in her twinkling eyes, and a broad smile as she welcomed guest after guest with a seated hug. Guests lined up across the auditorium, waiting to share a private word and a public thanks, and valued the long wait in the "receiving line" as an opportunity to shed tears and share memories of their host's gifts as a mother, grandmother, sponsor, teacher, mentor, coach, and friend.
The formal program lasted more than an hour--speakers from 12-step programs, non-profits, educational settings, and personal worlds spoke eloquently and movingly about what our host had meant to them, their gratitude, and their love. People didn't shy away from showing how sad they were, and revealing what a loss our host's passing would be in our lives, and neither did she. A slide show captured many highlights of her career, life, and work, and the personal stories of the 'sponsees' she had helped underscored the legacy she was leaving behind. Seeing her beaming face, we lost any reluctance to share both our happy memories, laughter, and even our tears. For at least one more evening, we were celebrating her life, and life itself, and her joy became ours, seasoned by everyone's love.
At last, her happiness gave way to her need for rest, and she bid us all good-bye with a peaceful smile as we pitched in to help her family wrap up the leftover food and clean up the rented hall. It had been a wonderful evening she'd told us, thanking us for visiting with her one last time. As we chatted after her departure, a bittersweet realization among us guests was that, as challenging and sad as it was to see her so ill and to fear for her passing, it had been a wonderful evening for us, too. The opportunity to come together in a diverse fellowship, to have her wake while she could still join us, was a true blessing. A selfless donor as a counselor, she had once again given us all great gifts, not only her precious time for us to share, but the gift of embracing rejoicing together and dissolving remorse or regrets.
A Celebration of Life is another legacy that we will share in her honor. Let us not save our kind words, our charming memories, our unabashed praise for sanitized funerals and stiff and formal wakes. Let us celebrate life, even in its last days, by throwing a party in which "y'all come". Death may be hovering at the door, but we needn't speak in hushed tones and cower in fear at his rattling chains. Let us laugh, and sing, and cry, and cheer during the last days of life with those transitioning. Let us celebrate life not only at its beginning, but at its end.