What do you do when one of your heroes tells you they are dying?
Brianne didn’t put it that way, of course. She simply called to say she was going into hospice; but she knew we have had enough experience with hospice to know what that means: She has a life-threatening illness and has decided not to fight it.
That didn’t sound like Brianne.
Brianne has been fighting the odds with every breath she takes every moment of her life. She was born with thirteen broken bones and diagnosed with a rare bone disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI). They said she only had a few hours to live and called the hospital priest to give her the last rites.
But somehow, Brianne made it through the night. She kept on fighting through seemingly endless days and nights, defying the odds, until they said she was strong enough for her parents to take her home. She was carried her out of the hospital on a pillow, popsicle sticks taped to her limbs as makeshift splints.
Once she was home, her parents went looking for help and found a group of physicians starting a research protocol for children with OI. Brianne was so fragile she could break a bone by sneezing, but they encouraged her to learn to walk and challenged her to grow. And grow she did, graduating from American University and getting her masters degree from Marquette University.
But it has never been easy.
For 36 years, Brianne has faced one challenge after another. She has had at least one surgery for every year of her life and has had - in her words - more broken bones than Evil Knievel. But each time, whatever the challenge, she has taken it head on with courage and humor.
In the process in the 25 years I have known her, Brianne has recalibrated my sense of what a hero looks like. Thanks to her I have learned it has more to do with the size of your heart than the size of your body; more to do with the strength of your spirit than the strength of your muscles. It’s not what you have that matters but what you do with what you have; what you give to the world is more important than what you take; how you affect others, how you make them feel, is more significant and has more of lasting impact than any material gift you can give them.
So what now? What do you do when the doctors say there is nothing more you can do? Where do you go when they say there is no place for you to go?
What Brianne was saying when she said she was entering hospice is that she is prepared to go home. At times like these – I can testify – you take stock of where you are and realize that life is seamless. It stretches forward into the future and back beyond the boundaries of time. There is no beginning. There is no end.
As Einstein taught us, matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Something cannot become nothing. Something simply becomes something else.
The same atoms that dance in us dance in everything else in the universe. When we die, nothing ends. The best part of our selves just learns a new dance.
What remains are footprints and fingerprints on the lives of those we have touched. As long as we are remembered, we are loved. As long as we are loved, we are immortal.
In my head and heart, Brianne will always be with me. I suspect there are thousands more who can say the same.