There's a common thread that I hear among people regardless of their age or stage of life: "I don't want to leave this life with regret, or without having been able to tell important people in my life what they mean to me." We all go through this contemplation at some juncture along our journey. I've even heard of people who have orchestrated their own "living funeral," so that they would have an opportunity to hear from those they loved before their inevitable passing of this life. But until last week it didn't occur to me that someone would organize their own wake so that they could have their moment to express appreciation and affection to everyone else, until I met "Gwennie."
My husband and I were starting our walk from the car to Seattle's Sculpture Park where a photography event was being held by our local King5 news station. Next to us on the sidewalk was a lady who was struggling to walk but looked as vibrant as the summer evening sun. She held a walking stick, but at times looked as though it was only holding her back from the determination that was so apparent through her energy and vast smile. As I made eye contact with her, and we exchanged our nonverbal glance of "let's be friends," the three of us walked the 10-minute journey to the venue together.
We learned about fragments of her life; her deep love affair with art since eight years of age and her appreciation for all things aesthetically beautiful and abstract. We had naturally drifted off in different directions from Gwennie during the event but magically connected again afterward and resumed our conversation back to our cars. "You two make sure you get your vitamin D because you know...," she spoke as she simultaneously turned her head away. In a very uncomfortable and hesitant voice, I had to ask, "Is that how you... is that what you have?" "Yes, I have MS. I even held a wake for myself." I was captivated.
A week later, Gwennie and I met and I dug deeper into her story. "Art saved my life." "How so?"
"After my MS diagnosis, I was also dealing with three rounds of treatment for melanoma. I had 180 stitches in my face and I was so weak. All I could do was move a piece of my art an inch here and there and that was considered a success. I had to do something that made me feel alive and see that I could still create."
During this fragile and uncertain period of her life she was sitting so close to death that she decided to make friends with it. After reading an obituary one morning that moved her to the core she decided to create her own wake, except instead of the guests speaking about her, she would show them her appreciation. Months later in a lovely local garden, fit with an expert crepe maker, wine, live music and a lot of joy, her celebration emerged.
"What made you choose crepes for the event?" "I wanted something elegant for everyone." As I wrote that down I hoped that the tears that were starting to escape my eyes would be concealed by my glasses. Here was someone speaking about her life-and-death battle, while her concern rested on the happiness of the guests at her impending wake. At her "celebration" there were no speeches and no tears, only quality one-on-one time with the 80 people she cherished the most.
With the innocence of a young child and the wisdom of the 76-year young lady that she is, she said, "I miss my bike. I'm getting a trike though!" "Well, you let me know when you get that thing and I'll make sure I record you on it!" I delved more into the experience of her living wake and at the recollection of the experience, her face came to life, she was animated and there wasn't one sign pointing toward a history of debilitating melanoma or a current struggle with MS. ''You can't tell your grown children what to do but I still wanted to show them and my friends with my actions, how to live. At the party, we all just had this incredible feeling of, 'we're all in this together.' I wanted them to know what a privilege it was to know them and how much they meant to me. The celebration brought me peace.''
Gwennie explained that her vision was deteriorating, yet I saw someone whose lens was wide open and crystal clear. She mentioned that words are more difficult to retrieve now but she was beautifully eloquent and emotive in every word she spoke. Walking feels like, "taking steps through molasses," for her, yet she had me fooled as she urged me to walk to the nearby shop that featured her art and insisted on going to the local park to greet my children.
Before we went our separate ways, she handed me a gift. It was a stack of cards and envelopes that were replicas of her artwork.
Coincidentally, over the past five weeks I've been mailing one card per week to someone in my life as an effort to highlight their uniqueness and offer my gratitude for their friendship. This was the perfect present as I realized that perhaps I'm already appreciating others with my own living wake of sorts through my cards. With conviction she said, "You look death in the eye and it changes you." As I kneeled down to help her tie the back of her delicate black lace ballet shoe, I quickly knew that looking her in the eyes had changed me.