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Lessons Learned from a Life Gone Too Soon

When I was a sophomore in high school, my older sister, who prefers to go against the trend, decided to have an “anti-prom” party. As I was slightly less than one year younger than her, her friends and mine often intermingled. In the Venn diagram of our lives, there were several people who we both called a close friend while others fell outside of our personal circles but were very accepting of the other sister hanging around. Being younger, I always yearned to be a part of the older group and looked up to her friends as I did to her.

As the elder girls filed into my parents’ house for the party, I watched gingerly hoping to be a part of the board games, movies, loud conversation, laughter–and most importantly–the food everyone brought. Resounding giggles spread throughout the kitchen, pouring over the counters and filling up the house as one friend, Brianne, brought home-made puppy chow. The oversized bowl filled to the brim, spotlighted by the overhead lamp dangling from the ceiling, became the center of the conversation. The funny story that Brianne delivered about the trials and tribulations of making the sweet, peanut-buttery treat enthralled and enchanted all the girls–including the tag-along little sister.

Despite not having seen Brianne in many years, I often think to her when I navigate my own life. Achieving more than most of us do in an extended lifetime, she packed an enormous amount into her existence of 36 years. Viewing from the outside, her health always seemed to be a second thought to her–it was the extraordinary accomplishments that allowed her to really live. Just as Olympic athletes make their world-renowned abilities look effortless, I never felt her struggles projected into her life. Humble and sincere, her personality was impossible not to like. Her desire to help others and spread smiles was infectious. What were likely enormous physical challenges for her she made look like a minor inconveniences. My heart breaks knowing of her passing not only because it has encouraged me to relive my sentimental memories, but because humanity became a lot darker the day she took her last breath. It is a travesty that the world will be without her when what we need most is more Briannes.

Reflecting on how Brianne handled her life, projecting her positivity and optimism on those around her, I often look to my own daughter Evelyn who has her own physical challenges. Evelyn has met (or surpassed) each physical and occupational therapy goal set for her in just her first year of life. When doctors told us she possibly might not survive much past birth (or even until birth) she proved them wrong, born crying and fighting. Eight-and-a-half weeks premature, she breathed on her own immediately and practiced feeding from a bottle until she succeeded. Her consistent growth on the charts amazed the NICU doctors. Having tiny casts on her feet–plaster stretched to her thighs–did not stop her from learning to move her legs, frequently fighting the mighty weight as she lifted them repeatedly. She continues to face possible nerve damage, a weak right arm, joint contractures in her wrists, arms, and legs, and subsequent brace shoes as treatment for her clubbed feet, a splint for her wrist, and a stander to encourage leg strength; yet, she has fought her way to rolling over, grabbing toys with her right hand, army crawling, and soon standing (I have no doubt). None of her physical disabilities have prevented her from doing what she needs to do to truly live. She (mostly) does it with a smile on her face; the proud grin she wears proves she knows how hard she has worked. Her silly personality outshines her troubles. Her laugh infiltrates our worries. Her strong will carries on when I feel mentally exhausted. Amazed by her strength, determination, and ability to tune out the nay-sayers by doing what she should not be able to, I have frequently thought back to Brianne. If our Evelyn has even a smidgen of Brianne’s spirit, she will continue to be the most glorious light in our lives, reminding us that life is not always so bad despite its difficulties. Hopefully, her beauty will also shine to many others.

Having known Brianne since our elementary school days, our paths crossed many times over the 18 years we shared in the same corner of the world in our hometown. Filling in the time around each school year, my sister and I were often engaged in the same activities as her, we shared a neighborhood, an elementary, middle, and high school. She was a vivid star that glistened amongst the other kids in her class: her humor infectious, her determination unmatchable, her spirit uplifting. Even now, as memories, stories, and pictures flood social media, it is evident her spirit will sustain many years beyond her life.

I am grateful to have known her and honored to have these inspiring memories. Doing my best to ensure Evelyn continues to embody Brianne’s kind of enthusiasm for life is a gift I cannot encourage enough. Just like that giant bowl of puppy chow from so many years ago, Brianne was sweet, funny, liked by all, and larger than life. Having seen how life can be so revered gives me great hope for Evelyn. And maybe, one day, I’ll teach Evelyn how to make her own puppy chow.

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