Wednesday, March 12, 2008

In loving memory

I'm thinking tonight of a dear friend of mine whom I haven't seen in some time. To keep things private for her family, I'll just refer to her as M.

M is one of the best people I've ever met. Period. She always treated me so kindly and approached life with such optimism. This is remarkable considering that she suffered from serious health problems, not the least of which was spina bifida. I doubt that she lived a day without pain in her life. Sometimes, for example, she kept her hands clasped in a fist because it was too painful to open them. She didn't let her limitations stop her from doing great things, though. She held a Master's degree in TESOL and used a scooter to get around because she couldn't walk long distances.

M first came into my life in the summer of 2001. This was an interesting time for me. I had just returned from a full-time mission some months earlier and was trying to figure out my place in life. I had finished my bachelor's degree in biology shortly before going on the mission and when I came back I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I had been considering pharmacy school but wasn't as jazzed about that idea as I had initially been. In the meantime I was taking an intensive Spanish-language class.

Enter M. She had been living in Las Vegas but decided just to come to Salt Lake City for the summer. She was working on a certificate to be a proofreader and was doing an internship with a local organization. M just happened to be staying with a family that lives just a few blocks from me and she just happened to start going to the same ward that I attend and we just happened to be assigned to be visiting teaching companions.

In addition to being an excellent visiting teaching companion, M helped me with many issues that I was struggling with at the time. Being a returned missionary herself, she helped me make the transition back from a full-time mission. She encouraged me in the work I was trying to do with a less-active friend I cared about. And when I expressed interest in becoming an ESL teacher, she gave me advice, since she herself held a Master's degree in TESOL and had worked in the field for a few years. Her enthusiasm for the field encouraged me as I was just getting into it; I remember her telling me that she thought ESL teaching was the next best thing to teaching seminary. In other words, God couldn't have put a more perfect person in my life at the time to help me with what I was experiencing.

After that summer was over, M moved away to another adventure, but thankfully our relationship didn't end. She ended up having more health problems and ended up back in Salt Lake City to receive treatment at the University Hospital. During that time M and her mother stayed in my house while she received the treatment. Eventually she ended up in Las Vegas, and during the early part of 2003 or so, she entered the hospital and didn't really come out again.

During this time I called my friend M more than once on the telephone. Even though she was in great pain and the medications she was taking were so strong they slurred her speech, she could remember exactly what we had talked about in our previous conversations. She cared about and asked about people we had discussed, even people she had never met. I remember only one occasion in the whole time that I knew M where she mentioned to me the pain she was in. I noticed because it was so surprising to me. She just chose to focus on others and spread her love outwards instead of focusing much energy on worrying about herself.

M passed away in the summer of 2003 and I was surprised to find how much I missed her. The hole she left in my life was palpable for quite some time, even though I hadn't really seen her in a year or so. Her example continued to help me during that time, because with her passing my belief in the afterlife became even stronger. I very much wanted to see my friend M again, and it motivates me to know that she was a great person, so if I want to end up where she is, I will probably have to be pretty good.

Even in death M continued to touch people with her optimism and sense of humor. M left careful instructions in her will about her wishes for her possessions and her funeral. Having grown up in Hawaii, she loved Polynesian culture and desired to have a funeral where people wore light colors, not dark ones. She showed her love of music by giving special instructions about which songs and hymns would be performed at her funeral, and there were quite a few of them. Her sense of humor came out in her will as she gave instructions for the treatment of her body. I recall one of the statements was something like, "Don't let them put makeup on me unless I'd look totally dead without it." M's body was laid to rest in the cemetery in Laie, Hawaii. I hope that I can visit her grave someday.

It's humbling to think about the great effort God went to to put M into my life. She came at a crucial time just when I needed her and moved out of my city just as quickly when the summer was over. I'm sure there were many other people who could have benefited from her amazing love and example and I am positive that many people have. I feel privileged to be one of them. While preparing this post, I googled on her name and discovered that her former employer put out a newsletter in the summer of 2003 announcing her passing. It's obvious that they cared about her. I only knew M for a couple of years, but it's clear that she left behind her a long line of people who are better for her influence. I'm happy to be one of them.

(I did consult a couple of web pages while writing this post, but I have decided not to include the links for privacy reasons.)

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