Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Finding the time

I met Lisa Flaxman when I was very young. Her brother, David, and I were in the same Cub Scout pack and our moms became close friends when they served as den mothers. Lisa was four years older and I didn't know her all that well because we only hung out when our families got together or I slept over at David's.

The last time I saw her I was 8th grade and we went to see her in a production of "Guys and Dolls" at her high school. Lisa had a fantastic singing voice and eventually went on to perform professionally. I think she was playing Miss Adelaide in that particular show. I remember her coming down into the audience during one song and sitting in her alternately embarrassed and proud father's lap like an actual chanteuse, crooning into a microphone. It's strange what sticks in your head after 25 years.

I received regular updates from my mother and from Lisa's mom about what was going on with Lisa and the rest of her family over the years. She went to Brown and then got a law degree from Georgetown. She married and had three children. Then, she focused on music, both performing as well as launching and nurturing a music program for kids in Maryland and the District of Columbia in an effort to provide an early music education for her son and other children. She learned that her youngest sister had breast cancer and as a result, was tested herself, learning that she too had the disease. She fought it and wrote a book of poetry inspired by the experience.

I found out today that she died.

The cancer came back. She began suffering headaches and the doctors discovered that she was afflicted with a brain tumor. And then she was gone at age 43, surrounded by her husband and children and parents, drifting off to sleep and not waking up last Wednesday.

I knew her only fleetingly and yet I grieve. I grieve for her children and her husband who are experiencing a loss I could never imagine and whose time with Lisa was far, far too brief. I grieve for her siblings and her parents who were so proud of her. I grieve for her friends and all those she touched. I grieve for a world that needs more people like her, a person who worked so hard to enrich the lives of others whether by sharing her experiences with others, by communicating her love of music to children, by bringing arts programs for other cancer patients, or by performing to entertain and bring joy to friends and strangers alike.

I feel a bit odd writing this, like I shouldn't because I haven't seen her in 25 years and didn't know her all that well, as if I'm making this all about me when I have no right. I guess, in a way, I am, spurred on by what I've learned about her in the last day. A loss, even if it touches you only peripherally, leads to a certain amount of introspection, I think.

I suppose that, as I reach the cusp of 40, after my uncle's wife lost her battle with lung cancer, as I see my sister's two lovely children and the joy they bring, as I see friends and relatives growing just a bit older, as I realize that I've spent almost a quarter of my life with my wife and am amazed and frightened at how quickly it has gone, and as I look back to just a year ago as I sat holding my father's hand in the emergency room while he suffered a stroke, I take the concept of mortality a bit more seriously than I did when I was younger.

I see what I've accomplished but also what I still hope to do. I regret that I allowed people I cared about to move out of my life and want to reach out to them as well as to new friends. And I value the time and experiences we have so much more.

I read Lisa's obituary and a heartwrenching remembrance from a friend of hers. I listened as my mother read to me the words that Lisa's mom spoke at the memorial service and I see how full Lisa's life was -- with her children, her husband, her school and her non-profit organization, and her efforts to enrich other people's lives. In reading about her book and her music education program, I stumbled across Lisa's blog on a health site. There aren't many entries but the ones that are there are powerful, honest, and so full of joy in things we take for granted -- watching her child sleep, getting a hair cut. I'm sorry I didn't know the person who wrote these words better:

"Now, when I hear people say, "I wish I could stop time, " I know exactly what they mean, but I know they are wrong. They don't know that when time slows down and seems to stop, we are not living life, we are waiting to live. That's the thing about having cancer: you have to find way to live while going through the treatments. Whether that means writing every day, taking a walk around the block, calling someone or just simply getting out of bed and looking out the window, you can't wait. Time is all we have." -- from Lisa's blog entry, "The River of Time"

So to Lisa's friends and family, I want to say how sorry I am for your loss. I hope that you find the strength to move through this difficult time together.

And to those of you who took the time to read this, please take the time to make sure that you or the ones you love are screened regularly for breast cancer. Don't take a chance and don't lose any more time.

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