When Someone Leaves Us

My friend Courtney passed away yesterday. She was around my age, recently married, with a bright, shiny future waiting for her in the wings. It is an unspeakable loss.

Words seem hollow in moments like these. What could anyone say to make it any easier to bear the crushing weight of loosing someone so beloved, so precious? As a writer, I expect so much from words to help guide me through grief. I remember sitting in my car on the day of the Newtown massacre, glued to NPR as the reporter shared the bare facts. With tears rolling down my face I wanted to scream at the radio: Say something to make this easier to bear.

Yet words are all I have to offer myself and others who are mourning this and so many other losses. Despite their shortcomings, words do help, and so does writing. Trading stories with others does usher in a strange, mysterious comfort when the dark cloud of loss settles in.

I met Courtney in Peace Corps. She was a PAM volunteer, the most gung-ho group of PC’ers who worked mostly in agriculture, predominantly in very rural, poor sites. They were always the rail-thin ones at PC gatherings, likely due to the shortage of potable water in rural Honduras and the lack of drive-through fast food joints that peppered large, urban areas. Courtney struck me from the get-go as totally copacetic, someone who could be happy anywhere. This annoyed me at the time as I struggled to find contentment of my own living in a rural site that didn’t have any of the “amenities” that many of my colleagues enjoyed. While I lived green with envy, Courtney seemed perfectly content living in circumstances similar to mine. Indeed, when this disease struck, she maintained that aura of contentment and found a way to be at home in the midst of unspeakable pain, discomfort, and loss.

Many years later, she crossed my path when I learned of her disease through a mutual friend. Every couple of months, I’d get an update, and the news never seemed good. Yet Courtney remained optimistic, joyful, and content. She shared openly about the progress of treatment without letting the story of this disease become the story of Her. She continued living in the face of a remarkable amount of suffering. She kept working, fell in love, got married, talked about the future, pushed forward amidst the rubble of a terribly sick body, the embodiment of grace.

The last time I saw her, we met for lunch in DC with a group of old PC friends. She ordered a yogurt and drank water. The treatments had blasted her appetite and left her with persistent nausea. Sitting across from her, I couldn’t take my eyes off the device they implanted in her chest to administer medication. It poked out from underneath the skin of her collarbones. She assured me it didn’t hurt, but I couldn’t stop imagining the suffering of months of invasive treatments that wracked her body.

I’m sure Courtney felt sorry for herself and cried plenty throughout the course of her cancer journey. But she was resolute in laying claim to her Life. She refused to be a passive bystander, and her ability to engage, to be present, to show-up and laugh and smile and talk about her wedding and their plans for the future shook me awake to her true power.

In Paul Kalanithi’s incredible memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, he wrote several passages that brought Courtney to mind. At one point, he reflects on how a trip to church with his family prompted him to ponder the human story and the nature of our shared experience living it. He writes: “Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them.” Then he quotes a passage from the Bible:

 “the sower and the reaper can rejoice together. For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”

Courtney’s life was many things to many people. For me, she is the paradigm of a dutiful sower, day after day tucking into the earth tiny seeds of hope, love, and joy for the rest of us to stumble upon and rejoice in later on. She taught me how to live with dignity, the healing power of fierce contentment and joy. There was always a soft light around Courtney. It colored every moment you spent with her, this loose, light sense of transcendence.

We all grieve the loss of this brave, beautiful soul. It’s uncomfortable to inhabit the crater of grief. Often you’re dropped into it suddenly, without much warning, so it’s not like you have time to pack the essentials. But grief itself can be a guidepost, a brutal but beautiful reminder that at our weakest and most broken moments, we still belong to each other, we are still tied together by the shared human experience of reaping and sowing, we still have each other.

Courtney said she wasn’t afraid of what lay ahead and she felt only gratitude for everything that had come before. She was a gift to all of us who had the great fortune to have crossed paths with her. I will never cease to reap the profundity of wisdom, light, and grace she so carefully sowed on her path.

I come back again and again to that timeless Ram Dass quote: We are all just walking each other home. Today I am filled with gratitude for having had the opportunity to share a leg of that journey with her.