Friday, November 11, 2011

This is what is (in honor of Linda)

As many of you know, my friend and colleague Linda Sanders-Wells passed away three weeks ago. I've mentioned her on the blog before - as she was a real influence in my life over the past couple of years. Her story is a tragic one, as she left behind a devoted partner and a high-school aged daughter that together formed one of the most beautiful families you can imagine.

Linda's death has formed the subtext for much of our lives in the past several months. We knew the end was coming and it was so difficult to watch her deteriorate - powerless like so many to cancer's final, hostile push. Linda was brilliant, and she faced everything with a straight-forward boldness that many of us recognized as true courage. I've lost people close to me before, but this was the closest I have ever been to participating in the end of someone's life in a meaningful way - and doing so has been a life-altering experience.

In everything that we have been through over the past several years, we have come to rely on a couple of simple truths. Of them, there's a lesson in everything. As I have searched and searched for the lesson in Linda's death, last night as a large group of her community gathered under the full moon to honor and celebrate her, that lesson has begun to reveal itself.  It's a lesson that the universe keeps bringing me back to again and again...

Be present. Be grateful.

As I walked into the memorial at Grailville last night (in lieu of the standard viewing/burial format), the first image I saw was of a young Linda holding her newborn daughter in what appeared to be the first days of her life. That image, that so many of us have of ourselves with our children, moved me deeply. Those early days of their lives together - so filled with the imagination of a long life, watching her child grow, move into adulthood and maybe one day have her own children - the imagining we all do in assuming somehow that it's guaranteed. I wept at the thought. All the beautiful moments captured of Linda with her friends and family - and hidden behind all of those images - the reality now that we now know how this story ends. It was too much to bear. Last night as Louie and I talked after the memorial, I shared how my heart goes to those moments I've had with my family and how my heart aches for knowing one day it too will all end. One day all these moments will be hanging on a wall for grief-stricken friends and family to view through their tears.  Lou, in the way that only he can, pulled me up out of my despair and brought me back to the importance of gratitude and presence, because in the end that is all that we have. 

This thought connects me back to Linda's partner, a talented writer himself, who has this collection of essays online. Linda shared this link with me before she passed and I began reading through his essays in the final days of Linda's life. This one really resonated with me and the lesson inside of it is one I will carry with me always. Howard, in recently overcoming cancer himself and in facing Linda's terminal diagnosis, shares his frustration with the phrase "it is what it is." (A phrase I will add that has become synonymous with "F it" in our house.) He says: "I'm not sure it should be applied, as it sometimes is, to things or situations under human control. The danger is that if you repeat it enough you may apply it inappropriately and it may forestall positive acts of change...sometimes the 'what is' can be changed for the better and must be."   

He shares a section of "Finding Balance" by Eckert Tolle: "When something drastic happens, if you can learn to accept it, a little bit of spaciousness comes into your life. You say, "this is what is." A little bit of space just opened up, and you're no longer just a resisting entity." Howard reflects, "The difference between saying 'this is what is' and 'it is what it is' is remarkable. If I utter the former I feel an expansion, and opening not the contraction and resigned finality of the latter."  He goes on to share the rest of Tolle's passage: "Then you realize that you are essentially formless space. In other words, you find inner peace. At first it is very gentle in the background, in the midst of any situation. That peace is powerful. It can become so powerful, that it obliterates almost anything. Peace is the formless in you. Be accepting the form, the formless within you opens up. This is how something seemingly bad - a limitation - becomes an opening for realization of who you truly are."

When Howard called me the morning after Linda's passing, we talked some more about this phrase - "this is what is" and the peace that rises up within you when you face life in this way. What an enormous gift Linda gave us in her passing - a route to finding peace through acceptance. Is there any greater gift? 

As I continue to process, it occurs to me that if the route to peace is acceptance and presence, this acceptance must be cultivated by gratitude to prevent acceptance from slipping into hopelessness (which is exactly where I started to head last night before Lou brought me back). And this is where the real learning happens.  

How then do we cultivate gratitude?

For us, this goes back to one of our wedding vows 10 years ago..."to build our dreams together in a common search for the pure and the beautiful."  We have been given the enormous blessing of two daughters and don't take that for granted. We spend a great deal of time talking about the house in which we want them to be raised, the people we want to surround them with, the example we want to set in our own relationships. We are deliberate about seeking purity and beauty together, and try to create opportunities to our children to discover those things themselves. The discovery for me through Linda's death is that purity and beauty don't necessarily mean joy. (This lesson first revealed itself in witnessing Josie's passage through loss with our little spider friend Charlotte.) 

As we often do when someone dies, we ask ourselves how Linda will live on. As was very evident last night, she will live on through the many lessons she taught so many of us - both directly through her mentorship and indirectly through her example. 

Last night I shared the following piece with Linda's community at her memorial service. I'd like to share them again here in hoping that there's something each of you can take away from Linda's words. 


Linda and I began working together about five years ago at KnowledgeWorks. Over the years we worked more and more together, although to call her a “colleague” doesn’t seem quite right.

Those of us who had the opportunity to work with her over the years know that the line between a professional and personal relationship with Linda was hard to discern.  To so many, Linda wasn’t a colleague, she was a friend.

My relationship with Linda was one that deepened as we both faced the realities of life and death over the last couple of years.  Linda’s gift of writing worked miracles on the job, but also saved me in some of my life’s darkest moments.  I’d like to share some of her words with all of you this evening.

When we lost our third baby in 2010, Linda sent me this note and I wanted to wrap myself in it. We always wanted to have another child to give our daughter Josie a sibling, but we finally gave up. We were so grateful for Linda’s words about just how special a family of three could be. But Linda’s words don’t just shed light on my experience. They shed light on how much her family meant to her.

She wrote:

“It's all pretty complicated, isn't it, this business of trying to figure out if our lives are going the way they're meant to… I'm sure your sorrow will always be with you too, and the question about what your lives would have been like if you had had another baby. Like you, I think about Abbie having a sibling and what a great sister she would be. I wish I could tell you that would go away, but I think you already know it won't…

What I can tell you is that our family life is incredibly rich and full -- and complete. We are very, very close and each of the three relationships that make up this little triangle have their own nuances and strengths (and oddities)…

Could Abbie have turned into the same wonderful young adult she is in a bigger family? Of course. But is our family somehow lacking? No way. Ten thousand times no.

You are a thoughtful parent who has good instincts and great values. I'm sad for the whole world's sake that you aren't going to be raising another child. We could use more Josie's and Abbie's. But I can promise you that your life as a parent will always be full and rich.”

As unbelievable fortune would have it, just a few months after we lost our baby Camille in March, we discovered we were pregnant again. Linda’s sincere, exuberant joy showed just how committed she was as a friend. Complications with the pregnancy left me on full-time bedrest. It was about this time that Linda received the cancer diagnosis, and we became a support system for one another as we both faced heart-breaking odds. 

We all knew Linda, so this won’t come as a surprise – but even with all that she was facing, she still had so much to give in the name of friendship. So when everything ended happily for us and our second daughter Beatrice was born healthy in March, Linda’s cheers were among the loudest.

She shared these words…

“If it's not an intrusion, I wanted to let you know how connected I've felt to your family through this time...and how important that connection has been for me. Beatrice is your own private miracle, but she's been a lifeline for me in some ways as well.

I was moved last year by how you and family handled the loss of Camille and how you've since incorporated your losses into your life. The entire time that you were pregnant and dealing with so much, your strength and hopefulness were inspiring. Then, as your due date neared, I enjoyed thinking about how soon your family would be together and what these first days would be like. Abbie was born at Good Sam in March, and it was of course the sweetest and happiest time of my life.

So your story has been kind of a beacon for me as I've dealt with my illness. Then, ironically, I ended up admitted to Good Sam on an emergency basis when an MRI showed a blood clot in my brain. It was an awful time, another dip of the roller coaster that has been our lives the last few weeks…When I was in the same hospital, I was checking Facebook and following Beatrice's arrival. It was so heartening to me to think of the joy she is and that she represents in the world. I always try to let the good things about each day soak in where I can, but I don't always manage to be open to hopefulness. She was a doorway when I needed one.

The love and support and help -- even from strangers on occasion -- that we've experienced have been unbelievable and evidence of how much good there is in the world. And I, too, am lucky to have the best family anyone could hope for."

So when I say Linda was a mentor – I don’t just mean professionally. Like so many of us, I looked to Linda as a model example of the kind of mother, partner, and friend I strive to be. I joked with her often that writing children’s books was wonderful, but a break from writing for kids to write a parenting manual for us would be much appreciated.  So unless there’s a hidden manuscript for that parenting manual hiding somewhere, we are left instead with the little snippets of wisdom Linda shared with each of us during our time with her.  And that’s what I want to end by sharing tonight.

She wrote -

“There's nothing I like more than talking about my experience with Abbie, as you can tell. But I don't pretend to be any kind of expert. I know that what works for one family doesn't necessarily work for another.

Mostly, though, I think it comes down to walking the walk. I don't think you can teach your child to be or do anything that's not already part of you and your life. That should be reassuring for you. You're a strong, independent woman and you are building a family that sets its own rules.

My experience with Abbie has been that the best thing I can do for her is stay out of the way. She came to us already wise and sure of herself, so we just try not to screw that up. Let her instincts for herself lead us. If we've been successful in any way so far, it's because of her.

What I didn't get to a chance to tell Linda is this: if I've been successful in any way as a mother so far, much of that is because of her.

So thank you Linda – for your mentorship – on everything from PowerPoint to Parenting. Thank you for your generosity of spirit and thank you for your example.


I hope that someday with Josie & Bea read back through our family's blog they will discover this piece and be reminded of how special they both are. I hope that they, like all of you, will remember to always come back to presence, acceptance and gratitude and be purposeful about creating the kind of life that you want to have for yourself and your family right now. Because in the end, right now is all that is guaranteed.

Here is a link to Linda's obituary
that I was honored to participate in 
for her feature in their "A Life Remembered" section.   

Her first published children's book 
(and I hope there will be many more) is "Maggie's Monkeys"
 and is available on Amazon and elsewhere. 
I hope you will consider buying it 
for a child in your life or to donate to a school or library. 

A captivated little Josie at Linda's book-signing for Maggie's Monkeys in  2009

And for one more reminder about the importance of gratitude, acceptance and presence, please read "A Dragon Mom on Living in the Moment" if you haven't already (or read it again and again and again). 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a moving, inspiring, and important post. Thank you. -Casey