Four Lessons and a Butterfly

Yesterday my sweet sister-in-law beamed into heaven.  I was compelled to write because, as I told her many times over the past ten years, she was my hero. Here’s why.

She rarely complained. Really. She suffered through a divorce, breast cancer, uterine cancer, radiation and chemotherapy and the permanent loss of her beautiful long thick hair. The radiation for her breast cancer caused lymphedema of her arm which meant that it was permanently swollen to three times its normal diameter.  She wore a tight elastic sleeve every day to keep the swelling in check.   Two types of cancer required her to have multiple surgeries on her thin body.  After raising three of her four kids, she moved from Ohio up to the northern Michigan tundra to be closer to family. She did this all by herself. And honestly, whenever we asked how she was, she consistently replied, “Oh, I’m good, how about you?”

Nancy loved to run but over the past year, the cancer crept into her bones and she was forced to walk instead. After only a few months of walking, she resorted to slow limping because of the pain. Last spring, she pulled out of her annual half marathon race. Each time she ran in years past, she wore a hat on her baby- bird hair covered head and a thick sleeve on her swollen arm.  One of the reasons she was so anxious to get to heaven, I believe, was to run again.

As Nancy was dying, her true colors showed (dying does that to a person.) They were brilliant. She smiled and said that she had done everything in her life that she had hoped for. She died with no regrets. She had parented the best that she knew how as a single mother and felt no guilt about any mistakes that she had made because she made amends with each of her children. One thing she said on her death bed impacted me enormously. She told her children (ages 18-29) that there were four principles that she wanted each of them to live with in her honor. Here is what she said to them.

Be humble. Don’t ever let yourself feel that you are better or worse than another person. Know that your value is equal to the most brilliant person on earth or the poorest on the street. Live it and love others well. If you have no humility, you cannot love others well.

Be truthful.  Always tell the truth. Of course it’s tough, but living openly and honestly is the only way to live at peace with yourself. Once you begin to lie, you become gnarled in self-deceit and compromise the health of each of your relationships.

Be faithful. Love God and hold onto Him. Yes it may feel impossible but never let go because once you do, you lose your bearings completely. And be faithful to loved ones. Care for them and don’t hurt anyone behind his back. Keep your commitment to love them well by showing your unwillingness to betray them in even the slightest way.

Be grateful. Several days before Nancy died, she apologized to loved ones that the process was taking so long. She hated to see them suffer with grief. But she poignantly said “Even today, I am grateful to be with you. There have been blessings today.”

Nancy lived a simple life. She didn’t travel the world, earn a doctorate or make a lot of money. But when she died, her children knew that she had poured every ounce of love she had into them. She didn’t need more because she knew that she had it all- four great kids who loved her and took care of her as she died, good sisters and a brother who adored her and nieces and nephews by the score who looked up to her.

As she spoke these lessons to her children, I wondered, what four principles would I tell my own grown children to live by? Would they be things that I wanted for them or things that I believed would make their lives richer and deeper? I guess, though, that in some ways, the words that I would say might be mute points. The truth is, we live the lessons that we teach.

If I were asked to describe Nancy in four phrases, here is what I would say: she was humble, she was truthful, she was faithful to God and her family and she was very, very grateful for all that she was given.

Below is a picture from the book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar that Nancy gave our young nephew several years ago. You can see a note that she wrote him on the last page of the book. A few days before Nancy died, my nephew brought the book to his mother and asked her to read him the story. He rarely asked his mother to read the book, she said. My niece (his mother) complied. When she came to the last page, here is what she saw.

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These are the words of a mother who lived well, died well and passed every  goodness that she embodied onto each of her very lucky four children. I believe with all of my heart that Nancy now sits surrounded by the colors and glory of a gracious and loving God. How kind He is to have given us Nancy.