"Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think." -- Christopher Robin to Pooh
November 30 is always a bad day for me because on November 30, 2006 I learned the meaning of loss and love. I was gearing up for course finals in business school when the night before, to get uninterrupted sleep, I decided to shut down my phone, so the calls that would periodically come in at night would not wake me up. I was sitting in my accounting class when I received a disturbing email from a close friend. I could not make out the words. I know what it said, but the email made no sense to me. I left the class and powered up my phone. I had 20 missed calls. When I called my friend who had sent me the email, she was quiet on the phone. It turns out I understood the message clearly. A drunk driver had killed our friend Gracie in the middle of the night. In that moment, I had an out-of-body experience. Scientifically, I do not have an explanation, but I saw myself from above, hovering over my body, and saw myself crying on the floor. My first reaction was to plead with God. What if I switched with her? What if somehow our souls could switch places? What if I flew to San Francisco and concentrated really hard and we switched places? These were the first thoughts that ran through my head. I was clearly in shock and surprised myself with how irrational I suddenly was in that one moment.
For years, I tried to make sense of what happened. Then one day while getting my second master's degree three years later, we were asked to consider what we would do in the event of the trolley problem. The trolley problem as positioned by Judith Jarvis Thomson goes as follows:
A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you -- your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
I did not say a word in class, but after class I emailed the professor. There were only two choices: to push the very fat man or let five people die. I had another answer. What if I threw myself in front of the trolley and saved the fat man and the five people? I did not want to voice this in class, as I was afraid my classmates would think I had a death wish. The professor emailed me back and said that being willing to die on behalf of someone else is quite possibly the noblest act of courage. That is what the Christian faith is based on, as Jesus died on behalf of all humanity.
I am no heroine. The truth is I have never had to make a decision like that as Gracie had already passed on, so I tried to think about other instances where people would need to make a decision like that. I thought about our military men and women. This is a fact of life for them, particularly those out in high-risk zones. And I know many parents who have a sick child who I know would be willing to trade places with their child if it meant their child lived and they did not. There are many people who would be willing to die on someone else's behalf.
Character is something that our culture talks about often, but, at least for me, rarely do I meet people whose character I truly admire. To me, the most attractive qualities in a person are moral courage and selflessness. I remember attending a dear friend's wedding when her husband-to-be, gave a speech during the rehearsal dinner where he said, "I finally met someone who I love more than I love myself." When he said that, it all clicked. That's it! That's the definition of love I had been looking for. When you want more for someone else than you want for your own self.
I talk about Gracie a lot. Although she is gone, I am still learning from her. I have learned that sometimes you do not know how much you love someone until they are gone. I learned that while heartbreak can make you feel broken, love also has the ability to expand the heart, so you can love at even a greater capacity you ever thought possible. I learned that the only true loss a person can experience is not loving enough. I learned that even if the person is no longer in your life, true love transcends time and space.
When people pass on, you always hear people say, "They are in a better place" or "They are now with God." So it dawned on me that if this is true, and Gracie is with God and if God is omnipresent then as a believer God is also with me. Then is it not also true, philosophically speaking, that Gracie and I in the same place? Wrap your head around that one, preferably while not operating heavy machinery or under the influence.
I cannot fully articulate my past or future without mentioning Gracie. Gracie was my childhood friend. We met in middle school when I first moved to Texas. She was my first friend in Texas. She liked me because according to her "I was not like anyone she had ever met." The other girls wanted to be cheerleaders, and I was training to be a professional ballerina. When people pass on, we tend to glamorize their role in our life. I am aware of this, which is why I will say our friendship was not always perfect. We disagreed on a lot of things such as retirement, career, people -- we bickered like old ladies about Jesus and what constituted "morality" and "character" -- all while going for our long walks around our neighborhood. We were in high school, but our conversations were always deeply philosophical which I loved. We took walks regularly because she could not sit still for long. The reason why we stayed together as friends all these years, as our lives took different paths, is because we made each other better people. In the end, I found someone who challenged me, who was honest with me, and who made me a better person.
I think the most valuable lesson I learned from Gracie was the value of time. Before going through this experience with Gracie, I was under the illusion that somehow we will live forever and ever and one day, we would just die in our sleep. When I realized I have no time left, I started to live my life with urgency. I took risks I would have never taken otherwise. I did things that terrified me. I decided the only way to live life is with a sense of adventure. Without experiencing profound loss, I would not have learned all these lessons. It was through Gracie's passing that I learned to live.