I have a cousin named Maxine. She grew up with my mother, an only child, and they were the best of friends. Maxine was named after my own grandfather, apparently a crusty old banker, who died just before I was born. Her children grew up playing with my sister and me; the four of us a little band of wiry, silly innocents who spent a large part of our childhood sharing many afternoons, weekends, and some family vacations just so our mothers could spend time together as often as they could.
When one woman went through hard times, the other was always there, through family troubles, money problems and a thousand other things. Together, they made a fearless and undefeatable duo. I vividly remember my mother sitting on the stairs, stretching and twirling the 6-foot-long telephone cord around her fingers as she laughed on the phone with Maxine most evenings after dinner. And in the end, when my mother drew her last breath in a hospital bed after a yearlong battle with leukemia, Maxine was there to cry with me. My parents weren't able to live to see their grandchildren, so in their stead Maxine and her family have always showered my children with love whenever we've been able to go home to visit.
I write these memories of Maxine because I happened to catch a show on television yesterday afternoon. It was the last episode of a series called Making Australia Happy. The show chronicled a journey of eight people in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, as they worked to try to be happier through a progression of evidence-based strategies. One of those recommended on the show by Dr. Tony Grant, an expert on this subject, was to write a letter of gratitude to someone who's never been properly thanked for bringing happiness to your life. A few minutes after the show ended, my sister called me from Los Angeles to say she'd just spoken with Maxine's daughter.
Alzheimer's has been ravaging Maxine's mind in the last few years, to the point that she would now need to be heavily sedated and under special medical management away from her loving husband. He and the rest of her family cannot continue to care for her. Maxine no longer recognizes her family and, having first been introduced to Alzheimer's when I took care of my own grandmother at the age of 22, I know it must be terrifying for her.
I decided I needed to write Maxine a letter, then and there. One that forced me to dig deep and recall the many beautiful things that she had been part of throughout my life. I can't read it to her myself, as she's far beyond being able to comprehend it or even know who I am. I write it here now for Maxine's family. For my sister. And for me. And so....
You have brought joy to our family for so many years. My childhood photo album overflows with images of laughter and fun times shared with you. I can hardly remember a time that you weren't near my mother whenever you needed each other. Together you rejoiced in the good times and held on to each other during scary times. You were cousins, but more than that, you were sisters in every sense of the word. Through that love, you both taught me the value of becoming fearless and treasuring those who are most important.
I thank you for your gentle ways. Your calm and peaceful smile. When I hear your laugh -- so similar to my mother's -- it always sends me whirling back to memories of my childhood as well as imaginings of the lifetime you both spent growing up together. I remember with fondness that knowing look that always passed between you. Thank you for loving my children when they were babies just like their own grandmother would. My sons love you too, and will never forget you.
I appreciate beyond words that it was you who stood next to me and held my hand when Mother died. I'm sure she loved that we were there together at that moment. I know she waits for you. And someday you'll be together again, watching over us all. For now, I hope somehow you can know how many people have been touched by your love and kindness. You have made life better for me and many others. And I am grateful.
Fearless friends, I ask you to read these simple, powerful strategies from Dr. Grant to start on or help you further along your own journey to happiness. Engaging with others around you, becoming a volunteer, forgiving others and showing gratitude are some of the key ingredients that make up a happy life. And don't wait another day to write a heartfelt letter of thanks to someone who's made a difference to you. Composing and sharing what's in your heart is an exercise in love and a validation of your journey to those who've helped you along the way.
This is your one and only life, and how happy and fearlessly you live it is completely up to you.
I thank you for letting me share some of mine.
For more by Ree Varcoe, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.