More Than Just a Day
The Day of Hope Carnival and all it stands for.
I was pleasantly surprised last week when I was roused from my sleep Friday morning by the welcoming chime of my doorbell rather than the irritating hum of an alarm clock.
Friday was a day I couldn't wait for yet simultaneously dreaded. I was going to celebrate life, hope and youth at the Day of Hope Carnival, energy I would need to carry me through the rest of the day. Later that evening I was to meet family at Concannon's for a benefit for my cousin, an amazing drummer who embodies life and happens to be battling liver cancer - nothing he can't handle. We were told to put on our dancing shoes and show up ready to celebrate. I didn't think twice. I also know too well that life can change in a minute and Friday morning I woke (pulling my covers over my head, for just five more minutes) knowing I might very well be saying goodbye to a loved one later that evening and wishing I could put the day off altogether.
I am so happy my doorbell rang when it did.
As I opened my front door, slightly bleary-eyed, I was greeted by a genuine smile on the face of my friend Maureen’s son Aengus. Standing before me, clad in pajama bottoms, he was grinning ear-to-ear and just so excited to see Joey and join us for the Day of Hope Carnival.
I threw open the screen door and attacked one of my favorite boys, laughing, smiling and giving him a hug so tight he told me I was squeezing the life out of him.
While I was packing our bag for the day and giving the boys a few snacks, as nine-year-old boys are always hungry, Aengus kept coming into the kitchen - to tell me a story or say hi, but mostly to give me a hug.
Between the hugs and getting things ready for our day, I thought of all of the afternoons and evenings Aengus and and his mom surprised Joey and I at our front door - always greeting us with the widest, most enthusiastic smiles.
Having lost his mother only two weeks earlier I was amazed by this little boy and thought, how can people complain about such petty things all day, everyday when here is a child whose world just came to a crashing halt? He is trying to continue to be a little boy when everything he knows is gone. I thought about all of the trivial things we spend our time on, things we put ahead of our own children, our friends, even ourselves, and I wanted to scream and yell at everyone.
And at that moment Lee Kennedy came to mind.
If anyone has a reason to be angry, bitter and down right angry, it is Lee. She has not only lost her daughter, I hate to even write those words, but she has seen so many families - parents, children, siblings, friends - go through something no one should experience. And she is far from angry. She is the most giving, warm, compassionate, loving person I have ever had the privilege and honor of knowing and calling my friend.
I knew Friday was going to be an emotional day, for many reasons. Any Circle of Hope event brings back memories of Michelle and further increases the already enormous amount of love and respect I have for Lee.
The mere mention of the Circle of Hope reminds me of the fragility of life and the strength of a mother’s love. I am continually enamored and inspired by Lee’s strength. I look at her at the Civic, sitting behind the counter and think, "how do you do this?"
I have known Lee since I was six and never have I seen a softer side of my dear friend. It's as if she is not only doing this for Michelle but for all of the children in Norwood. Her heart is so big and her arms are so open when she could very well be living a life holding on to anger and bitterness, but she does not. She exhibits love, to everyone.
Regardless of how many years it has been since the day my mother told me Michelle passed away, and now watching Aengus, knowing how much my friend did not want to leave her son, and being a mother myself makes every day even that much more important. The thought of losing Joey, the thought he could one day have to battle an illness such as leukemia, is unbearable and absolutely unimaginable. I can not imagine what Lee and Michelle fought through together. I can not imagine the courage and strengh it takes for a mother to stand up year after year and relive her daughter's life.
And I can’t even begin to imagine Aengus' life without a mother.
My heart aches for “what should have been.” What should have been for Michelle, and for Michelle and Lee. What should have been for Aengus and Maureen.
I lost someone very special to me to leukemia when I was in my twenties, just around the time Michelle passed away. I do not, not for a moment, understand nor try to compare the losses I have experienced to what Lee feels, or what a child such as Aengus has to go through, but we all understand loss. But when I see a woman with such strength, humility, grace and a heart so big - that I am sure is full of hurt and aching - I am amazed because I know the expression “time heals all wounds” is frankly not nearly as accurate as people would like to believe.
Yes we move on, we have no other choice. The initial shock and sting does eventually subside. The numbness that follows the pain also begins to fade and we awaken, because we have to. But the pain never fully goes away. The void is always there.
In my opinion it actually grows a little deeper with time. Holidays, memorable events, the change of seasons, even small moments that may seem inconsequential to others can bring you to your knees out of the blue. Once you lose someone you love, forever, time does not heal the pain, time is actually a brutal reminder of what you are missing and “what should have been.”
Every Circle of Hope event reminds me of Michelle and brings me that much closer to Lee. Each event truly is a testament to Michelle’s life – to her personality, her beauty and her dreams.
As much as everything related to the Circle of Hope, to Michelle and especially to Lee brings me near tears, the Day of Hope Carnival this year was much more than I expected.
Michelle was absolutely everywhere.
Michelle’s laughter was heard in the voices of the children throughout the day. At times it felt as if someone captured her laughter on a tape and amplified it through the air. She was the music radiating across the field. Her young life and her youth were present again, and all her life stands for was evident in the faces and smiles of the children and adults all day.
With each new song the DJ played and each time I saw a new group of girls dancing, I thought of the girl with the walkman, bopping her head back and forth, quietly singing that first day we met in 1980. Her youth was cut short, but on Friday her youthful spirit, the essence of Michelle, was felt in every second of the four hours of the carnival.
She should have been at that dunk tank. Children were “dunking” a Yankees fan - nothing more suiting, as Michelle would have been the first to not only dunk him but probably throw a few pies in his face.
As I watched girls just about twelve years old belting out the lyrics to “Don’t Stop Believing,” (a song I was surprised they knew, let alone requested) I smiled. I stood off to the side thinking of the girl who made this day possible and wished she was dancing in the crowd.
The song ended with the girls repeating, “Hold on, hold on for another day,” well after the song was over.
As the next song started up, a song I love but knew I could not listen to, a brown-eyed, brown-haired girl turned around and gave me a thumbs up. Her request was finally being played.
Aengus, Joey and their friends came running towards me with a big smiles as the song “I"ll Never Let You Fall” by Rascal Flats began playing. My eyes filled with tears as I looked at their smiling faces covered in sticky cotton candy. I had just said goodbye to my friend Lee, thanking her for another beautiful day.
I took one last look at the Day of Hope banner and all of the handprints of the children and as I listened to the music. I thought of Lee and Michelle, of Aengus and Maureen and all of the parents and children who are fighting the fights of their lives.
Thank you, Lee, for teaching me so much. I love you.