This week I lost someone who was like a sister to me, my cousin Emily. My grief is nothing compared to that of her husband and two children and brother and parents. But oh, what a grief.
Emily’s life was a gift to all who knew her.
“I have so many joyful memories of Emily,” I said to my husband, Dana, on our drive to be with her family as she lay in the critical care unit of a Canadian hospital. “Actually, every memory I have of Emily is joyful.”
Every single one.
That was Emily’s particular genius – a love of life so exuberant that it simply could not be suppressed. Not by being diagnosed with thyroid cancer shortly after her first child turned one. Not by fourteen years of intermittent treatment that slowly destroyed her ability to talk and swallow and breathe. Not by discovering that the cancer had spread and she’d need another round of chemotherapy.
“Just give me the summer,” she’d said to her doctors.
And so Emily – being Emily – packed the summer full of trips to the beach, just down the street from her family’s Massachusetts’ home; and dinners with friends, and chauffeuring her 15-year-old musician son and his bandmates to gigs, and nurturing the budding artistic talent of her 12-year-old daughter, and hanging out with her motocross riding husband at the racetrack, and sewing and cooking and using her brilliant eye behind the camera to photograph it all while planning a much-anticipated trip to Prince Edward Island.
Wasn’t it a bit remote? her parents asked.
Maybe we should skip it, her husband, Matt, said, seeing how tired Emily was.
But not Emily.
Are you crazy?
Pack the bikes. All four of them
“Whatever you want babe,” Matt said, even though Emily hadn’t been able to ride a bicycle in years. And so he loaded the bikes, because Emily was his girl, and Matt was going to do whatever she wanted to make this summer shine.
They set off for the island on Monday, bounding over the Trans-Canada Highway in the ‘NeuroVan,’ the 20-year-old, chili-pepper red VW bus that Emily had bought one year before because it was big enough to haul around the kids, their friends and all of their band equipment. Never one to sit on the sidelines, on Tuesday Emily had one of the best days of her life, jumping in the waves and playing Frisbee on the beach with her kids. But by Wednesday morning, she was having more difficulty breathing. Doctors at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown discovered an abscess in her throat that required emergency surgery, from which Emily never woke up. Thursday night, her family made the difficult decision to remove her from life support. And by Saturday, with her loved ones holding hands around her bed, Emily was gone.
The outpouring of love and support for Emily’s family on social media has been awe-inspiring, but no surprise, knowing how Emily loved and inspired so many people – from former art and drama students to fellow teachers to folks she met at the beach or grocery store, who soon became fast friends. Emily was the zaniest, most creative, fun-loving, courageous, artistic, brilliant and kindest person I have ever met. She didn’t just make art out of the free-flowing pillows and blankets and bags she cut and stitched and sold at craft fairs and gave to friends, she made art out of life.
And even when life threw the worst it had at one of the people who loved it most, Emily never once turned her back on life or the people she shared it with. ‘Love BIG,’ she signed her health updates to friends through her blog, aptly named Sunny, with a Chance of Can-sah. And so for Emily, that’s what I plan to do. To love as big as the next breath. As big as life. As big as the love that shines over us all.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Lantern Hill Light Parade, the fourth book in her Lantern Hill Farm children’s picture-book series, is available now.