It was a day not unlike any other typical school day. I got up at 5:30 a.m., caught the bus to high school at 6:20 a.m. and was in my second period class. It was February 17, 2005, and it was extremely cold, as it normally is in Colorado that time of year, but the blustery weather did not bother me. I was seeing everything through rose colored glasses because my best friend, who just three months prior had been diagnosed with leukemia, had found a bone marrow donor in New Jersey, a distant east coach angel that would give her the gift of life. As I listened somewhat less attentively than usual to my teacher’s ancient European history discussion, instead thinking more about visiting Brittany later in the week when the final round of chemotherapy was completed, one of the school’s counselors entered the classroom somberly. She asked my teacher if she could take me down to her office and we walked the winding hallways side by side in utter silence. I honestly don’t remember what I was thinking as we proceeded towards her office; I just knew something must be terribly wrong.
Brittany’s path towards recovery had been abruptly cut short. After three months of chemotherapy, radiation, and alternative treatments that never ended, and with a bone marrow transplant on the horizon, Brittany had unexpectedly developed a massive infection that could not be controlled. She had been doing so well, and no one saw it coming. I was told that she had passed away in the early morning hours while I was still sound asleep in my warm, soft bed. My mom was on the phone when I arrived in the office. She was equally devastated not only because Brittany was my dear friend, but because she was also the niece of her best friend. It was a close inner circle. Now someone was missing from it.
As I reflect on that horrific day over four years later, I have finally come to peace with Brittany’s tragic and untimely death, though I doubt I will truly ever understand it. Yet I have realized that we have no choice other than to come to terms with death because it is an integral part of the life process. However, I do not consider Brittany to be truly gone. I believe she lives on in so many ways, and I think that we as a society are just on the threshold of understanding life beyond death and the spiritual continuance and connection that lives on in the day to day lives of everyone who knew the deceased.
In the most simplistic terms, I see Brittany in the spirits, faces, and actions of every person’s life she ever touched. I see her in her mother and how she compassionately and gently treats other people; I see her in her sister and her never ending kindness and understanding; I see her in her aunt and her eternal optimism; I see her in the many friends she had who worked so hard to keep her memory alive within a very large high school environment; and I see her in myself when I try to embrace her passion, patience, and inner peace. She lives on in all of us and always will. I have come to believe that a person’s spirit and soul are truly separate from their earthly body; I’ll never see her smiling face again other than in pictures, but I still see her every day.
During Brittany’s brief but valiant battle with cancer, she embodied so many traits to which the rest of us can only hope to aspire. She exemplified a true sense of inner grace that I had never witnessed before in any other person. Throughout her illness, she never showed any outward signs of fear, although undoubtedly she was terribly frightened. She never complained although she must have often been in excruciating pain. She was always positive and optimistic and tried to keep a smile on her face, even though I know it must have been an incredible challenge. I knew she was struggling, but she didn’t want anyone to know. She never wanted to burden anyone, even though she was facing the biggest battle anyone can ultimately face. Brittany did not have the benefit of growing old and wise, yet her spirit is endless and inspirational. At only fifteen years old, she never even had the opportunity to graduate from high school, go to college, fall in love, raise children, and live a long life.
She was only in the 9th grade, a mere freshman in high school. So what does this say about a teenager who is selfless enough to not want to impose any pain on anyone around her when she was clearly suffering? I often wonder if she thought that she might die, even though she always said that she was going to be okay, and even proclaimed that she planned to run laps around the hospital once she was finally released. Certainly, she thought of others more than herself during this very difficult time. I sometimes wish I had talked to her about death just to know more about her thoughts on the subject; I just don’t think that she ever considered death to be an option, but I’ll never know for sure.
Yet even today I continue to feel Brittany around me, just as I see her in the all people’s lives that she forever touched. She has obviously left her earthly body, but that does not mean she is not present in the lives of those who loved and continue to love her. She had such an incredibly strong spirit and it was not in any way defined by the body that she so briefly resided in; her spirit remains while it has also moved on to its next destination, no doubt to find a higher purpose. She will never truly be gone, nor will the people who knew her and loved her ever let go of what she represented and the joy she brought to their lives.
What ultimately defines a person’s spiritual being both in life and in the afterlife? Is the earthly body and spirit a completely different entity from the heavenly spirit or does it represent an ongoing continuum? Does a person’s spirit die just as the body dies? I contend that it does not because the spirit is never something you can reach out and touch. It is real, but it is not palpable, even in life. You can’t see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, or physically feel it, yet you can sense it. A person’s spirit forever defines their goodness or lack thereof in some circumstances, their impact on other people’s lives, and the innate individual qualities that make that soul unique.
A person’s spirit is not finite by any means, but rather it is all encompassing. It is the inherent essence of the soul of an individual, whether living or deceased. Could anyone truly claim that the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. is dead and gone after his inspirational, albeit abbreviated life and his infamous words, “I have a Dream”? Conversely, doesn’t the spirit of Adolph Hitler similarly still exist in the families that continue to mourn the atrocities endured by the victims of the Holocaust? A spirit is not limited by life or by death, by good or by evil, nor by a moment in time or by eternity.
In life, Brittany was indeed unique and someone many would consider to be a refreshing and optimistic soul, and certainly she continues to be the same years after her passing. No one ever had a negative thing to say about Brittany, even in an often catty high school environment. She was never among what many would consider the “popular” crowd; rather, she hung with members of the Anime Club. She was generally happier reading a book than going to the latest movie. She was quiet and introspective, scientific and analytical, not one interested in parties, dating and high school football games. Wherever she is today, I envision her working with the angels, perhaps on mathematical and scientific innovations that may eventually benefit those of us on earth. She certainly wouldn’t be happy sitting idle. She would always need a challenge and an opportunity to use her amazing brain power. God must have needed her for a much higher purpose.
Surely her untimely death has left her family devastated and questioning why this happened, especially to such a kind and innocent young person. For those of us who knew and loved her, it obviously makes no sense, and I continue to question, but in the end, know that I will someday understand. But I know for a fact that she wouldn’t want sadness or bitterness. That’s not at all what Brittany was about. I believe that she would instead hope that we look inside of ourselves and take a harder look at what purpose we want to fulfill within our own lifetimes.
Life is inherently limited. We all know that someday it will come to an end for each and every one of us. It is very, very sad when it comes to an end prematurely; at least by our standards. But God’s standards may be infinitely different from our own, and in the end, an individual’s legacy to those left behind on this earth cannot be measured by longevity. Further, it does not matter whether a person is a John F. Kennedy, an Albert Einstein, a Mother Teresa or a small town high school student, because it is not the number of lives we are able to touch, but the spirit in which we are able to do it. As long as a life is lived with a sense of true, unabashed passion, the spirit as we know it can never be extinguished in the minds of those left behind. More importantly, for reasons yet to be understood by mere mortals, that spirit has found another place in time, another purpose to fulfill, inevitably choreographed by the most divine power.
When I graduated from high school in 2008, Brittany’s mother gave me a memorable gift. Knowing my love of music and dance, she presented me with a CD by Lee Ann Womack with the feature track being “I Hope You Dance”. The lyrics are inspirational and timeless. In part, they are as follows:
“I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger,
May you never take one single breath for granted,
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed,
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens,
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
and when you get the choice to sit it out or dance –
I hope you dance, I hope you dance.” (MCA Nashville, 2000)
Brittany’s mom, whose daughter should have been in that same procession marching in cap and gown to “Pomp and Circumstance”, receiving her well earned diploma, simply wrote the message, “April, I hope you dance!” At that moment, I once again felt Brittany’s eternal presence.
There is without a doubt a higher plan, in my opinion, for every relationship we encounter on this earth. Brittany and I will see each other again someday, and I have no doubt that she will still have that beautiful, inspirational smile on her face. Still I miss her, but I do know that she is not far away. And when we do meet again, she’ll probably just say something like, “Hey there, April, I missed you, but I told you I was just fine.”
Since that terrible day in 2005 when I found out that my best friend, who was thought to be on the road to recovery, suddenly and unexpectedly lost her battle, I have done a great deal of soul searching and introspection. Sometimes I wonder how the potential and very unselfish bone marrow donor in New Jersey felt when he heard that he matched a young high school girl thousands of miles away and could save the life of this anonymous recipient. I imagine that he must have been excited yet somewhat nervous because the bone marrow extraction from the donor is said to be somewhat uncomfortable. But then I wonder how this man felt when the statistically unlikely match failed to come to fruition. I would think that this stranger must have grieved as well, or at least this is what I want to believe.
Brittany and this unknown New Jersey resident had more than bone marrow in common. Having known and loved Brittany, I knew she was kind, loving, unselfish, and generous. Even though I never knew her potential donor, he obviously embodied the same qualities. And when I say “embodied,” I mean it in a spiritual sense. If Brittany had not suffered a massive infection, a person who had never met her was willing to undergo an invasive procedure in an attempt to save her life. That is a person’s true spirit. It is what defines us, it is who we are in life and thereafter, it is the life we live while we are here on this earth and legacy we ultimately leave behind.
April Bollig is pursuing a degree in Elementary Education at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.