anne mikolay 2012 120I went to a funeral today for a neighbor I hardly knew. She was the face behind the wheel of the mini-van, driving her kids here and there, going to work, waving as she drove by me. I knew her as the nice lady next door. Knew she was involved with her church. Knew she was well liked in the neighborhood. Knew she had a hard-working husband and three beautiful children. And that's about it.

Today, I learned important lessons from this “stranger” next door.

When I heard Jane passed (not her real name), I was dumbfounded. She was only 48 years old. Twelve years ago, she beat breast cancer; sadly and shockingly, she passed away this week from an entirely unrelated cancer. According to her good friend, Jane planned her own funeral, picked the songs, the prayers. Needless to say, I was struck by Jane's bravery. My heart went out to her husband and most especially to her sons and daughter. Such grief at their tender ages is unfathomable to me.

When I entered the church, it was immediately evident that my neighbor was greatly loved. The church was packed with her family and her friends. “Here's a life,” I thought. “That touched many.” Wherever she is now (and I believe it's Heaven), Jane can be extremely proud of the grace and dignity with which her children conducted themselves today (qualities, I can only surmise, learned from her), and the supportive strength of her husband as he gathered their children into his arms. 

In planning her own funeral, Jane was able to “speak” to her family and loved ones on this most difficult day. The first hymn Jane chose was “Be Not Afraid.” Be not afraid...I sincerely hope her sons and daughter were able to receive that message in their sorrow. From the eulogy given by Jane's brother, it was apparent that Jane was not afraid. There I was in the pew, surrounded by great sorrow, and what did Jane's brother say? Jane considered her cancer a gift. A gift! That made me sit up and take notice. According to her brother, Jane regarded her illness as a gift reminding her to treasure life's every moment and hold her family close. That's a remarkable attitude. That's faith most of us can only hope for.

Thanks to a touching eulogy, I learned some things about the “stranger” next door today. She was a swimmer, liked to exercise, enjoyed a party, liked to bake, volunteered wherever she thought she could make a difference, loved life, and was a cherished mother, wife, sister, and daughter. But the most important thing I learned wasn't in the eulogy. It was in the “air”. Amidst the tears and the sorrow, there was an undercurrent of peace, hope, and - dare I say it? - tender joy at Jane's release into what the faithful believe is new life. Again, I can only surmise this came from Jane, the way she lived her life, the way her life touched others, and how she handled her death. Clearly, Jane was a woman of faith, inspiring others even in her passing.

Though Jane's life only lightly brushed with mine, I'm better for it. And that is the greatest lesson I learned today: we should each strive every day to let our lives favorably touch someone else's. You never know the difference you can make, the subtle inspiration you might impart, the faith you might enrich. In her passing, Jane made a difference in my life, and that my friends, is a gift...from a life well lived.

Rest in peace, Jane. I will remember you and your words: Be not afraid...