We were cousins who grew up states apart, seeing each other sometimes in the summer. You were two years older than me, always finding out things before I did. Always reaching milestones before me. We survived the traumatic hairstyles of the early 1990s, which inevitably led to us inhaling whole cans of Aquanet over the years.
True warriors, right?
But I didn’t know you like your family knew you. I only have a few memories that still remain sharp, even today.
Here is my favorite one.
In the summer of 2000, my friend and I were driving from Ohio to California, as a celebration of finishing high school. Our first stop was Minnetonka, MN, where we stayed with Grandma Bundy. Our second stop was Sioux Falls, SD, where you had just moved. My friend and I met you at the hair salon where you had just started working. Grinning from ear to ear, you greeted me like an old friend and insisted that we try out this burger place that you loved.
Over burgers and fries and sodas, we talked. You were 20 years old. I was 18. You seemed so much cooler, so much more grown-up than me. Your life was taking off, and it was exciting. You had an apartment of your own. A full-time job. You were the one calling the shots, and you reveled in your freedom.
While we sat there, a song came on that made you howl.
You threw your head back, laughing, saying, I LOVE THIS SONG! And right there in the middle of the restaurant, you belted it out, wiggling in your seat, arms and hips twisting in opposition.
I did not know the song. But you knew it word for word.
The best thing about being a woman
Is the prerogative to have a little fun and
Oh-OH-oh-oh, Go totally crazy, Forget I’m a lady
Men’s shirts, short skirts, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Really go wild, yeah, Doin’ it in style, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Get in the action, Feel the attraction, Color my hair, Do what I dare
I want to be free yeah, to feel the way I feel
Man! I feel like a woman!
Young. Wild. Free.
I think that is how I will remember you best.
Although we didn’t really talk much over the years, I heard updates from my mom. You got a new job. You started a new business. You got married. You became a stepmom. Life was no longer Young and Wild and Free.
Yes, Life had taken off. But instead of riding a rocket to the stars, you found yourself navigating life in a hot air balloon. Fueled by your energy and drive to keep rising. Tethered by so many ropes. Carrying a basket holding all those you loved. You traveled a bit. Then, came back down. Then traveled more. Then, back down. Up and down. Over and over. Your will, the fuel that kept you going.
Did you ever have the chance to ride in a hot air balloon? It seems like it would be just the kind of adventure that you’d like.
Years ago, I went hot air ballooning on my honeymoon. There was a lot about the trip that surprised me, but the most surprising thing was this:
The pilot didn’t have a fixed landing site.
In fact, it was impossible to do so because the trajectory of the balloon shifts as the air currents change. At one altitude, the wind may take the balloon east. At a lower altitude, it may shift west. And so safely landing the balloon requires that the pilot be able to make adjustments and readjustments to the landing process, depending on the air currents and the landscape.
Is there a better metaphor for how many of us live life?
Hard to think of one.
You faced a lot of shifting currents as your life took off. Through the ups and downs, the surprises, the detours, and the unexpected mid-flight landings…
You kept rising.
For that is the true Measure of a Life.
It’s not about how high you rise or how far you travel.
It’s about how many times you get back off the ground.
And it’s about the people you carry and how much you lift them.
That’s what makes the loss of you difficult. You lifted so many others with you.
You shared memes on Facebook about raising teenagers. You seemed to be carrying a lot on your shoulders. One of the last memes that you shared was this:
That line haunts me.
We are almost there.
How could any of us have seen this coming?
How could we imagine a future in which you died so suddenly?
Here one minute. Gone the next.
Your sister reminded us in her first post after your death that, Life is a vapor (James 4:14).
Yes. It truly is.
Even to live 80 years. A vapor.
In the millions of years that life has churned on and on and on.
And yet, what we do matters.
How we live our lives matters.
And when the atmosphere finally swallows the vapor that is our Life, this thing that we so painstakingly lived day after day, all the energy that we poured into our goals, getting up each morning, drinking the coffee, doing the things, making decisions, dealing with the outcomes of the decisions that we made and those that we didn’t, may we all have the perspective to hold to this Truth: All that we did mattered.
Every damn moment of it mattered.
But rest assured, no one does Life perfectly.
The true impact of our lives is measured in how we used that time. Whether we chose Love. Or not.
It’s measured by how often we chose forgiveness over grudges, mercy over vengeance, compassion over resentment, empathy over judgment, inclusion over exclusion, gratitude over envy, contentment over greed.
And so, Alyssa, when you lifted others with your sheer willpower, it mattered.
When you made space in your life for people you loved, it mattered.
When you listened to someone who was hurting, it mattered.
When you apologized for something that you had done wrong, it mattered.
And every time that you gave Love to someone, it mattered.
Love is the whole point.
It’s all that has ever mattered.
A final clear memory that I have of you happened during the summer when your family of six came to visit my family of seven. (How did we fit thirteen people in our tiny 1,000 square foot house? One of life’s great mysteries.) I think you may have been twelve. I can’t remember for sure.
One of the ways that we got everyone out of the house was a trip to Eastwood Lake, a fifteen-minute drive from our house.
We went canoeing.
And as a stepmom to teenagers, I’m sure you can appreciate the recollection of what happened next.
With the surface of the water so still, your father rested the oars against the sides of the canoe and closed his eyes.
Then, to the horror of my siblings, he started singing.
I’ve got peace, like a river
I’ve got peace, like a river
I’ve got peace like a river in my soul…
He didn’t have a bad voice. That wasn’t the issue. It was just Parents are so embarrassing. And what if other people hear him and look at us? What would we even do? Is he ever going to stop? How many verses are in this song?
But after it became clear that your dad was invested in this moment, you threw caution to the wind.
You sang with him.
I’ve got love like an ocean.
I’ve got love like an ocean.
I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul…
Looking back now, it was the right thing to do.
To be present and support those we love is always the right choice.
I believe in a God that sees through us, from top to bottom and beginning to end. I believe in a God who sees all our flaws, our mistakes, our failures, our weaknesses, and our sins. And knows the difference between them.
But I also believe in a God who sees our intentions, our motivations, our faith, our courage, all the things we’ve done right, all the love we gave, and all the goodness we shared.
And finally, I believe in a God that gathers us in and brings us Home.
May you rest forever in the spirit that you lived.
Young. Wild. Free.
If you’d like to help Alyssa’s family in their time of need, you can donate here.