In my work I try to highlight different ways that we can live the lives we want to live. To explore how we have more control than we think we do over how we react to the uncontrollable. To encourage questioning the status quo in order to make our little corners of the world better places to be. To be ok with what we are feeling and not judge ourselves. To see the best in others and in ourselves and to have faith that we aren’t in this alone, that we are connected to one another, and that even when it may not feel like it, especially when it doesn’t feel like it, the universe has our backs.
Two years ago I met a woman who was living those ideals more authentically than anyone I had ever met. My friend Carol had stopped by for a visit and began telling me about her friend, Mary Ann Wasil, an extraordinary woman who I just had to meet. Carol is an extraordinary woman herself so when she says I need to meet someone, I take it seriously. She told me Mary Ann had written a book and so being the bookworm that I am, I immediately downloaded it. I read it in a day. In a nutshell, her book, A Diary of Healing, My Intense and Meaningful Life with Cancer, is the story of how Mary Ann had been diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently started the Get in Touch Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to provide breast health initiatives that educate guys and gals of all ages about how to get in touch with their bodies, the importance of breast self-exams, and how to do them. I was blown away by everything she had experienced, but more than that, I was blown away by her grace and humor and by how much I laughed while reading the book. I cried too, sometimes in awe of what she had been through and sometimes in awe of how she handled it all — with unwavering faith, hope, humor, and even outright joy. I immediately emailed Carol my thoughts about the book. Carol in turn forwarded my email to Mary Ann and copied me saying, “Forgive me for sharing your very private and personal email to me but nobody will appreciate this entire email chain more than Mary Ann,” and we all planned to meet for dinner.
I loved Mary Ann instantly. It’s rare to meet someone and have them become one of your favorite people from the moment you meet them. She had this way about her that is difficult to put into words but you felt it in her presence and learned so much by watching the way she lived her life and cared for people. Some of her mantras were, “choose joy,” “hope lives,” “sometimes eat cake for breakfast,” and my favorite, “hug people a second longer than you think you should, a second longer than you think is appropriate.” These weren’t just sayings to Mary Ann, they were principles by which she lived every moment of her life.
In every moment, we have a choice about the kind of person we want to be and the way we want to show up in the world.
Mary Ann passed away last month. I would normally feel as if the world somehow got a little less bright with Mary Ann’s passing and maybe it did for us in the sense that we can’t physically hear her voice, or her incredible laugh, or feel her life-affirming just a second too long hugs. But Mary Ann and her family have taught me so much about life, loss, death, and living with dying. I truly feel her around me. I see her in every bright pink flower and while in the process of writing this, I caught sight of a Les Mis poster and a billboard for Spotify highlighting nuns “rocking out” — things that would have made Mary Ann smile — and I just know she will continue to show up in these little ways. If I close my eyes I can almost feel her hugs and in each moment I have a choice of whether or not I am going to react with sadness or with joy and gratitude for having known her. For now, there’s a bit of both in my heart.
In every moment, we have a choice about the kind of person we want to be and the way we want to show up in the world. When we are faced with something difficult — anything from traffic jams or subway delays to illness or loss — we have a choice in how we react. It’s not about faking joy, it’s about making a genuine choice. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for grief, sadness, anger, or frustration, and it’s so important to be true to your feelings. At the same time, we need to remember that we can choose which feelings we want to most influence the way we think and how see the world.
I am writing this as a thank you to Mary Ann and her family. For reminding me each and every day that we can go deeper, love more, and that we have a choice in how we react to the things that happen to us, and in how we react to one another. To me, there is no better example of owning your life.