My first memory of death happened in the sparse backyard of a small, New Jersey apartment my family lived in when I was six years old. I’m the oldest of three girls. My middle sister, being the most adventurous of the bunch, came up with the idea to play with the ants that ran our backyard. These ants were monstrous, with bulbous black bodies that puckered much higher than a standard ant should ever look. We were fascinated by the colony they built high beneath our porch steps.
Camielle quickly scooped one up to examine it a bit closer, and received a hard pinch from the ant biting her in defense of its life. Her first reaction was to clench her fist in pain. When she opened her palm, the ant lay in a heap, unmoving. Camielle was 3 and didn’t understand exactly what she had done, but knew it stopped the ant from being.
She immediately burst into tears of remorse. I gave her a hug and told her we could bury the ant as a way to honor its life. We held a somber funeral in our backyard, digging a pit and placing the ant’s body in a raggedy shoe box to be buried. Although I look back now with an ironic smile on this memory, the pain of losing something before its time was a lesson I always carried in the back of my mind.
My interactions with death grew much stronger over the years. A cousin suffering a brain aneurysm. Having a friend commit suicide. Losing another cousin to a car crash. Almost losing both sisters in accidents a month apart from each other. And most recently, losing a friend to the battle of cancer.
My first impressions of Crystal Ruth Bell were focused on her lovely red hair. It swung past her shoulders and was the most unique natural hair color I had ever seen. Her style was killer and we bonded over the fact that fashion and thrifting are like peanut butter and jelly - a perfect match. We shared a meal at our company’s staff retreat, and it didn’t take long to learn this woman had been through the type of adversity that should validate pessimism and hopelessness. She talked about fighting cancer, traveling to China, her opinions of the brokenness of the U.S. medical system, and everything in between. I was immediately inspired by her quiet perseverance.
As time went on and I shared moments of work and conversations on life with her, I wasn’t conscious of her awareness of her limited time. Crystal moved with a compulsion to live, taking risks most people only dream and philosophize about. She started a non-profit called China residencies, helping artists connect to resources in the region. She spearheaded an app that helps cancer patients and doctors keep track of their case notes. We met while both working at DoSomething.org, where she spent the final hours of her career using UX research to help reach teens and make a difference. In the midst of all this hustle, she battled melanoma, with a grace and dignity most people can’t even achieve when they have the 24 hour bug from a flu. I always assumed she would beat cancer’s ass and took for granted her approach to life, not realizing her spirit came from the stark reality that the odds were stacked against her. Crystal could have taken the bad and used that as her fuel to hate the hand she was given, but instead, spun it into a positive motivator to leave her mark on the world, even in her too short 28 years on this Earth.
Although cancer was her enemy, in a strange way it made her perspective and approach to living much deeper, loving, and free. Mortality is the ultimate motivator. It’s scary, enlightening, and down right bitchy to deal with. I read an infographic recently about happiness, and it claimed that people who have dealt with adversity end up being happier people in the long run when they’re able to put it in perspective and learn from it. I’m gonna be one happy mofo in older years if that’s the truth.
Death makes us get serious about life. We don’t have unlimited time here in the bodies and minds we currently have. If tomorrow was your last day on this earth, would you look back and be happy with what you’ve left behind? Each time I've lost someone to death, when the pain begins to slowly heal, its made me much more in touch with life.
How can we ultimately use the confusing and shocking event of death to live deeper lives of purpose and passion? It's a subject most of us ignore until we're confronted with losing someone, yet it is an undeniable facet of living. I spent this past Monday with blurred vision from an unending crying session when I heard the news about Crystal passing this Sunday, deep in a coma that hit her Sunday morning. It felt so sudden. Many of us knew her cancer had come back strong but truly didn't believe it would take her from us so swiftly. My feelings still sting but I know that if I can take one small lesson from the pain of losing her, is that life is meant to be lived, loved, and grabbed onto fearlessly for as long as we have it. I attended a vigil in honor of Crystal's life yesterday. Friends and old co-workers got together to share funny and happy memories about her, and the impact she had on all of our lives. As each story wound down with laugher, or quiet tears, one friend stood up and talked about Crystal's approach to life and ended with this, “live each day like there’s no tomorrow, and make change each day like there is.” Death, you are wise indeed.