Last week was a sad and sobering one for me. Two people whose lives had intersected with mine in very different ways passed away in the same week. The reality is that death is part of life, and at my age that reality hits you in the face more frequently than it used to, but these two cases in particular reminded me of the important message conveyed in Linda Ellis’s poem The Dash. These two individuals had never met, and their interests and talents were miles apart. But in reflecting on their lives and the loss being felt by those left to grieve, what is striking for both of them is the powerful impact each of them left on so many, many people. They both had a natural gift for mentoring others and used this gift to full advantage; they both lives their dashes exceedingly well.
As it happens, both of these gentlemen were teachers. One was a popular and respected retired biology teacher, who also directed outstanding annual high school musical productions for decades and took groups of students on international trips, enriching their learning experiences in further ways. In his retirement, he organized and guided international tours for the general public, which were similarly popular. Our local Choral Society sang happy birthday to him on the Tuesday evening to celebrate his 70th birthday, all was apparently well, and then he passed away very suddenly that same Sunday. His dash was full to overflowing, but he has left a shocked and saddened community of friends and admirers.
The other loss wasn’t a surprise, because this former computer science colleague of mine had been suffering from advanced cancer for 18 months, but the world should not be losing a star computer science researcher and teacher at the age of 49. Although this person had left my university, UNB, many years ago for another institution, the four years he spent with us near the beginning of his career had a significant impact on our students, on the way we collaborated with each other, and on our approach to curriculum design. He was intelligent, innovative, collaborative, funny, and always engaged, full of new ideas and wanting to help make things work. We have always felt fortunate to have him with us at UNB for as long as we did. I can’t imagine how difficult his painful illness and subsequent loss must be for his family, because it is difficult enough for those who worked with him and those who learned from him.
These most recent sad deaths remind me anew of how none of us know when our time will come. We never know when we may not be able to run again – or walk, or travel again, or see (and hence read) any more. And we never know when we won’t wake to a new day. So, while we’re here – and while we have our health – it’s important to make every day count. Don’t end up with a list of regrets. Our kindnesses to others count far more than the number of meetings we attend or whether we have the latest cool thing. Unfortunately we keep having to be reminded of this in the most painful ways. Linda Ellis’s poem undoubtedly says it better than I ever could.
RIP Jim Myles and Alex Lopex-Ortiz.
The Dash by Linda Ellis
I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end.
He noted that first came her date of her birth
And spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not how much we own;
The cars, the house, the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard,
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left,
That can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.
And be less quick to anger,
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect,
And more often wear a smile
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.
So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?
© 1996 All Rights Reserved, Linda Ellis