My husband Brad and I attended a memorial service a few weeks ago for a person we hadn’t known well. Between the two of us, we’d probably engaged in fewer than a dozen ten-minute conversations with Dennis in the several years we were acquainted with him. Yet as Brad observed, he always walked away from even the briefest conversation with Dennis feeling lighter and more positive. It seemed important to honor that, and so, on a Saturday morning in early May we slipped into one of the back pews to pay our respects.
As we waited quietly for the service to begin, I read the obituary printed on the inside of the program. I knew Dennis had been a quarterback for the University of Nebraska Huskers back in the 1960s, but I hadn’t known he’d also been drafted by the NFL. Turns out, he attended the University of Nebraska’s College of Dentistry during the NFL off seasons until he was asked by the dean to make a choice between full time school and football. The obituary noted that Dennis chose dentistry and never looked back.
The eulogy offered us further insights into Dennis’ character. We heard, for example, that he had used his dentistry skills to help the less fortunate, a passion that was kindled during multiple mission trips to Honduras.
We also learned that he was the kind of person who sought out those who were suffering. On Sunday mornings, the pastor noted, Dennis always made a beeline directly to the person he knew was going through a tough time. In the midst of Dennis’ own three-year battle with cancer, for example, he regularly visited a young man in the congregation who was undergoing chemotherapy at the same time.
As I listened to the eulogy for Dennis, I couldn’t help but recall the last line of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” in which she asks, “So tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The more I thought about the poem’s question in light of Dennis’ obituary and eulogy, the more I realized Oliver isn’t referring to our professional successes, our awards or our accolades – in other words, the kinds of details that might be listed in an obituary.
With the exception of someone like Oprah, most of us won’t be remembered for our professional achievements. Dennis’ accomplishments as a star college quarterback, as a successful orthodontist with his own practice and even as an NFL football player are important, to be sure, but in the end, those professional accomplishments are mere footnotes in the larger story of his life.
What his colleagues, friends, loved ones, and even acquaintances like Brad and I will remember most about Dennis was who he was as a person.
We will remember his kindness, his gregariousness, his genuine smile.
We will remember his generosity and compassion.
We will remember his solid faith.
We will remember the simple fact that chatting with Dennis, even for just five minutes, always gave us a little more spring in our step.
I think Mary Oliver would agree that Dennis lived his “one wild and precious life” well, not because of the extraordinary things he accomplished, but because of how well he lived the ordinary, largely unseen moments of his one life.
Each of us is allowed the same choice Dennis had. The question is: how will we live our “one wild and precious life,” not just in the extraordinary moments, but in all the ordinary moments in between.
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