I believe the secret to living a happy life is to be fully conscious – to be alive and awake to your life. Being alive and awake can have its downsides, certainly. It’s no fun to feel sad, or to experience loss. But when you are alive and awake, even the most painful experience provides an opportunity to learn something and to grow.
I went to a funeral this week, and, although it was sad, I was reminded of something very valuable. My friend Pamela Gardner Ahearn died quite suddenly; she was 52 and had led an extraordinary life. As a protocol officer at the State Department, she knew many famous, even legendary, people who influenced history. But it was as a friend that Pam had the most impact.
The way people responded to her death showed me that. Folks showed up. They pitched in. They reached out. They cared for her husband, her mother, her sisters, nieces and nephews. They came because they knew Pam would have done it for them, had the situation been reversed.
I was in my mid-20s when I met Pam. I worked at the White House doing Presidential events; Pam worked at the State Department and dated one of my colleagues, who, after a courtship of 13 years or so, became her husband. There is such a vibrant connection between those of us who worked together in those days. Maybe it's that we were young, with a lot of responsibility, working in high pressure situations. We needed to trust and rely each other to get the job done. Happily, that connection is still there.
It’s a bittersweet thing to look forward to seeing long-lost friends at such a sad occasion, but that’s what it was for me. Friends came from California, from New England, from New York, from Tennessee, from down the street. You know how you have friends who you can pick right up with, even if you don’t talk for months or years? It’s that way with these people. And I was so happy to see them.
At the funeral, my old boss Jim told some funny stories about Pam and poignantly noted that he had never told Pam how much he admired her and appreciated her friendship. It was a heartfelt admission from a rather tough guy.
I thought about how often I tell my friends and family how important they are to me. Not often enough. I glanced around the church and realized I was sitting in a pew with people very dear to me, people I admire, people who I have worked with in extremely challenging situations. One row ahead was a woman with such strong values and priorities – her sense of compassion, caring and kindness continues to serve as a model to me. Across the way was one of my favorite couples – people whose down-to-earth nature endures despite their high-profile positions. Behind me was one of the first friends I made as an adult in Washington, DC. Handing out programs was a former Senate staffer turned at-home mom – one of the most insightful women I know. On the other aisle was a woman who has been very generous to me, and others. Among the pallbearers was a man who gave me a sound piece of advice at a time I needed it most – he said, “Act in ways you can be proud of when the crisis has passed.” Good advice from a good man.
Everywhere I looked were people I love, people I have relied on, people who have enriched my life.
And I doubt I’ve ever told them that.
How about you? Do you have people in your life you rely on, who you appreciate, who you admire – yet haven’t told them how you feel?
One of the other speakers was a lovely woman who grew up with Pam in Nashville. They met in sixth grade and had a friendship which endured forty years. Forty years! How did they do it? “We worked at it,” she said, simply. And I realized, in that moment, that I need to work at it, too.
That evening, I got a call from one of my dearest friends who was also at the funeral. She and I have shared so many of life’s challenges, but our schedules are such that we don’t see each other that often. She left me a voice message, just to tell me she loved me. She was working at it. As I will, too.
I’m going to give you a homework assignment – is there someone, or several people, you need to work at it with? Who need to hear just how important they are to you? More importantly, are there people you need to say “I love you” to? I’ll bet the answer is yes. So, take a minute and write a note, send an email, leave a voice message, or, better yet, grab a cup of coffee and look your friend in the eye and tell them what they mean to you.
Pam’s eyes would twinkle at the thought.