To See the Face of God

The following post is a modified version of the “remembrance” I offered at my daughter’s celebration of life on January 30, 2022. Elizabeth Anne died on December 21, 2021, just hours shy of her 29th birthday.

“Take my love/For love is everlasting /And remember the truth that once was spoken/To love another person/Is to see the face of God.”

When my daughter, Elizabeth, was a preschooler, I took her for the first time to see the musical Les Miserables – and these beautiful lines tie the entire theatrical piece together as all of the actors merge on stage in the finale.  The line “to love another person is to see the face of God” hangs in the air as the full chorus joins.

For those who have not had the joy of experiencing this three-hour musical, the storyline is based on the 19th century novel by Victor Hugo.  It is a story of redemption – of love, not just between partners, but the deep love between parent and child and the love that connects humanity – of revolution – of kindness – of second chances – of untimely death – death before life even really begins.

Despite being precocious, I’m pretty sure my 5-year-old didn’t grasp the full message of the musical, and yet, the lessons were not wasted on her.  Time and again, Elizabeth waged her own revolution – a revolution of kindness and action.  She believed in the inherent good of all people, and she believed that collectively we are called to make this world a better place.  Les Miserables created a space for my daughter to realize how deeply intertwined all of our lives are.

It is no surprise, then, that after being diagnosed with a brain tumor her junior year in college, Elizabeth wanted to control the narrative – to use her story to teach others to live – to help others realize their own interconnectivity to others.  As her mother, I marveled at her inherent ability to bring people together – to inspire them to live their best lives – to control their own actions and reactions to events over which they have no control.

For the last 8 years, Elizabeth was determined to NOT be defined by her brain tumor.  It was early – perhaps days after her seizure in Denmark – that she adopted the mantra, “She stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails.”  In fact, she used the tag line “Adjust Your Sails” to center her own story, and to teach the rest of us that we are not defined by the circumstances of life – that we choose our responses – our actions – our words.

To say that her journey was an easy one or one that wasn’t filled with fear, sadness, or even anger, would not be honest.  Elizabeth – like all of us – had anxiety about the future.  In 2019, when we believed she was simply going to have a second brain surgery, the neurologist’s news that she had an inoperable second tumor as well as an invasive cancer of her spinal fluid took her breath away.

And yet – even in the midst of facing stage four brain cancer – she looked for ways to use her journey to teach the rest of us how to truly live – how to pay attention to the tiny details of life – you know, the ones we often miss or take for granted:  the snuggles or kisses from a doting dog, the joy of music, the gift of ice cream, the bear hug from a friend, the soft touch of a hand on the shoulder, or the beauty of flowers.  She taught us not to get hung up in the things over which we have no control and to understand that at the end of the day, love is really the only thing that matters.

Over the past two years, Elizabeth and I had the gift of spending a lot of time together.  We talked about her hopes and dreams that would never transpire.  We talked about all she had accomplished as a young person, and we talked about the legacy she was leaving through her passion for raising funds for brain tumor research.  After all, not many people facing their own mortality weave hundreds of hot pads to raise thousands of dollars.  We talked about how the lessons of her life and the Adjust Your Sails mantra were reaching people she would never know.

And we talked about the moment when family and friends would gather to celebrate her life – the moment when I could share what she wants the world to know:  to remember that we have one shot at every day and those days are limited; to spend time on relationships that matter; to let go those situations or relationships that don’t bring us joy; to see the good in the world; to be the good through our actions and our words; and to love deeply.  After all, “to love another person is to see the face of God,” and because loved and have been loved by Elizabeth, I have seen the face of God.

Elizabeth Anne filled this world with light and love

Adjusting Our Sails

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” Epictetus

Somewhere along the journey of life, I adopted the philosophy of the Stoics – understand what I can control and what I cannot control in this world. Perhaps, in childhood naivete, I simpily felt happier when I focused on the moment, choosing to respond to life by redirecting myself to experience moments of joy. As an adult, I have spent the last several years intentionally thinking about who I am, the events in my life (catastrophic and insignificant) that have led me to this point – in this space – in this moment.

Like so many others across this planet, I am drawn to the philosophy of the Stoics – a philosophy nearly 2,000 years old – because it acknowledges suffering, heartache, and pain; it also offers concrete ways to lean into living – to be present in the moment. Those of us who practice this philosophy rely on its four virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. After all, have we “found anything better than being brave, than moderation and sobriety, than doing what is right, than truth and understanding?” (“What is Stoicism?)

As I have written before, this is not an easy mindset to adopt, but I believe it is an important one for it develops resiliency, positivity, and authenticsim. It allows us to face the reality of life in the scariest of moments, and it forces us to understand that we can only control our responses to situations and to others.

For example, when neither of my parents showed up at my senior band concert to for the recognition ceremony, I turned to my sister in the flute section, hugged her, and gifted her the rose the band director had handed me. In the moment, I couldn’t understand why my best friends and their families were emotional- many feeling sorry for me. In that moment, subconciously, I chose not to focus on what appeared to be a traumatic experience to others. Instead, I turned to someone I love dearly – someone I have protected and encouraged her entire life.

I share the senior band moment, because it reflects a mindset many of us hold but don’t fully understand until our feet have kissed the earth for many years – until we gain wisdom. Life has been filled with those moments, and I am realizing that I have nurtured in my own children and others I mentor. When life doesn’t pan out like we had hoped or we are in the moment of crisis, we can “adjust our sails.” When we realize that we can only control our emotions – our words – our actions, we can face whatever challenges we experience. We can get one step closer to authentic living.