Some people we meet change the course of our lives. Michelle was one of those people.
I had never seen, or maybe never noticed, this picture until I was recently looking through old wedding photos. Sometimes it takes a loss to notice the beauty of our lives, all around us.
We lost her two years ago this Christmas. The fact that her year battle with cancer ended on the day of Christ’s birth, the day most associated with joy and love on the Christian calendar, came as no surprise to me.
Michelle was one of the people that knew who she was; knew what she was about. You could tell that right when you met her.
She grew up in the kind of place where everyone takes care of each other and knows you by name. She carried this innate sense of community, of hospitality, kindness, and warmth with her.
I met her my Senior year, after my first Mass. Coming home from studying abroad in Italy over the Summer and coming off of a year of theological discussions with an RA I worked with, I decided to give the crazy Catholics a chance and learn more before writing them off as heretics.
As I walked out of the Church, fully planning to go back to my dorm room and catch up on my DVR’d Passports to Europe like the nerd that I am, she stopped me in the lobby with a simple hello.
Sometimes that’s all that it takes.
After brief introductions, she invited me downstairs to a Newman Center community night so she could introduce me to some of her people.
While TV in sweats was intriguing, I said yes. If I was really going to give learning more about their faith a go, I knew that meeting people and getting involved was part of the package.
Faith done well is always more than a Sunday service.
That night, Michelle paraded me around the crowd and I left invited to a Bible study and scheduled to meet with her the next week to learn more about why she believed what she believed.
Michelle had a knack for that; inviting people into her life with such ease that it felt like you were long lost friends. Our personalities, even our interests, were in a lot of ways on the opposite end of the spectrum, but she never saw that.
She just saw a sister striving to know the truth.
Michelle lived out joy, true belly-laughing joy, in a way that was such a stark contrast to a world so dark, to a college campus so cynical. She didn’t mind acting goofy and inviting others into it.
She was one of the people that didn’t have an ounce of artificial in her body. Her authenticity in her faith, in her identity in Christ, drew people in. It drew me in.
Without her taking the time to meet with me and go through this book each week, taking the time to invite me into her life and vibrant community, taking the time to be my friend, my life would look very different.
Her patience and willingness to dialogue as I brought my list of defenses and arguments against her beliefs allowed me the freedom to wrestle.
Her wisdom to first see what we had in common, which I was surprised to see was the good majority, eased my fears.
Her friendship and love completely unconditional on if I became Catholic or not gave me the support and community I needed to know I was not running the race alone.
I did join the Church that year because I felt it was the place where I could grow in my relationship with Him the best.
I came to know and truly believe that, as Christians, we are one body far more than we’re not. That’s what the love of Michelle, regardless of our differences, helped me see.
I was able to visit her in November, a month before she passed away, in Chicago.
I lost it. The entire time. This picture was as I said goodbye right before losing it again.
The grief I felt seeing my good friend, my mentor, suffering so deeply shook me hard.
I visited with her parents, boyfriend, and sister and they shared stories about the light Michelle was to everyone in the hospital. So many patients, doctors, and nurses lives were touched by her.
When I was visiting, two nurses held one of Michelle’s hands in theirs and began to pray for her while shedding tears. These two women had known Michelle since her first hospital visit earlier that year and had watched her live out her faith and love everyone she encountered. Despite the circumstances. Until the end.
At her funeral, they put a copy of this letter Michelle wrote to Jesus when she felt she didn’t have much longer.
What a beautiful closing act, what a beautiful way to live.
Her birthday was last week and many people on Facebook commented on her page and shared pictures with her. The way she lived her life had an eternal impact on everyone she encountered and many she never even met.
She has competed well; She has finished the race; She has kept the faith. – 2 Tim 4:7-8
Today as I reflect on her life, I am encouraged to be softer in dialogue, find the common ground, and love fiercely, unconditionally.
We love you, Michelle, and we hope to see you soon.