One random Saturday, when I was a mere twelve years old, my parents, along with my sister and I, went to visit some family members who lived nearby. We actually visited these relatives somewhat often during my youth and on this occasion, our visit began as such visits normally did. We arrived, ate lunch and sat by the pool.
Eventually, after a couple of hours in the hot sun, and after going for a quick swim and diving from the diving board a few times, I went back inside the house and sat down to watch some television.
This really was just another ordinary visit up until that point.
But a few minutes after settling into the comfortable living room sofa and flicking on the tv, everything changed when my 18-year old cousin, Lauren, asked me to follow her into the kitchen. I immediately followed her until she stopped in the far corner, right next to the refrigerator, where, without a word, she removed the winter hat that she always wore on her head. And then, as I stared in shock at the 50 or so large metal staples that ran from one end of her scalp to the other, all helping keep a long, freshly made incision from opening up, Lauren just looked at me and smiled.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I just wanted to show you in case you were wondering why I always wear this hat.”
Ever since I had been able to understand anything, I had understood that Lauren was sick. But as a young child, it was impossible for me to fully realize what such an illness actually meant. And so, despite my parents telling me over and over again that Lauren had had another surgery to remove tumors from her brain, I always assumed that she would be fine in the end.
That is, until that very moment in the kitchen. Now I suddenly understood that Lauren was battling much more than a simple nuisance, such as a cold or the flu, and that her battle was more difficult than I could ever imagine. And with this realization came the discovery that life just might not be as easy as I had so naively believed. Requiring brain surgery and then having industrial-sized staples placed into one’s head was not something I had ever considered as a real possibility in life.
But now that I had seen it with my own eyes, it became apparent that such a terrible disease, along with countless other illnesses, accidents and life-altering obstacles, could surprise anyone, at any time. This was the day I learned that we are merely human beings, not super humans.
After I left the kitchen and returned to the living room, and as I still tried to process the influx of new thoughts, I sat back down on the sofa and turned on the television once again. However, I of course couldn’t focus on the television at all, and instead chose to observe Lauren as she moved around the house.
It didn’t take long for my observations to have a powerful effect on me, more powerful even, than the moment Lauren had removed her winter hat. Despite the staples in her scalp, despite her long battle with brain cancer and the never-ending surgeries, I’m not sure I had ever seen someone smile as much as she did. Despite the semi-frequent stumbles, when the tumors would interfere for a brief moment with the messages sent from her brain to other parts of her body, despite knowing that her life was going to be cut way too short, she continued to smile.
Observing Lauren that day changed me completely. First, I realized that, as a 12 year old boy, I knew nothing about the realities of life. But what stuck with me the most was without a doubt that smile. I realized that being able to walk around every day with such a smile and with such appreciation for what one has in life should be the goal of every single person. If Lauren could find the positive even in her own, impossibly difficult situation, I felt that I owed it to her and myself to make sure that I too would be smiling so brightly no matter where my life took me.
So, fast forward to today. I’m definitely a happy guy but I certainly, like most people, don’t have a permanent smile attached to my face. However, I must say that every day that I find myself interacting with new people, visiting and learning about new places and cultures around the world, my smile is as present and bright as Lauren’s.
That is why I’m now starting to realize that what drives me to constantly wander this planet is not actually my fear of living a life that is full of regrets, but my desire to achieve a goal I set for myself so many years ago, on that random Saturday afternoon, instead.
Lauren passed away at the age of 19, exactly twenty-one years ago this month. In honor of her, I encourage you to take a moment to remember that life is always worth smiling about, no matter how difficult or frustrating our situation may seem to be.