It was July 4, 1988. A couple of days earlier I'd had some kind of medical episode and I was waiting for medical test results delayed by the holiday, prolonging the angst of what I was sure would be news that my 21-year old life was about to be cut short.
As my family gathered and got ready for the 4th of July parade and other festivities, I remember hugging everyone tighter, a fake smile in all the pictures being taken (to cover the heartbreak), all the while convinced it would be my last Independence Day.
That afternoon, I was invited by Danny & Marcy, my closest friends of that era, to do something amazing... watch the fireworks that night from above Kansas City in a small airplane. I thought it would be a fitting way to spend my last Fourth of July on this planet.
Danny's mother, Betty, had something different going on that evening. She would be hosting a dozen or more severely mentally handicapped individuals for cake and ice cream, etc. She could really use a few extra hands, she told me. I let my friends know that I wouldn't be watching the fireworks from the sky.
At 6 p.m. or so a van arrived, and out came the group of visitors, many of whom had the kinds of severe physical and mental challenges that a lot of people rarely come in contact with. They made themselves comfortable in Betty's lovely, decorated back yard. A few of us ran about serving cake and ice cream and chatting with them, sometimes feeding them. Their smiles were filled with more joy and happiness than I'd ever encountered. "These men are the happiest people I've ever seen!" I thought. They were thrilled and delighted at everything that was going on, and their love for Betty was obvious. They knew her well, as she had done many such things for them before.
And for a few hours, I completely forgot that I was "dying." All the day's tragedy had vanished, forgotten. I was in awe of Betty for doing kind things such as this, bringing these people so much happiness. And I was in awe of the visitors who were able to find joy in the midst of so much challenge and pain.
I'd known Betty all my life. She was always doing things to help people. She'd helped me out before, and that night she helped me understand what a "higher purpose" looks like when it's in action.
As I watched the fireworks gratefully from the ground, I "bargained" with God that if I should live, I would be more like Betty and I would devote my life to helping people. Needless to say, I survived the medical crisis that wasn't. But I've fallen very short of "being like Betty." I did not keep my end of the bargain. Maybe there's still time.
Rest in Peace, Betty. She inspired me, and I loved her.