Habit 8: Appreciate Life

by Anna Nelson
November 9, 2016

“I know it doesn’t seem that way, but maybe it’s the perfect day.”
–Ron Sexsmith, “Gold in Them Hills”

Much of the beauty of the Be The Light habits that Kelly crafted is their combined simplicity and difficulty. “Appreciate life”—it seems so obvious that we should find a way to be grateful for each day and for each new experience, and yet so many people fail to do exactly that.

Kelly was not one of those people.

Living with Kelly while we were both students at KU taught me one lesson very quickly: Kelly Cosby could pack more into one week than eight other average human beings put together, and she could do it with a frenetic sort of grace that only she seemed to possess.  She somehow juggled a daunting schedule and an impossible number of other activities while still managing to be the best kind of friend to everyone.  Unlike so many others, Kelly seemed to always be able to appreciate the moment, even if she was dashing from one student organization meeting to the next, and she always had time for the people she loved.  Always.

For Kelly, appreciating life was synonymous with appreciating others. Sure, her schedule was busy and she found great joy in the meaning of her academic, professional, and other pursuits, but her deepest joy clearly came from being with, helping, supporting, and interacting with others.  Her interest in appreciating life allowed her to appreciate the lives of others in the purest of ways – when something good happened to someone she loved, she celebrated if it had happened to her, too. I admire so much about Kelly, but that genuine selflessness that allowed her to be the champion of everyone she knew and loved really blew me away.  She never seemed jealous of others’ opportunities or experiences.  She never seemed inconvenienced by what others asked of her or wanted her to do. She was just happy to be a part of their lives. She appreciated them.

I felt this many times in my friendship with Kelly, probably most of all when I got married.  Kelly was also good friends with my husband, Jeremy, since we were dating while Kelly and I lived together at KU, and when I texted her to tell her that we were engaged, I could feel her excitement radiate all the way from New York City. I worried that Kelly may not be able to take the time out of her busy law school schedule to attend our wedding in KC. I shouldn’t have worried, of course—she told me so sincerely how much she loved both of us and how she wouldn’t miss it. She took time away from law school and her busy schedule to be there for us.

When I think back to walking down the aisle, I remember a sea of smiling faces pointed in my direction, but you can probably guess that Kelly’s stood out among the rest. I remember making eye contact with her and I remember her beaming at me in the way that only Kelly really could, her eyes bright and happy.

She felt the beauty of that moment, of my journey down the aisle on my wedding day, right along with me.

In the spring of 2015, Jeremy and I were traveling to the East Coast and planned to spend a few days in NYC at the end of May.  When I texted Kelly and asked if we could spend a day with her, I received the usual enthusiastic reply—“YES PLEASE COME TO NEW YORK I’M SO EXCITED I WILL BE SURE THAT I’M FREE THAT DAY I LOVE YOU GUYS SO MUCH YOU ARE MY FAVORITE PEOPLE I CAN SHOW YOU SO MANY WONDERFUL PLACES TO EAT YAYYYYYYYY!!!”

Or, you know, something along those lines.

But she’d been sick for the past few weeks, and when we arrived, we had to change our plans. She had gone to the doctor and she already knew that bad news was waiting for her, that her cancer had probably returned. Instead of a day of adventuring, we sat in Washington Square Park with Kelly and her lovely mother and then we had gelato together around the block. We talked about Mad Men and traveling and our younger brothers, and everything felt pretty normal.

Except it wasn’t, of course.  The next few days changed everything for Kelly.

But that was who Kelly was.  Yes, she was always so positive and optimistic about her illness, but I can’t even imagine how she was feeling that afternoon, glancing at her phone and wondering if it was about to ring and deliver terrible news. In spite of all of that, though, she hugged us fiercely and laughed and chatted with us like she always did, eager to hear about what was new in our lives. So many people would have just told us that they didn’t feel up to socializing that day.  Not Kelly.  She took the opportunity to spend time with us, in what would ultimately be the second-to-last time we ever saw her.  She let us make another precious memory from a short afternoon in the park, and she chose to appreciate her time with us rather than waste the day worrying about the bad news looming on the horizon.

This was true again when we saw her that August, when she was sicker, really, but feeling pretty good.  I marveled at how normal she seemed, sitting there grinning at us in her Royals t-shirt. She confidently told us about her cancer treatments with her usual energy and enthusiasm, and that was that – the evening was about the three of us having fun together, not her illness.

I never imagined for one second that I would never see her again.  Her positivity seemed to make that an impossibility.

Now, as we remember her, I marvel at just how much Kelly continued to appreciate her own life and the lives of others, even when it would have been so easy for her to be angry and bitter and hurt by the way her body betrayed her.  That wasn’t her nature, of course, and through it all, she was an example to all of us.  She showed us how even in the worst of circumstances, there are people to be loved and moments to be enjoyed.

I teach high school English, and my juniors recently read an excerpt of “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau.  In case you haven’t brushed up on your Transcendentalist philosophy lately, Thoreau was a big fan of appreciating life. He writes in “Walden” that he “wished to live deliberately … and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Kelly did this.  She did all of these things even when she could have easily ‘practiced resignation’ or lost sight of the positive—even when her world was darkening, she shone brightly.

So here I am, my life continuing after Kelly’s, and I’m trying to learn from her example.  I chose to write about this Be the Light Habit because, as much as I believe in it, this is something that can be difficult to for me. When I face big changes or challenges, I can suffer from pretty severe anxiety. When I tackle my own busy schedule, I do so by obsessively planning. I’m not lying when I say that I know exactly how many papers I need to grade each day for the rest of the semester to be sure I stay on top of everything at work. I write in my planner like my life depends on it. I get caught up in setting goals for myself and trying to prepare and calculate and predict what is coming as if it all were some sort of certainty.

In pursuit of the Next Big Thing, I forget to appreciate the quiet moments of right now.

I know I’m not alone in this. We can all look to Kelly as a model.  Losing her has been a painful lesson in reaching out to others now, not waiting because today we just feel too busy.  For the rest of my life, I will wish that I had devoted more of the past six years of my life to Kelly. Living halfway across the country from each other made it hard to see her more than a few times a year, but I will never stop telling myself that I should have called her more.  I shouldn’t have worried that she was maybe too busy for me. This is true for all of my friendships, though – for all of the friends I have scattered across the country today. I need to call them more often, need to plan the time to connect with them in my busy schedule.  For all the goals I set for myself, nothing makes me feel more fulfilled than time with the people I love. I need to put the same level of energy that I put into tackling my daily to-do list into planning to appreciate life and the lives of others. Kelly understood this clearly: the best way to appreciate life is to appreciate the wonderful people who fill my days.

Beyond appreciating others, I’m committing myself to appreciating my routine and busy days.  My dear friend Melanie recently introduced me to the movie About Time (if you haven’t seen it, you are missing out) – the entire premise of the film is that each day deserves to be remembered and treasured, even if it feels tedious or routine.  We can so easily miss the beauty of today by only seeking the reward of tomorrow. I’m trying, though. When I feel too tired to schedule plans with friends after a long day of teaching, I will think of Kelly. I will remember how she was never too busy for anyone, and I will see all of the people that she loved so deeply and that loved her so much in return that stand as a testament to her ability to spend her time and energy on things that mattered deeply to her.  Appreciating life is more than stopping to smell the roses.  It’s building a web of connectedness; it’s showing the people that you see everyday that they are appreciated and worthwhile and loved. It’s seizing opportunities in your own life, but it’s also celebrating those opportunities as they come to the ones you love. I’m confident that if we all try to do this a little more often, we will make Kelly proud.

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