Posted by: Kerry Gans | January 28, 2011

Fallen Heroes

Twenty-five years ago today, the seven Challenger astronauts lost their lives in the pursuit of knowledge. Other people, like Martin Luther King, Jr., have given their lives standing for principles and speaking for the oppressed. Still others give their lives protecting other people—our police, firefighters, and military. These people, and others like them, are undeniably heroes. But in every person’s life, there are personal, private heroes—people who profoundly influenced their lives. My best friend Donna was one such person.

Donna made me laugh. She was just funny. We would laugh until we cried, until we could barely breathe. It wasn’t that she told a good joke—it was never anything I could explain to people and make them laugh, too. It was how she said what she said, and the timing with which she delivered her skewering deadpan sarcasm. I miss the laughter.

Donna could talk with the best of them (I have phone bills to prove it), but she could also listen. One of her gifts was to make you feel like you were the most important person to her at that moment. She could be hosting a party (something she did often), but when she spoke to you, you had her full attention. When it was just us alone, we could talk about anything—she never judged, never made me feel like my opinion or beliefs were irrelevant. She heard what I really meant, even if I couldn’t find the right words, and she always responded from her heart—a heart that was more generous than I can fathom.

Donna was a writer, and we grew as writers together. Would I have been a writer without her in my life? Certainly. I wrote before I ever met her. But I would not have come as far in my craft as fast as I did without her support and her passion. As many writers know, having a community of writing friends can rekindle the flame when you hit a rough patch. The solidarity of having a best friend who understood completely and shared the excitement of finding just the right word, or finishing a chapter, or hitting upon the perfect title was a tremendous boon.

Donna taught me how to be a true friend. Her loyalty was fierce. She never gave up on a friend and she never walked away from a friend in need. If she was your friend, it was for life. She put her friends ahead of herself. She listened. She consoled. She laughed. She accepted you for you, no questions asked, no demands made.

The final two lessons I learned from her came at the end of her life. I watched her face death at age 32 with dignity, with pride, and with a stubborn determination that this would not be her legacy. She once said to me, “I am not just my cancer.” While those around her raged at the unfairness of it all (and I know she did, too, from time to time), she told me “I’m so lucky, to have all these people that love me.” While those around her tried so desperately to hide their tears, she cracked jokes. While those around her worried endlessly for her comfort and prayed for her health, she worried about all of us. About who would take care of her husband when she died. About how he would cope. About how we would all cope. I promised her we would all take care of each other, and we have. We all learned that lesson well.

The last lesson was simply this: life is short; live it every day. Even before she was sick, Donna lived her life fully. After she got sick, she still found the joy in life. That lesson seems so obvious, but it is so hard to remember. I have to be reminded of it often.

Today is a day we remember Challenger’s fallen heroes. Today, also remember the heroes who have touched you in your life. Count your blessings. Find the joy.

Life is short.

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Responses

  1. You were so blessed to have such a friend and it sounds like you were a dear friend to her. Thank you for sharing and letting us share our experiences with you.

    My brother was and still is my idol. He died when I was twelve, he was twenty-one. He was that guy, the one who made you laugh, studied hard for his grades, did well with the ladies, and had a laugh I am told that eerily mirrors my cackle. He loved basketball but was about 5’10”. But that didn’t stop him, only made him work harder. He got a scholarship to a prep school way out of league for my parents income. From there he went on to college, the first in the family. His life was cut short, the day of his last exams as a senior, he never got to reveice his degree. My parents received it posthumously. One lightening bolt took him from us. In a split second our lives changed forever. Years later, when I finally decided to sit down and write, I thought of him and if he’d be proud. I think he would. And we’d laugh together too.

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  2. […] am thankful for Donna Hanson Woolman, who walked 18 years of this writing journey with me before going on ahead. Even now, she walks […]

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