Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"I Used Everything You Gave Me"

A year ago today, St. John's Episcopal School parent Ken Bendix died after a struggle against mesothelioma throughout which he grew in faith, spirit, courage, and love. His elder daughter, Aria, marked the anniversary by submitting an essay to This I Believe. That's Aria in March 2009 with her parents, Ken and Alexa. Aria's sister, Isabella, is still with us at St. John's.

Here's Aria's essay:
I heard a quote recently that struck a chord with me: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” While utilizing your talents is certainly something that should be strived for, upon hearing this quote, I could not help but think that qualities such as bravery, humility, and compassion were far more important to exercise throughout one’s lifetime. These thoughts then brought me to my dad, who passed away from cancer almost a year ago and was the epitome of every aforementioned quality.

The first quality, bravery, was perhaps the easiest to recognize in my dad. I had never seen true bravery in action until I witnessed my father battle for his life. Although he was afflicted with cancer, like so many others in this world, my father was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a very rare and painful form of it. A year ago, when the prospect of his survival was grim and my dad was hospitalized, I visited him in the hospital multiple times each day. The first time I saw him and realized that the man lying before me did not even look like my father, I began to cry. My dad, however, looked at me and asked, “Why are you crying? Everything is gone to be fine.” Everything was not going to be fine and everyone knew it, except my dad, because he simply refused to give up.

The second quality, humility, is always one that is exemplified more subtly, but is admirable nevertheless. Until one has lived with a cancer patient, or has experienced cancer themselves, they cannot truly know the daily and constant struggle that these patients undergo. My dad, however, remained incredibly humble throughout his battle. It would have been easy for him to gain sympathy from everyone he met, but self-interest was not in his character. I remember when we used to run into old friend and they would ask how he was doing. Instead of telling him about his diagnosis, he would simply provide them with a normal response about his kids, the recent golf game, etc. I used to ask him why he didn’t tell them that he had cancer, and he always responded, “Oh, I don’t know.” Eventually, I figured out why. He was not a man who needed another’s sympathy to make himself feel better.

The last quality, compassion, comes in many forms. Perhaps the most admirable form, however, is compassion of sacrifice, of which my father could have been that spokesperson. After my dad’s diagnosis, I realized how simple it would have been for him to just give up and let nature take its course. My dad, however, fought for three years against all odds to be there for my mom, my sister, and me. We were the impetus behind his fight and the reason he got up each day, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

I believe, therefore, that a life well lived is worth far more than a long-lived life. Like my father, I strive to live my life in the service and interest of others so that, were it to be cut short, I could leave this earth knowing I left a positive impact on others. Despite the fact that my father passed away when he had almost an entire half of his life to live, I feel confident that when he stood before God a year ago, he looked Him in the eye and said, “Lord, I have not a single bit of bravery, humility, or compassion left. I used everything you gave me.”


MK said...

Aria’s essay is very touching and beautifully written. I found it a little tough to read because what she described reminded me of my twin sister’s 18-month battle with cancer (melanoma). My sis displayed some of the same qualities Aria describes although there were some differences. She knew from the moment she was diagnosed at 51 that she was terminal (people diagnosed with melanoma at such a late stage, with lymphatic system involvement, almost never live long after diagnosis). She was incredibly brave – the day she got the news, she said, “I accept God’s plan, I’ve had a good life.”

Ken Bendix sounds much like Eva, who, too, used everything God gave her. She went out as a paid government employee, working from home for the National Archives’ records declassification division. She couldn’t review documents at home but did work on writing a procedures manual for her governmental team. Through the half-day chemo sessions in the summer of 2002 (I sat with her, making up my own “lost” time at work by going to my office all day Saturday and Sunday), she was friendly with and grateful to the staff at the medical center. When she was hospitalized several times during the autumn before she died, she thanked and hugged the nursing staff who attended her. As she lay dying in the emergency room on the day I had her transported from home because she was having so much trouble breathing, the last words I heard her say were a cheery “thank you!” to the attendant who assisted her. She so loved Christmas and wanted to live on through December 25 but died that very day, December 16, 2002.

Several colleagues eulogized her. One said, “She took pleasure in others’ accomplishments as if they were her own.” An agency reviewer wrote to us that of all the people with whom he worked in declassifying records at NARA, she was the most welcoming. He recalled the peals of laughter that always signaled where she was in the office. (Hmm, must have been a twin thing. One of my bosses at my current employing agency once said, “If I want to know where Maarja is, I just listen for the sound of her laughter.”) In a letter sent to me and my Mom after her death, John Carlin, then Archivist of the United States, wrote that Eva “was considered as committed a NARA employee as can be found, and gave guidance and assistance to anyone who needed it.”

I so hated to lose my twin sister. But I was grateful for having had her in my life for as long as I did. And for the lessons she taught me about how to face life and dying bravely and with grace. Aria’s Dad seems to have taught her the same things. Those of us who have had such people in our lives truly are blessed!

MK said...

Oh oh, I forgot to post my disclaimer with the item about Eva (4:39 pm my time in the DC area, 1:39 your time in CA). Posted at home on personal time I am not in the office today, I had to attend a funeral earlier today. I teleworked from home for half a day, then went to the funeral at mid-day, then clocked back on

Why do I post disclaimers? I left the employ of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 1990 to take a job with another federal agency. When I went to the National Archives at College Park, MD one day in the mid-1990s to visit my twin sister, I also stopped in briefly in the research room to look at some of the publicly available Nixon records.

My former colleagues at NARA’s Nixon project greeted me warmly that day back in the 1990s. But someone else at the Archives--someone not on the staff of the Nixon Project--who apparently wanted to get me in trouble, filed a complaint with the agency Inspector General. The complaint stated that I used government time to do personal research. (As an historian, I had a research card that covered access for both my governmental and my personal research.)

The complaint was easily resolved within my employing agency, as I was able to show the form I had signed to take a personal (vacation) day to go out to Archives II Anyone who really knew me well would have known that I would have my I-s dotted and my t-s crossed. As I do today, in posting here from home at 5:05 pm eastern time!

MK said...

In re-reading my comments, it seems to me that the second one brings up issues that seem jarring in juxtaposition. The fed world stuff doesn't fit well with Aria's essay and my thoughts about my sis. Feel free to delete my 2:10 (5:10) comment. I know what my timesheets show for today; I'll be ok. I'll just say "posted on personal time" in the future, if this comes up again, and you'll know what I mean!