I remember hearing as a kid that before you die your life flashes through your eyes. I know that Elena's life has been flashing through my eyes a lot since she died. Not one continuous movie but snippets here or there. Her life was so short that, as the old joke goes, I've asked for reruns. There are some scenes I've seen more than once.
I don't know if it's typical, but my own life has been flashing before me as well. There are pieces that hit me from way before I ever knew Kim, Maggie, and Elena. I awoke this morning with a vivid memory from thirty years ago.
During my tenth grade year, our family was in Oxford, England for the year. My father was on sabbatical from Oberlin College and had taken the family to live and go to school there for the year. We lived in Kennington, a short double-decker bus ride from Oxford.
For school, you can think of a non-magic version of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter world. The house system divided the students into cross-grade groups which met weekly and played athletic events against each other. The teachers were treated with much more deference and respect than we tend to treat them in the United States. We wore uniforms that consisted of a jacket and tie with grey shirts and black pants. No matter how disheveled the uniforms got, the fact that everyone wore the same uniform did change the environment.
I was there for what is called fifth form and studied for the O-Levels. I took way too many classes but it was a life changing year for me. There I was in a new school and could reinvent myself to some extent.
My younger brother had a friend at his school named Bronwyn who was also from America and visiting for the year. Her parents had taken this reinvention to a different level. On their last day in England the family came over to say goodbye and Bronwyn told us that her real name was Sarah. Her family had told her that since she was going to be in a different country for a year, she could choose whatever first name she wanted.
For me it was a more subtle change. I'm not sure that I was conscious of it happening. But I came back from that year a different person. I was a better student, I was more respectful of adults, and I was a happier person. I had a lot father to go, but I'd made the first steps in realizing that having others recognize that I was right was not always the best path to choose.
One of the things that changed me was a parable that we were told in one of our house meetings at the Oxford School. This was the story of the garden. To me it is a beautiful story that reminds us both to appreciate the things we are given and what our role is.
A man lives next to a vacant lot that is overgrown with weeds and flowers. All thriving but just one big jumbled mess. In front of his own house is a garden that is his pride and joy. He works on it every day. He plants and fertilizes. He weeds and trims. He shapes and prunes and waters. He turns the garden into a thing of beauty that his neighbors appreciate each day as they walk by.
One day a stranger stops as he sees the man hard at work in his garden.
"That's nice," says the stranger. "Look what you've been able to do with God's help."
"Yes," agrees the man. And he points next door to the vacant lot and says, "and look at what he's done by himself."