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Dana died a week ago today. She had been battling lung cancer for the second time and finally succumbed to it at the young age of 67. She didn’t want to die but she had been told that it was inoperable, untouchable, unstoppable…. inevitable. Did she stop volunteering? No, not Dana.

She had come to training about twelve years before and at first, I didn’t know what to make of her, because her real passion lay in saving animals. She always resided with up to 14 rescued dogs and cats at a time, and would  happily describe the tabby with paralyzed back legs or the silver muzzled terrier who was 16 years old. I wondered how she would do with Homo sapiens, but I was an idiot to have questioned her, because Dana loved her humans as much as she loved her animals and she particularly enjoyed working with terminally ill men who had dementia. She glibly refered to them as her “guys” and could chat about a patient who thought she was a maid with the same optimism she showed a frightened stray .

But here’s the thing. Besides being a great volunteer, Dana was a much better person than I am. I have to be honest with myself. Being around her, I knew it, felt it, experienced it. She was endlessly optimistic, carved paths of human construction and the way she handled the end of her life stripped all my self motivational pats on the back right out of me.. I was comfortable enough with her to be able to ask questions the way she wanted me to, and to not get all mushy when she didn’t want that. Her recurring cancer was not the elephant in the room or on the phone, it was a piece of her just like her frizzy hair or her gestures when she described putting a kitten into the lap of a burly man who drooled.

When she died, a blinding light left the room, leaving a dim void. But where did that light go? Was it extinguished or does it shine on? You see, I have to know, because I think of the people who saw her as “just a volunteer.” Did they have sunglasses on?

So, to comfort myself, I contemplate all the animals and people, including the families and friends that Dana touched throughout her life. A ray of her light lives on in them. She lessened their burdens, supported their journeys and shared their pains.They are more whole because of her and can now shine a little brighter in their worlds.

I have a ray of her light in me. Because of her, I want to be a better person and she illuminated the path. It’s a steep and twisting passage. It consists of gracious losing, really really being with people, letting negative emotions and “poor me” feelings go and not being overwhelmed by the minutia of it all.

This path is daunting, and constant and exhausting, but if I reach out with my hand and feel Dana in the air, a wisp of that light will guide me and live on.