I was wandering around Home Depot one day a few weeks after moving to Frederick when I saw a booth for a company called Solar City. I had been researching solar panels so I decided to ask for a free consultation. “We’ll send Patrick Shafer to your place. You’ll love him. He’s one of our best.” Little did I know that I would indeed love Patrick and that not only was he one of the best solar panel salesmen a gal could ask for but he was one of the best humans I would ever meet.
When Patrick arrived at my home I immediately felt comfortable in his presence. I didn’t know what to expect but I never felt like Patrick was selling me anything. The passion he had for our planet, for the environment, for solar energy just flowed through him. We quickly moved from conversations about solar power to conversations about our shared interests and passions. I talked about my job working with poor farmers in Africa and his eyes lit up. He talked about his organic farm and I’m sure my eyes lit up in equal measure. We geeked out over agriculture for a while before we got back to conversations about energy bills. As he left that day I silently schemed about how I could turn my solar power salesman into my new best friend.
I was pleasantly surprised when, a few days later, I got an email from Patrick, and not about solar panels. He wanted to hear more about my job. He’d been contemplating how to expand his work and maybe do something internationally focused. He was intrigued by my organization and wanted to pick my brain about where he might take his career. I suggested we meet up for lunch and told him I wanted to pick his brain about vegetable gardens as well and he agreed. We met a week later at the Wine Kitchen where he sometimes worked as a bartender. We talked for two hours straight about agriculture and jobs, vegetable gardens and farming. We both got super nerdy and I got awkwardly excited when he told me about his adventures in testing the nutritional content of food grown in different types of soils using different fertilizers and pesticides (I know, right?!). Patrick’s main message that day though was that he just wanted to be helping more people. He just wanted to give back in a big way and we schemed about the opportunities that might be out there for him.
But in addition to talking shop we also talked about death. Patrick had admitted to devouring my blog one night and we talked about what it was like to live knowing you might die soon, how challenging it was but also what a blessing it was. For many people this is uncomfortable territory. Talking about living deeply and facing death is not easy. But it came naturally for Patrick and made it clear that he was a man who lived his life with great intention and integrity.
Patrick sent a note to thank me after our lunch and said the following:
I wanted to thank you for meeting me the other day, it was a very enlightening experience. Being in your presence is a neat thing. It is easy to recognize a loving and honest soul just looking to do the greater good. You are a good egg! I feel as though your entrance in my life may be a catalyst for more positive change. For that I thank you. The physical and emotional struggle you face is a daunting one but I hope you continue to bravely persevere. I don’t want to be the guy that says “let me know what I can do to help?” and not follow through. I would be honored to be a part of the “Crush” team and help facilitate awareness and fundraising on your behalf.
In many ways Patrick had taken the words right out of my mouth although I’m not sure I understood at the time what a positive catalyst Patrick would end up becoming in my own life. And true to form Patrick made good on his promise to be the guy who follows through. A few weeks later when I texted him asking for a recommendation for a plumber Patrick’s response, probably knowing we couldn’t afford a plumber was: “I can fix it!” and sure enough he came over with all his tools and spent hours fixing our sink. I paid him with broccoli soup and Christmas cookies but they did not even begin to describe my incredible gratitude for this gracious gesture. A few weeks later he came to our Housewarming party where I got to meet his beautiful wife whom he’d beamed about, even in our first meeting. Sadly, even though Patrick and I would have many more communications over text and email in the following months, I would never see Patrick alive again.
Last Friday Patrick died in a single car accident near his home in Maryland leaving behind his wife and their two small boys. Like many when I first learned from Facebook I was in absolute shock. He was 35, young, healthy, vibrant. His energy and spirit filled up a room. It seemed impossible that he could be gone. The grief crept in slowly as I started to realize how important Patrick had become to me in such a short period of time. He was a kindred spirit, someone I connected with immediately and you don’t meet many of those in your life. But he was also, somewhat singularly, my safety net in Frederick. He was the guy I could call when my sink broke and I couldn’t afford to fix it. He had made Frederick feel like home. We had plans together, to build a vegetable garden in my yard, to find him that opportunity that would take his love for this planet and its people around the world. He was my friend. He was also one of the best people I have ever met and left behind a young, beautiful family. His light should not have gone out so soon.
I was unprepared for how unprepared I was. You see, as someone with what is technically a terminal illness I think about death A LOT. As a member of the tight knit young adult cancer club I confront death A LOT. I’ve lost at least 8 people under the age of 35 this year alone. But this death felt really different. It was unexpected. It was a shock. Unlike with my good friend who died last year there was no final meeting, no good-byes, no exchange of final keepsakes. He was just gone. His life went from busy, full and vibrant to completely snuffed out.
Two weeks ago I got word that my cancer has continue to spread and I spent a week thinking of nothing but my own death. For the week since Patrick’s death the questions have become very different. As someone who lives so close to death, so intimately with loss, how could grief catch me so off guard, how could I ever learn to live with this loss and why did it have such a stranglehold on me for someone I had known so briefly?
Here is what I have learned from Patrick’s death and more importantly Patrick’s life in the last week:
It is possible to live a life completely devoted to love.
It sounds cliché but Patrick’s main priority in life was love. He was utterly devoted to his family but his love stretched much farther than that. I know this because I could feel, in the very brief time that I knew him, Patrick’s selfless love for Andrew and me and saw it in his actions. I could see Patrick’s love for his wife and heard him speak of his love for his children. I listened to him speak passionately about what he wanted to give to those around him, about what he had already given through his time as a firefighter and EMT. And I saw Patrick’s devotion to his friends and family in the hundreds and hundreds of faces around me at his memorial. Whose memorial has an overflow room and still ends up being standing room only? A man who, in his short 35 years, has devoted himself completely to love, that’s who.
It is possible to live your life all in.
There was no half way for Patrick. He wasn’t going to recommend a plumber. He was gonna fix the damn sink himself. He wasn’t going to grow food to feed his family, he was going to cultivate the best soil, grow the most nutritious food. He wasn’t going to suggest some plants we could grow in our garden he was going to build the boxes himself, bring over the dirt, plant seeds alongside us. Like I told Amanda I imagine that Patrick rarely saw anything as “their problem,” “her issue,” “his burden.” To him it was always “ours.” He was in it with you and if he said he was gonna show up, he would show up, as I’m sure he did countless times on sleepless shifts at the Fire Department and in a million big and small ways in his own home and for all of his friends and family.
We must endeavor to live well examined lives.
I could tell from the way that Patrick reacted to my difficult situation that he was thoughtful about life, that he approached it with care and commitment. Today at Patrick’s memorial the eulogist read passages from Patrick’s journal, passages which illustrated the degree to which Patrick had thought about his life and the impact he was having. He contemplated his death, thought about what he would leave behind, wondered how he had made a difference in the world. How many of us spend our days more consumed with how much money we are making, where we’ll take our next vacation, how busy we are and how we can’t be bothered with another thing? Patrick contemplated his life’s meaning and committed to being the best person he could be and we all reaped the rewards.
Look for peace in the right places.
Patrick once bragged to me about how hard it was to get to his house. It’s so off the beaten path that you have to drive to the very end of a dirt road. He had woods behind his house where he would go on walks every day with his boys he had said. Between those stories and his complete and utter devotion to soil, one of my favorite qualities in any human, (“the greener the grass the less green the owner”) I knew Patrick found great peace in nature. In a world where we increasingly turn to bright lights and shiny screens for solace Patrick went looking for it in the right places.
Know that the glass is already broken.
Patrick was a devout Christian and as someone who is not I have great respect for how deeply he actually lived the faith in which he believed. As more Buddhist leaning I have to make my own sense of his death and the death of so many of my friends. In my most desperate moment I came across the following story, told by Stephen Levine in his book, “Who Dies?”
Once someone asked a well-known Thai meditation master, “In this world where…loss and grief are inherent in our very coming into existence, how can there be any happiness?” The teacher, looking compassionately at this fellow, held up a drinking glass and said, “You see this goblet? For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it. I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
Patrick knew just how precious life is. He treated everyone he met as precious. He knew how precious his wife and boys and his life with them was. In his journal he contemplated through scripture about how important it is to live each and every day of our lives, not taking any one of them for granted. While he may not have been a Buddhist I have to believe that Patrick would agree that we must acknowledge that the glass is already broken. My time I spent with Patrick feels much more precious now that he is no longer here when really it should have been precious all along. Like a glass breaking or like Patrick’s car crashing, we could all be gone in an instant. We must live as though we are all already gone. We are all already broken. We are all as precious as Patrick. We must treat each other accordingly.
Death cannot take everything.
In mourning Patrick I have come to a conclusion about death. It is really only the body that we lose to it. When I think of Patrick I get a very clear sense of his energy, his loving essence, his goodness. That energy has not diminished in the least just because he is gone. In some ways it is much more powerful now. I think of my friend Rachel who died last year at the age of 30 from colon cancer. I think of her smart whit, her sarcasm, her unwavering strength and complete inability to feel sorry for herself. I think of all the times I have called upon Rachel’s energy in the last year to get me through. She is just as much as part of my life now as she ever was. Patrick now will be as well. Patrick will continue to make me a better person for as long as I shall live, without a doubt.
Someone very politely asked me for money for food the other day and although I sincerely have very little to give as a result of all of my expensive treatments I just immediately thought “Patrick,” opened up my wallet and had a beautiful exchange with an incredibly charming man in downtown Baltimore. I have spent much of the past two and a half years since I was diagnosed with cancer focused on myself, spending all of my energy trying to make myself better. This has included long periods of shutting out the world too overwhelmed by own situation to engage. But Patrick has taught me better. Patrick has showed me and all of us that life is lived for others, life is lived for love. Patrick originally sought me out wanting to find a way to give more to the world and in the end it was he who showed me how to do just that.
We had only just met and yet I felt like we had known each other for decades. I am so proud to call you my friend. I too knew you were a “good egg” from the day we met and you could not imagine how much of a catalyst you have been for positive change in MY life. I am so thankful to have known you. I can’t wait for you to see the vegetable garden we plant this summer. I hope we do you proud. Bring us plenty of good sunshine. The world still needs all the light you’ve got to shine.
We love you.