The Value of A Life

I am thinking about the value of one person’s life as I prepare to say goodbye to a good friend. Educators classified Allison as MMI, Mild Mental Impairment.

Allison died suddenly, in her apartment January 2. She had a pulmonary embolism. She was 38 years old.

As I get my thoughts together, this morning’s Wall Street Journal‘s article about “carrier screening,” hits a chord. The author describes a simple test so no parent need face giving birth to a child with a genetic defect.

What gives value to our life? Is it being free of defect? Is it our success in our careers? Is it finding the right mate, or raising a happy family? Perhaps it’s measured by the places we go, or the people we know; the house we live in or the estate we leave behind. Maybe it’s the obstacles we overcome or the mountains we climb.

Allison had a minimum wage job, she lived in a tiny apartment, she never married or had children, never learned to drive, and apart from supervised trips, she traveled very little.

I knew Allison for about half of her lifetime. She was CoCo’s best friend; her companion, her confidante. They met in high school. In the same contained classroom. Together, they were braver and clearer. They fought, they supported; they chided, they cheered; they covered for each other, they told on each other. Together they fit.

Allison made me smile. She made me brave. She brought light and happiness to my life. Allison had her own family and she was part of my family, too.

Allison was brave. She tackled all the tiny and big decisions that come with living in her own apartment. She learned how to take public transportation. She made my other kids brave on the dance floor. Her confidence spread, so everyone felt freer, lighter, happier: unencumbered clubbing without the need for substance enhancement.

Allison only faltered a tinsy, tiny bit when we went camping in the Upper Peninsula and I gave her instructions on how to avoid being mauled by a bear. Yes, I meant it tongue-in-cheek.

“B-b-bears?” she said. She was brave when I laughed, too.

Allison loved to laugh. She told me the story of her cat, Magic, and how she tried to make him fly. She liked telling me she was the same size as Tony Devito, and CoCo was the size of Tinkerbell. She had a crush on my oldest, even though he threw up in the bushes on New Year’s Eve.

Allison taught me many things. She taught me that sometimes it’s better to give someone exactly what they want, rather than surprise them with something they never imagined. She taught me just how many decisions we all make in any one day. She taught me the importance of respecting idiosyncrasies, and  the value of patience and of respect.

Allison left a small footprint in the world, but she left a big empty spot in my heart. I am sad she is gone, but I have few tears. Instead, I remember all the ways we laughed together and all the ways she brought light into my world, and all the ways she added to the fullness of my life.

Of course, no one sets out to have a handicapped child. Perhaps screening for genetic defects would shelter parents and children from difficulty. Still, sometimes I wonder what joy they might be spared, too.

The value of a life is measured not in the lack of difficulty, but by what we overcome; not in who we become, but how we become. And not in the things we accumulate, but in the joy we leave behind.

CoCo and Allison at Ed Debevic’s in Chicago

Allison, you are priceless.