One conversation. That’s all we had four years ago.
I was a new member in a long-standing book club, attending the annual couples dinner for the first time. Remembering names isn’t my strong suit and I was still mixing up some of the women’s names in those early days. Adding significant others to the mix just complicated my task further, so I gave up on trying to commit faces and names to memory that night.
The exception was Jan Stewart. He and Beth, our lovely, deeply intelligent retired teacher and book club member, had recently become engaged. It was one of those Hollywood love-at-first sight stories. The energy connecting the two of them was palpable.
Jan’s energy in general was palpable. I don’t remember the specifics of what we talked about, but I do remember distinctly Jan’s presence. Full eye contact, totally engaged, genuinely interested in what you had to say. His questions came from a place of sincere curiosity.
The experience stayed with me, often coming to mind over the years for no apparent reason. It was sort of like, “Who was that (un)masked man?” I can’t think of any other time when a person’s sheer presence stayed with me like that after just one conversation.
Shortly after their honeymoon, Jan was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks bone marrow cells. The disease usually doesn’t produce any signs and symptoms in the patient until it’s reached advanced stages. Beth’s email to the book club titled “News from the Newlyweds” didn’t gush about their honeymoon trip, but gave a read-out of their meeting with the myeloma specialist.
Beth didn’t make it to very many book club gatherings after Jan’s diagnosis. If they weren’t in Boston for stem cell transplants and chemo treatments, they were often at their second home in Florida spending time with Jan’s kids or, if Jan was strong enough, soaking in the world, near and far.
My first draft of this piece referred to Beth and Jan as checking off items from their bucket list. Beth corrected me gently: “I’m not sure Jan and I ever had a bucket list, but rather we thought about what would bring joy to our lives. Jan or I caught a new idea and then we ran with it. Going to a show, taking a hike, planning a trip, preparing a meal, renovating our home, watching a sunset. One of us would suggest something and the other always seemed to say, “Let’s do it!”
Beth’s updates in Jan’s Caring Bridge journal described their delight in those sunsets, the joy in finding something that tasted good to Jan after chemo wrecked his taste buds, and their gratitude for the friendly and caring hospital staff. Always positive, always reminding us through their example to appreciate those tiny details we often overlook.
Jan passed on March 28, 2015.
Just as my single conversation with him four years ago had done, the memorial service — or “Celebration of Life” as the event was billed — left me changed.
Jan planned every detail of his Celebration of Life, choosing the Atrium at Meadowlark Gardens in Vienna, Virginia, as the venue. It was a stunning spring day — sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows and poured down from the skylights.
Music was a huge part of Jan’s life (“Music fed his soul and fueled his heart,” Beth told us) and he had chosen each piece for the service with great care. The songs ranged from the Beatles to classical to Broadway.
Beth’s remarks, delivered with grace and strength, summed up the characteristics that had made such an impression on me four years earlier in my single conversation with Jan.
I wrote to Beth after the service asking for her permission to share Jan’s story with my blog readers. She not only agreed to the request, but even sent me her written remarks.
“I had such a wonderful moment reading them to Jan while we were still in Florida,” Beth wrote in her note to me. “The joy in our life is that we were always able to share our thoughts and feelings with each other, often sorting them out in our conversations and feeling so much clearer about our love and our lives.”
So drawing from Beth’s remarks at her husband’s Celebration of Life, here are just a few of the ways Jan Stewart exemplified presence and mindful living:
- It was a goal of his to put a smile on a friend’s or client’s face within moments of meeting them. He was a joke teller, but his jokes were always kind.
- He could always find the silver lining in any situation. “He inspired me to look for the blessings in all that happens in life,” Beth said.
- He didn’t allow stress in his life, telling Beth, “Stress in unhealthy.” And instead of getting annoyed when Beth was anxious about something, Jan’s response was, “Hey, I’m sorry you’re overwhelmed. What can I do to help?”
- He was a wonderful listener. He listened like you were the only person that mattered in the world. “Listening with your heart, as Jan knew how to do, was one of the greatest gifts he gave.”
- He was a mindful eater, loving the preparation process, the taste, and the feel of food fueling his body. He even planned out his breakfast in his head before going to bed each night! He never ate at fast food restaurants and tried not to eat on the run.
- I don’t know if Jan ever read Eckhart Tolle’s work, but I’ve shared here before that my favorite Tolle quote is, “There are no problems, only situations.” So when Beth said, “I don’t think [Jan] looked at things as problems, but rather opportunities,” my heart skipped a beat.
- Beth called him her “Man of action,” solving problems as they arose with practical efficiency, while at the same time refusing to let stress poison his environment. That’s what taking action where you can and letting go of the rest looks like.
- Beth described Jan as living on “Earth Time,” never in a rush and never wearing a watch. He sounds like a surfing instructor, but was actually a successful estate attorney. Beth learned through Jan that, “Yes, it’s important to be respectful of other peoples’ time and it’s much easier if you get to the airport in time to make your flight, but you know, Earth Time usually works just fine.”
- Jan’s highest priority was to live in the present. “He reminded me often,” Beth shared with us, “that this moment is all that we truly have…why waste it on anything unkind or uncaring…why not unlock the beauty in each moment and savor it?”
- Jan lived his life with intent and gratitude. “He made sure to thank the waiter, the parking attendant, the cashier, the nurse, the neighbor.” He took time to tell a store manager about an employee’s good performance. How many of us go out of our way to do that?
- “Jan was a deeply philosophical and spiritual man. He believed we are all connected by the same spirit. And that spirit demanded that we be caring, kind, and loving to everyone we meet. He lived each moment focused on how he could be more caring, more kind and more loving. I will forever carry that spirit deep within me, finding ways to share it with others, just as Jan did with me.”
Thank you, Beth, for allowing me to share your story. And, of course, thank you, Jan.
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