When I met Emily, I knew right away that she was the sharpest 91-year-old I had ever known. Working with Emily as her Physical Therapist following her abdominal surgery, I got to know this remarkable woman over a 2-week period. What stories Emily had to tell! Living as Jews in Austria during Hitler’s reign, her family had gone into hiding. Emily survived, but her two siblings were caught and sent to concentration camps where both were killed. In 1945, Emily moved to the United States and married. Because her idol when she was young had been Amelia Earhart, she begged her husband, who was a crop duster, to teach her how to fly. Eventually, she became one of the few female commercial airline pilots in the United States. In addition to having a remarkable career, she also was politically active, helping out with the civil rights movement, firm in her belief that she must help those who were being persecuted for being different just as she had been as a Jew.
I told Emily that she must write her experiences down. I gave her a copy of my book, 300 Questions to Ask Your Parents Before it’s too Late. Every day when I went to see her, I caught her writing in it. Our discussions always revolved around what she had written, until the last day that I saw her. Not her usual upbeat self, she was concerned with the world’s state of affairs. The nurse told me that Emily had asked for more pain medicine than normal and was running a fever. When I entered her hospital room, I actually found this brave woman crying. Through her tears, she said, “It seems to be getting worse over there. Now there is radiation.” Emily was referring to the events following the tsunami in Japan. Many years ago, she had visited the town of Minamisanriku, Japan. “I was there, and now it is gone. Destroyed,” she wept. I reached over her tray table and turned off her TV. “You really need to get your rest, Emily,” I said, concerned. I could tell she was not feeling well. She seemed to be catching her breath between words, and her face was pale.
As I turned to leave, Emily caught my arm and motioned for me to sit. “I got to the most important question last night in your book. Don’t you want to know what I said?” she sniffled. I sat down beside her and leaned in to hear. “Which question was that?” I asked with enthusiasm. “The most important thing I learned in my life?” she said with a smile. “It’s something I want you to remember and then tell others.” She raised the head of the bed so she could get closer to me. “There’s a Chinese saying I read somewhere. “˜Women hold up half the world.’ Shannon, do your part as a woman to make the world better and stand up for those in need. I should have done more to help out. That is what I regret.” I rubbed her arm gently and handed her a tissue. She wiped the tears from her face. Then, she said her last words to me. “I want to thank you for listening to me. Very few people listen. When you get to the end of your life like I have and look back, you start to count the good you did and ask yourself, “˜Was it enough?'”
The next morning, I was told that Emily had passed away. I cried most of my shift. Emily had touched my heart. I knew that what she had told me was exactly right and something that we all need to hear.
Before I met Emily, I had already decided that I would give the proceeds from my third book, if I ever got around to writing it, to charity. When the footage of the devastation caused by the tsunami in Japan first appeared on the TV, I had been working with my 9-year-old son on his Cub Scout Merit Badge, trying to figure out with him how we could make a difference. With the rest of the family, we decided we would give the proceeds from my book to medical missions that would help the victims in Japan. We also continue to pray for the people in Japan.
Thinking back on Emily’s words, I know that prayers are not enough. While filling out my own book of questions to give to my kids, I have come to realize that there is so much I still need to do in order to feel like I have no regrets. I think Emily’s advice was excellent: Make a difference no matter how small, and do it often. I hope at the end of my life I can look back and say, “I did all I could to be a part of life and to help those in need.” Won’t you join me?