She Taught Me To Believe

A few people have asked that I share Dana’s eulogy.  Because Dana was so public and open about her journey, it feels like the right thing to do.  I am not able to capture everything that I said because I ad-libbed in several places, but I tried to modify this version to fit the words that were spoken.  My “little” brother Mike has assured me that this rendition is pretty close.  It is absolutely impossible to capture in writing all of the love for Dana that was in the room last Saturday.  My hope is simply that this tribute gives some solace to those who knew and loved Dana Michelle Todd.

All my love to you, Dana.  You are forever in our hearts.

Recently I’ve heard many people – even complete strangers to Dana – refer to my cousin as an inspiration.  Someone who forever changed their lives, made them see life differently, made each of them want to be a better person.  It is wonderful, touching, and… a little bit surreal.

Dana is an inspiration and I will talk more about that in a moment.  But I first want to talk about the memories I have of Dana before cancer came calling.  Most of my memories involve laughter.  In my mind’s eye, these are the images I hold close:  Dana falling out laughing, to the point of tears, with her sister Rachel at some joke from twenty years ago, some distant memory that just came back to one of them.  It’s a joke that only the two of them understand, but when you’re in the room with Dana and Rachel and they’re laughing like that – you have no choice but to laugh, too, out loud and full and real.  It’s just that beautiful and that contagious.

Dana was a straight shooter, a fiery spirit.  She never hesitated to speak her mind, call someone out in a lie or to stand her ground.

I see her running along a beach at sunset, galloping on a gorgeous horse across a meadow, maybe trotting a bit more slowly on a rescue horse named Bones.  Laughing at a family reunion.  Sitting with us on the dock on Rangeley Lake and watching for shooting stars.  Playing with the nieces and nephews who she adored.  Holding her father’s hand.

Above all else, I see her spending time with Jordyn and Ryan, running her hand over Jordyn’s hair and talking about butterflies, kissing Ryan’s head on the top of a mountain, just being in the moment, present, with her children.  Dana loved Jordyn and Ryan with everything she had, and she still does as we speak, as we come together here today to honor her spirit.

I also just learned a wonderful story about Dana from a stranger.  A neighbor of hers here in Connecticut rounded a corner in her car years ago and found Dana, with her car stopped in the middle of the road, chaperoning two baby turtles across the road to safety.  In the Todd family, the Todd women are known to have a genetic predisposition to stubbornness, and Dana seemed to receive those genes a hundredfold.  Dana was strong, and she was stubborn, and in her core, she was deeply generous.  She was abundantly kind.

My point is that before Dana became a Facebook phenomenon and an inspiration to so many people with her courageous fight for her life, she was first and foremost to all of us a Mother.  Daughter.  Sister.  Aunt.  Niece.  Cousin.  The former wife of a wonderful, wonderful man.  A true, devoted, and beloved friend.  She was – AND IS – so many amazing things, to so many people.

[I start to break down here and am not able to talk]…  As an aside, I just did something that I will probably do for the rest of my life.  When I am trying to do something I think is hard, I will tell myself, like this time – with everything that Dana went through and everything she did, I am pretty sure I can keep talking!

Our family reunions each year in Rangeley, Maine over the past almost 30 years have provided us many stories, and one that perfectly captures Dana’s strength.  We have hiked up Saddleback Mountain almost every year; it’s a seven-miles-straight-up steep hike.  You would think that Dana, after enduring massive injuries in a car accident the year before, would take hiking off of the “to do” list.  Keep in mind that the doctors told Dana that she might never walk again, she was likely going to lose her left leg completely.  They obviously didn’t know Dana very well.  She willed her leg to heal, so much so that she not only kept her leg, she was able to walk again.  Some would stop with this miracle.  Not Dana.

In the summer of 2010, she wanted to hike Saddleback Mountain again.  Despite her family’s protests – and for those who know her best, maybe because of them – she was going to climb that mountain on her healing-but-still-shattered legs.   So she did.  For hours, pretending all the while that she was not in pain, jaw set with determination, she climbed on and on, one step at a time, until she reached the top.  That stubbornness, that persistence, that striving – always – to reach the top of that next mountain.  That is our Dana.  She was always our PowerGirl.

In Fall 2010, when fate dealt her an impossible hand, an inconceivable cancer diagnosis, Dana could have handled that news so many ways.  She could have wallowed in self-pity. She could have given up when the pain became too great.  She did none of those things.

Instead, Dana shared her journey publicly and fought her disease head-on.  Dana focused on and taught us all about the things that matter most in life, the little things that are not so little, after all.  When Dana was no longer able to eat solid foods, she wrote to tell the rest of us, in her own words, “ENJOY everything you put in your mouth. Savor it. You have no idea how good food tastes until you can no longer have it.”  More recently, when she was too weak to move and could not get out of bed – what she shared with the world was, “I am sooooooo happy that the weather allows the fresh air to come into my room.”  She described the fresh air as “beautiful.”

What an incredible world we would live in if each one of us lived life the way that Dana did.  If every day each one of us was grateful for each bite of food we eat, the fresh air we breathe, the pain-free steps we take as we walk down the street. Dana lived life with gratitude and grace under circumstances none of us can fully comprehend.

Yes, she is an inspiration, but that is only part of the story.  Dana taught me to believe in the power of the human spirit, the soul.  Dana defied virtually every prognosis about her length of time on this earth.  In February she noticed that the maple trees had been tapped, and set her sights again on living to see and feel one more Spring.  As Dana put it, she wanted to “see everything in bloom one more time.”  She willed herself to live first until Spring, then until her 45th birthday, all months beyond the date her doctors told her that her body should fail.

She always lived life on her own terms.  Dana Todd made her own rules.  She showed us all that the power of the human spirit, the power of the soul, is greater than we ever could have imagined.  With a soul that strong, I have to believe that Dana’s soul carries on forever, that life is truly eternal, she is still with us now and always will be.

She has taught me to believe; that there is no time other than now to believe in yourself, stand up for yourself, and appreciate every moment of this life.  Some of Dana’s favorite quotes say it best:

“One day at a time–this is enough. Do not look back and grieve over the past for it is gone; and do not be troubled about the future, for it has not yet come. Live in the present, and make it so beautiful it will be worth remembering.”
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

I live my life differently now because of Dana.  I think I always will.  Each time I force myself to run just a little bit farther or faster, I’ll feel Dana’s spirit.  Each time I call someone out for saying something mean or wrong and speak my truth, I’ll know that Dana is there.  Each time our family holds on, hugs on, and loves on one another, each gale of laughter at a family reunion, each time we appreciate the precious moments of life, of love, of family, the things that really matter most… Dana is right there with us.

To paraphrase Dana, life is about giving the gift of your time and your love to family, friends, and loved ones.  Truly, in the end, nothing else matters.

If we can hold onto those precious moments, hold onto Dana’s passion for life, and live in some small way with half of the gratitude and grace that Dana lived in her time here on this earth, then we can hold onto the beauty of her spirit and keep her right here with us.  Forever.

One response to “She Taught Me To Believe

  1. Thank you for sharing these words I was not able to be there last Sat. I will always remember Dana and her insperational words she truly has touched my heart. I will miss her sweet smile and her hugs when we saw eachother. God Bless you and your family… ❤ Patty McGuire

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