An Ode to 26 – reflecting on another year in a period of loss

Every year on the 21st of April I like to take some time to write. I write about the things from the last 12 months that have surprised me, saddened me or brought me joy. Then I look ahead to the next 12 months, another year of life, and write about the things I hope to achieve, places I hope to travel, and relationships I hope to learn from and enrich. Sometimes I’ve shared those thoughts here, other times I’ve kept them to myself but this year the words didn’t seem to flow out of me, as they so often do.

I had every intention of posting a fresh blog last Friday, my 26th birthday. Birthdays are, like the first of the year, a signal of a new beginning for me, a fresh start, a clean state. Birthdays are the perfect day to reflect on the past and hope for the future. Yet as I began to reflect on the past year; and there have been so many highlights to be thankful for; I was reminded of the loss of two important people to me in the last few months, two women that will never celebrate another birthday like I was able to celebrate last Friday.

It’s been a while since I’ve spoken to either of these women, but the times when we were close were some of the most influential periods of my life, and so their loss felt heavy in the days and weeks following their passing, as I began to remember the memories we shared together.

 

Sarah passed away in January. She was my manager for six months at UTS and was a friend, confidante and mentor during my early career when I lacked confidence, discernment and patience as a new working graduate. Sarah was kind, wise, courageous and so joyful and taught me about having a thankful attitude through all of life’s trials. Through her, I learnt how to be a better communicator, how to have successful conversations with even the most difficult leadership at UTS, and how to keep a level-head and laugh when things don’t always go to plan (and in our roles managing a leadership program of over 2,500 students, something was always bound to go wrong!). We finished every day with laughter no matter how stressful it had been and though we sat in the basement office, I’m sure her laughter could be heard many floors above.

Emma passed away in early April. We both worked together at the Oaktree Foundation, a non-profit for under 26 year olds, seeking to end extreme poverty. I had the privilege of traveling with Emma to East Timor in July 2011 to see some of Oaktree’s community development programs first hand. Emma was the youngest on our trip but took on the role of trip mentor as she was gifted with a wisdom and patience far beyond her years (and ours!). Though I learnt a lot through many late night conversations and early morning sunrises with Emma on that trip, it’s been the last few years as Emma has chronicled her journey with Stage 4 Melanoma (through Dear Melanoma) that I’ve been the proudest of my friend, and learnt the most from her. Emma didn’t let her terminal diagnosis stop her from living a life full of travel, marriage, time with family and friends new business opportunities and fundraising for Melanoma research. She took each day by the reigns and used her prognosis to become an ambassador for sun safe awareness, become an inspiration to many diagnosed with, or caring for a family member with Melanoma, and above all teach us what it truly meant to be grateful for every day.

 

As I began to reflect on the past year as I turned 26, it didn’t feel right to celebrate an age Emma would never turn (she was due to be 26 in a few months) or an age Sarah would never be able to celebrate with her teenage children. Yet as I reflected on their lives and the lessons they taught me, I realized that not celebrating every new year was exactly the opposite of how they’d lived their last few years.

Seeing in another year of life, whether young or old, is such a profound privilege. In the past, my birthday was my favourite day of the year because it was all about me (guilty!), but this year it’s my favourite day of the year, because I am truly grateful to be here.

This weekend, I’ll start thinking about the last year and what I hope the next twelve months will bring (and I’ll save that for a future blog post!), but for now I’m grateful for another year of life and hope to achieve just some of what Sarah and Emma accomplished in their short, but beautiful lives. Rest in Peace, my dear friends.

If you’re interested, you can donate to the Melanoma Institute Australia through Emma’s tribute page here. X

Caitlin 26 Portrait

 

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