This is Judith and her beautiful friend Prima.
For years Judith and I have crossed paths during Saturday runs along the Barton Creek Greenbelt. We wave, exchange a few friendly words, and sometimes stop to pet her aging greyhounds, who always trail behind as she darts swiftly over roots and rocks.
Judith is perpetually bright and smiling. She applauds my running group for making time for friendship and fitness, and we beam at her praise. Everything about Judith radiates joy and light. In the summer she wears tiny bun-hugger shorts that are smaller than anything my fit, 40-something-year-old friends and I sport in public. She rocks these shorts. My friends and I all agree on two things: Every run where we see Judith is a good run, and we all want to be her when we grow up.
I shot this photo on the morning of Christmas Eve when I was running with two friends. We had not seen Judith in a while and immediately noticed that she had only one dog with her. We stopped to talk and she shared the story of her other dog’s final days and the beautiful, loving send-off she gave him. The conversation shifted toward the heaviness of grief and how every new pain can revive buried ones from the past. She was philosophical and open, and clearly at peace even amidst the heartache. We stood there under a canopy of oak and juniper, soaking up this beautiful human as she poured out her heart to three women she has only known at a distance.
It was a powerful, intimate moment that lasted maybe 10 minutes.
After gathering ourselves and wiping our eyes, we went our separate ways. I couldn’t shake what I was feeling, though. Judith had stirred something in me on this sacred day. I wanted to bottle it somehow, and I immediately regretted not asking to take her photo.
We ran on for several minutes until I convinced my friends to turn around early and try to track down Judith. At a minimum, I needed to tell her something. If I were lucky, she would let me take her photo as well.
We caught up with her eventually, and if she was surprised to see us she didn’t show it. Swallowing a lump of emotion, I told her that today, along with being Christmas Eve, was also my Mom’s birthday. “In honor of her memory, I always look for beautiful moments on my Mom’s day. And you are that moment, Judith.”
We hugged. I tried not to cry. It was both awkward and completely natural. It felt like everything vulnerability should be: uncomfortable but affirming. It was the perfect start to a day in which I always reserve time for contemplation and memories.
For as long as I can remember I have sought out the Judiths in my life. I learned this from my mother. In fact, everything I know about seeking beauty and joy came from my mom. These were her greatest gifts to me.
When my mom was 38 years old, she was diagnosed with a chronic, progressive form of multiple sclerosis. A year later she was confined to a wheelchair. Her future held decades of emergency room scares, ICU visits, near-misses, and too many physical losses to catalog. She spent the last 10 years of her life in bed, relying on a ventilator for every breath.
And yet. Even with her limitations and losses, my mom radiated serenity. She found pleasure in every bird that visited the feeders hanging outside her window, or in the backyard wind chimes singing with the breeze. She exhausted libraries of their audiobook collection. Long after she lost her ability to speak, she could tell you with her eyes that she loved you.
Throughout her life, doctors, nurses and therapists marveled at my mom’s attitude. Over and over we heard, “There is just something so resilient and positive about her.” She saw beauty in most everything. I have no doubt she would have seen it in Judith.
It’s been 5 years since my mom died, and the sharp edges of grief have softened. I think I’m finally accepting that even if I can’t walk with her in my daily life, I can carry the lessons she left me. I can seek out beauty and joy and light. I can embrace–and if necessary, chase down–the Judiths in my life and tell them how they make my world brighter. What a gift indeed.