We’re surrounded by them. Extraordinary people infiltrate our life and often we don’t even notice. Although I’m generally not an observant person, people’s motives, internal conflicts and values intrigue me. I may not notice you walk by me on the street, but in a conversation I’m obsessed with that quirky thing you do when you’re nervous, or the slightest change in speech cadence/intonation when you talk about a particular subject or that passive aggressive mind game you’re playing that stems from deep-seated insecurities (Gasp! People do that? Yep, especially the ones with boobs.)
My point being, I eventually notice when I’m in the company of an extraordinary person…and I think they should be recognized.
I met Tiffany (T-bird) Barrett in 2004 on my first day working as a design engineer at Kenworth Truck Company. She started working there a week earlier and we became fast friends — the way two fish out of water are prone to do. I met Aaron, Tiffany’s husband, a couple of months later in the critical care unit at Swedish Hospital. Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to Aaron a week ago today at his Life Celebration service.
Tiffany and Aaron are extraordinary people. A few days before I met Tiffany, Aaron was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live. Even with this catastrophic shift occurring in Tiffany’s world, you would be hard-pressed to know she was grappling with true life or death decisions. She’s a pragmatist. She knew she couldn’t cure the cancer, but she knew she could be Aaron’s voice and advocate. Instead of floundering or despairing the unfairness of it all, she stayed true to her mission to get Aaron well.
The only time I saw Tiffany crack was one day at work, months into the battle, when she sent me an email that said “can you bring some tissue to my desk?” Finally given the chance to help out in a tangible way, I ran to the bathroom and grabbed a whole roll of toilet paper. When I handed it to her, she wiped her eyes and then gave me a look that said this is merely a few tears, not a damn flood – get it together woman! Calling T-bird STRONG (with capital letters, of course) is an understatement.
That first time we met Aaron in the hospital I was a little bewildered. After introductions he immediately started asking about something going on in our (Toby and my) life. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but Tiffany must have told him about some problem – probably something car related – and Aaron wanted to fix it. All I could think was DUDE. We’re in the hospital to visit YOU…the one hooked up to all the machinery. We’re here to talk about, support and care for YOU. But that was just Aaron – his kindness and grace shined through even on his worst days. He was all about loving on, caring for, and protecting those around him.
I tried to relate that little anecdote at his service, but of course I just babbled incoherently. I don’t speak in public. I loathe it and suck at it – a delightful combination that had Toby looking positively horrified as I pushed past him to get at the microphone. He was rightfully worried since I have a tendency to interject entirely-too-personal facts when I get nervous. But I wanted to stand up for Aaron. I wanted to stand up and tell everyone he was a good man. An extraordinary man. But I was just repeating the basis of all the stories his family and friends told.
Below are a couple of inspiring stories you can read about Aaron’s battle with cancer that ran over six years, including a brief period of remission and recovery in 2007:
Through those years Tiffany was constantly by Aaron’s side, supporting and encouraging him, researching and advocating for him. But one of my favorite memories of Tiffany and Aaron is from one of the many times the tables were turned and Aaron took the role of supporter. T-bird and I did the Danskin Triathlon in 2005. Aaron was confined to a wheelchair and physically weak, but he was there on the sidelines, cheering Tiffany on with his trademark grin. He was so proud of his wife and so happy to be there to witness her awesomeness. Aaron’s joy in experiencing life never waned.
I honestly didn’t think Aaron would die from cancer. I think that’s because he never thought he would. His faith and optimism were contagious as he continued to astound doctors. The month before he passed away, Aaron was in the hospital for what started as another “maintenance run” to get his tank topped off with new blood. His Facebook statuses had cheerful messages about getting transfusions, thanking those who donate blood, raving about Ford’s (his employer) medical benefits and innovations, and thanking Tiffany for her constant compassion and patience.I felt like I was punched in the stomach when I read this post T-bird wrote on Aaron’s wall on January 31st: “To my courageous warrior, I miss you deeply & will love you forever. I know you will be our angel, always watching over us.” Aaron was gone.
The world may be short one extraordinary person, but the last six-and-a-half years galvanized the already extraordinary traits of Tiffany – a courageous warrior in her own right. While Aaron taught us how to live with grace and kindness (while fighting like hell), Tiffany selflessly put aside expectations and actively loved Aaron through the battles of life. Together, they crammed as much living into their life as possible. Extraordinary.