I never thought I’d stay in a small community. Teenage friends and I spent plenty of time dreaming about the day when we could leave the country roads behind and move into a world where no one knew our name. It seemed, at the time, that big dreams could only be fulfilled in big cities.
That’s not true of course. Maybe you know this, too?
Here’s a little secret about small communities: We support each other. Here’s a little secret about small communities in Nebraska: Ours are some of the best.
That’s a biased statement, I know. I hope you feel the same way about your home. I have a feeling you might.
This week our Nebraska community lost a dear friend. Michelle Hilkemann was young, beautiful and cared for so many. Have you heard the saying “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon?” It basically means that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart.
In this community, you don’t need to go through six individuals to find a connection to Michelle. Everyone knew her. And if for some reason you didn’t, your friend or your mom or your sister or your co-worker did.
She was just that wonderful.
Our paths crossed many times in this life. One of my brightest memories of her came on a cold snowy night in December close to Christmas. Our doorbell rang, and when we opened it, we saw Michelle smiling her cheerful grin, holding a plate full of cookies. We didn’t know it at the time but her cancer was back, trying to rob her of life’s incredible blessings.
She didn’t allow it.
Michelle’s funeral was packed. We all knew it would be. Pew after pew held familiar faces. We squeezed in tight to make room for each person fortunate enough to know her. And when her boys walked down that church aisle, an entire community poured out love.
I could feel it. I bet you did, too.
I haven’t been to many funerals, and — God willing — I won’t increase that average for quite some time. They aren’t for the departed, as the souls who pass are already among the angels in Heaven. I believe funerals are for the living, for those of us left behind to spend our days clinging to hope and goodness and faith.
Michelle was granted only 43 years on this earth, but in her time, she was able to capture its glory as so many wish to do. I asked her last spring to write about her journey. I wanted to hear her words and learn about her fight to beat cancer. I expected anger, but it wasn’t there. In her story she wrote about her family, friends and the community where she felt loved. No anger or bitterness. Just life.
“Some days are great,” she told me. “Some days aren’t. My philosophy is this: When faced with something like cancer, you have two choices. You can stay home, feel sorry for yourself, give up and die. Or, you can choose to fight the fight each day and live your life to the absolute fullest. I choose to live my life to the fullest.”
And she did. We all should learn something from that.
Michelle’s sendoff gave me the chance to remember that this life, as challenging as it may be, is pretty great. And the people whom we’re lucky enough to know are pretty great. And the communities where we live are pretty great, too.
Michelle chose to live her days in a community that some would call small. Size doesn’t matter, really. Large, small or medium sized — everyone knew her name. The good ones are hard to forget.