A Perfect Day

(Fish Creek, WI, July, 1998) My friend, Betty’s brother and sister in law, Ralph and Helen, were scheduled to visit as they did most years during our annual Door County vacation. But this year, there was some bad news. Last spring, Helen had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Betty said it looked grim.

When they arrived, Helen seemed eager to talk about her ordeal, matter of fact, to the point, but also sad. She talked easily, realistically, but looked pale, drawn, not her usual self. Then she quickly moved from the serious to a summary of her day so far.

“We went to breakfast at the White Gull Inn,” said Helen, “I just love that place; it’s our very favorite. Then we drove past the cottage on Highway C, the one we’ve rented for the last few years. This was supposed to be our week, so the place is empty and I feel bad about that. We just couldn’t do it though. I don’t have the strength. The owners understood and wrote the nicest letter when they returned our deposit. Such nice people.”

Games were an activity that occupied much of our Door County vacation time, so it wasn’t surprising when Helen noticed a boxed set of dominos that Bonnie had brought along, hoping someone would show us how to play. Though we all remembered the game from our childhood, we were vague on the rules.

“Oh, we play dominos with our card group a lot, just for a little change of pace” Helen chimed in. “It’s an interesting game with several variations.”

Bonnie jumped on that, begged Helen who said she’d be happy to show us. Perhaps we were relieved to have something to do to lighten up this rather somber time. So, we cleared the table, set up the game and Helen proceeded to instruct us on the fine points of dominos.

We played “Mexican Train,” where each player builds their own line and wins by using all their dominos. Several hours flew by that afternoon, playing a long forgotten game on that lazy Door County day. The porch windows were open and the breeze was comforting. We were distracted occasionally by the chatter of families walking past the house to the nearby shops and by the noise of the kids at the beach across the street. We had the best time, laughing and joking, with Helen gently reminding us of the rules each time we strayed.

Later, she napped for an hour before they began their drive home. Months later, I asked Betty how Helen was and recalled how much fun we’d had that day.

“Ralph told me,” said Betty, “it was one of the best days Helen had all summer. According to Ralph, it had been a perfect day for her, she had so much energy, more than she’d had in a long time. He commented about how much she’d enjoyed playing dominos with us.”

As I listened, I thought of a book I’d read recently, Tuesdays with Morrie (by Mitch Albom, Doubleday, 1997). It’s the story of meetings between a retired professor and his former student, now a nationally known sports writer. The book was the result of the professor’s desire to leave behind a memoir, recalling how he faced his imminent death. Morrie was dying of ALS.

In one of the final chapters, they discussed what constituted “the perfect day.” For Morrie, it was the most uneventful time, passed in the company of good friends, doing what seemed to be unimportant, simple things. His perfect day would begin by going to lunch at his favorite place, then sitting in his study re-reading portions of a treasured book. Morrie’s perfect day would end by going out dancing. He loved dancing.

Until talking with Betty, I hadn’t realized we’d been a small part of Helen’s perfect day. What an honor. And what a lesson. All Morrie had, all Helen had, was their perfect day. Dancing and dominos. They’d both been determined to enjoy their lives and make the most of each day. And they each did that right up to the end.

I couldn’t help but wonder, how often I’d had a perfect day myself, but took it for granted, didn’t fully appreciate it. Since then, I’ve gained a better awareness of the, oh so important, small things. That’s included savoring relationships with family and friends, thinking more in the present instead of worrying about what has passed or what is to come.

So, what, I wonder would be my perfect day. Something very similar to Morrie’s and Helen’s. But what’s most necessary is knowing its perfect. As perfect as perfect can be.  And being satisfied with just that.

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