“You never know who you’re going to meet.”
Cliché though it may seem, it’s remarkable how true that phrase is. One of the great beauties in life is the realization that we meet and interact with certain people in our daily lives unaware of the impression they make.
On Dec. 9, one of the most special, kind and remarkable women that I had ever met, passed away. Lisa-Marie Calderone-Stewart finally found some much-needed rest after her more than two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. I met her five years ago, and my only regret is not having the pleasure to have known her sooner; quite simply, she was a saint.
I don’t say that in hindsight. I realized that the very first time I met her. At the time, I was interviewing for a scholarship program offered at the House of Peace, a non-profit Capuchin Franciscan ministry on the north side of Milwaukee. I was noticeably nervous, it being my first meaningful interview, until Lisa introduced herself. I don’t remember any of the questions or answers during those 45 minutes, just the fact that Lisa, one of my interviewers, and was smiling the entire time. She was just happy. And nice. Even a little too nice to be true, I thought. But it was true and genuine. I couldn’t help but feel cheerful by the end.
Thankfully, I received the scholarship and became a part of the House of Peace Youth Leadership Ministry, or the teen leaders as Lisa dubbed our group of high school teens. As a part of the scholarship we received, all 16 of us, freshman through seniors, presented several interactive workshops designed to teach nonviolent conflict resolution to Milwaukee inner-city middle school youth. In preparation, we were required to attend monthly leadership training, all led by Lisa.
Through those meetings, I truly got to know Lisa. She was always so full of energy, easily the most animated and quirky person in the room. She smiled, she laughed and, more notably, she was kind. She always looked at the positives in everyone and in everything. As hard as I try, I cannot and do not remember a single negative word or comment ever coming from her. She was so dedicated to her work, to her time with us and with the House of Peace. The passion with which she spoke about faith, leadership, her infinite ideas for teen empowerment during every meeting was simply remarkable, breathtaking and invigorating. She desired to make a difference, but, more than that, she desired to help us, the teens, embody and be that difference.
In October 2009, she broke the news to us during our meeting; she had been diagnosed with cancer, with the expectation that she had no more than six months left to live. Everyone was in tears, Lisa included. What was astonishing was that she didn’t cry about the prospect of dying, but rather about leaving us, about leaving her work at the House of Peace unfinished, about everything and everyone else but herself.
The year went on, and Lisa so admirably continued to attend the meetings, and even though her physical health noticeably deteriorated and she often was just left a spectator, she was as full of life as ever. Just seeing her smile, so vibrantly happy behind her otherwise frail body, brought us to tears and motivated us to work harder, to make sure her last days were enjoyable. Remarkably, those six months passed, but she was still here. A year, 18 months passed, and she was still with us.
If you didn’t know it, you would be oblivious to the fact that she was terminally ill. She just kept defying the odds, and still kept smiling. I last saw her during her book signing over this last summer, but nothing during that day ever led me to believe that I wouldn’t see her again over winter break after returning from college. And so, I left that bookstore and gave her a rather half-hearted goodbye.
I quite didn’t expect the news of her death to hit me as it did. That night, I stayed in my room, and just thought. No tears, just many memories looming, none as prominently as the fact that I didn’t really say goodbye. But, in the midst of that, I realized that Lisa would not have cared. She wouldn’t have wanted me to focus on the negative thoughts.
At that moment, in spite of myself, I smiled. I even chuckled. Suddenly, thoughts of guilt and sadness dissipated, only to be replaced by a gratifying reflection on the impact she had in my life. She changed me, taught me some of the most valuable life lessons: how to approach life and one’s goals with vitality, with energy, with fullness of heart; how to have passion and love for what you do; how to have faith and believe that you have been placed on this earth to make it better; how to smile and sprinkle in just enough laughter and fun to make every day not just bearable, but pleasurable and satisfying.
Lisa’s biggest impact lies in helping me understand the meaning of hope. The workshops which the teen leaders presented, a brainchild of Lisa, had a name and a focus, one which, as I now realize, was the central message Lisa wished to leave with us: Hope is something you do.
Have hope in your dreams, hope in others, hope in your faith, hope in the difference you can be and make in your world, however big or small that world may be for you. Have hope that, even in the midst of all the problems and obstacles that arise in our lives, a smile can always make it better. Hope is not passive; it is actively shown, demonstrated in your attitude and approach toward your everyday life.
Hope is something you do, and it’s something always done best with a smile. Thanks, Lisa!
(Espino, a 2011 graduate of Marquette University High School, Milwaukee, is studying economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. His home parish in Milwaukee is St. Vincent de Paul.)