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An Extraordinary Life: A friend with priorities in place

Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor at The Herald News.
Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor at The Herald News.

On Mother’s Day, a friend of mine from high school died from complications of lung cancer.

She was an extraordinary person, but not extraordinary in the way many people think of the word.

As far as I know, she never held an office of any kind or sat on any board or volunteered any length of time for nonprofits.

She didn’t hold large holiday gatherings with traditional family recipes and inspire multiple generations  with wisdom she’d acquired through her years of experience.

And yet, in the year since we reconnected, I found her to be incredibly extraordinary for several reasons, as anyone who knew and loved her certainly found to be true.

She was kind. She was quick to give compliments to the people in her life – friends, family, hospital workers. She profusely thanked the slightest help from anyone, and it never felt false or forced.

Send her one encouraging gif and you’d get five back: “friends 4-ever,” that kind of thing. Lots of hugs and kisses. Good night and good morning gifs. Prayers for my well-being gifs.

She was patient. I watched her cancer go from stable disease to progression into her bones to interfering with her ability to walk to pain that was difficult to manage.

What I never heard (and I know this sounds cliché) was complaining. Not once. At least, not once in my direction. Never “Why me?”

But she was candid about her struggles – her cancer and some of her other life struggles.

That doesn’t mean she wasn’t ever scared because she was, sometimes. More than once, she laughed off her “chemo brain.”

Mostly, she disliked being a burden. And she strove to live independently at home as long as she could.

She was appreciative. It didn’t matter if my son fixed a cellphone issue for her or I brought her hot chocolate she liked. She gushed over it all with the excitement of winning the lottery.

Even when she spent Christmas in the hospital, she focused more on the lovely little tree that I carried from my house to her room more than she cared about spending her last Christmas in the hospital.

Not once on her Facebook page – and we were Facebook friends long before we re-met in person – did she ever grumble. Throughout her illness, many people left little posts and lots of flower pictures to brighten her day.

She thanked each person until she was unable to thank them anymore – and she thanked them with a cheerfulness that continually inspired me.

She valued friendship. We spent a couple of evenings poring over old photos from high school and reminiscing about shopping at Memory Lane inside the former Jefferson Square Mall, eating at the former Arthur Teacher’s Fish & Chips on Larkin Avenue or the going-away slumber party she hosted at her house in junior year for a good friend who moved to California.

We laughed over the “second” cake we’d made for the friend: a piece of foam the size of a sheet cake. We decorated it and brought that out as “the” cake – until the friend, of course, couldn’t cut into it.

Not all friends are true friends, and that’s no revelation to most people.

I’m not going to define the word here because “friend” means something different to each person.

But she did understand the value of friendship. And she strove to be a real friend to her friends.

She never earned much in the way of lauds or laurels or prizes or certificates. But she was a kind, patient and appreciative woman who valued friendship.

Can you imagine if every person in the world embraced those qualities?

• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or

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