A week ago I received the devastating and scarcely believable news that Emma, one of the more recognisable faces from the Asperger's group had passed away at the weekend, having suffered a brain aneurysm. She was only 28.
Never before has someone's passing come as such a shock to me. I had been very lucky, perhaps unusually lucky, only to have known death at an advanced age. I was lucky enough to know all my grandparents. In 2005 my father was lucky to survive a serious heart scare, while my 28-year-old brother has lost some of his friends and colleagues in Afghanistan. These incidents have made me more aware of our mortality, but luckily I'd never known the sudden, premature death of somebody close to me.
Until last week. I'd only met Emma four times but she'd already made a significant positive impact on my life. In a world where we live in constant fear of failure, fear of appearing foolish, fear of not measuring up to our own or others' expectations, Emma seemingly had no fear. She was her own person, and I was able to be myself around her. More than that, she was happy and her laughter was remarkably contagious. Emma was very involved in the community and had a lot of friends. For a few months she had been going out with Richard, also from the Asperger's group; 2010 had the makings of a very good year for her.
A hundred people attended Friday morning's funeral, which was a true celebration of Emma's life. It was understandably a very emotional service, lasting two hours, but it wasn't a minute too long. Emma had touched so many people and they all had something to say. She was a prolific writer of poems; several of these were read out. My name even got a surprise mention in one of them - I felt quite honoured. The hymns and bible readings were very fitting, as were all the colourful balloons and Disney characters, for Emma had many childlike qualities. She was small in stature - five foot one, maybe five-two at a push - and I thought it was appropriate that her initials were ELF. Still, she was very much an independent adult and deserved to be treated as one.
After the service I talked to Richard and another bloke from the group; we agreed to meet up in Newmarket the next day for lunch to remember Emma. We ate at Burger King, which Emma liked to do, and I even managed to have what she would have called a Mr Bean moment by spilling a pint of coke all over the table. The three of us spent the rest of the afternoon together. We'd planned to see a movie but we were all a bit tired; I expect we'll do that in the next couple of weeks.
Last week's news was simply awful, and for the next three or four days I felt decidedly flat. I had no energy and everything seemed to happen in slow motion. However I now realise there are at least two positives I can take from it all. Firstly I might end up making some very good friends, and secondly the way Emma lived her life, always looking on the bright side even when times are tough, should be an inspiration for us all. I've always put a lot of emphasis on making a mark on the world, and have taken that to mean curing a disease, writing a novel or designing some architectural masterpiece. Emma made her mark by helping others and making them feel good about themselves, and that's just as big an achievement. In an age of trust funds, company pension schemes and KiwiSaver, some of us just assume we'll live to threescore and ten, perhaps a decade or two more, but in reality none of us know what's around the corner. At the end of the funeral we were shown many pictures of a happy, smiling Emma. Interspersed with those pictures were these words: Life is precious, use it wisely.