One recent evening, I heard the shocking news that she had passed. Aja ("asia"), daughter of a very dear friend of mine, one of the most soulful and vibrant young ladies I had ever met. She'd passed in the night, it wasn't known how, and a ripple of disbelief rocked the world around her.
I met Aja through her mother Ginger, and instantly adored her. The kind of person who wasn't afraid to tell you that she loved you, she had either outgrown the scarcity myth around love being special, reserved for only those precious few around you, or she never bought into it in the first place.
One day out of the blue she asked me to photograph her wedding in Kauai. Feeling incompetent, I said, "But Aja, I'm not a real photographer. Your wedding photos should be stunning, and what if the ones I take aren't?"
Without stomping her foot down, it was as if she did. Emphatically, she said, "Jessie, I love you. I want you to photograph my wedding."
She clearly didn't wait to die before getting the "Love is All That Matters" memo. The wisest don't.
And so it was. Months later I found myself immersed in the tropical kiss of fiery Kauai herself, photographing a feisty mermaid in her gown. And when we reached the "Trash the Dress" session on the beach in Hanalei, I found myself taking photos in my bikini. I thought I was dreaming. Not to be in Kauai, not to be photographing a wedding there, but to be doing it in my bikini -- let's just say that's not exactly my comfort zone attire. Aja's free-spirited affection and acceptance of me had opened a window to a place where it didn't matter how much fat I had on my thighs. I was loved, happy and free.
Hundreds of other people have stories like this about Aja. Somehow she was an expert at making people feel loved. I assert there is no greater art in the human experience.
Hearing of her death left a hollow dark pit in my chest, especially when I thought of the pain her mother must be feeling. Part of me still doesn't believe she's gone. A light that burned so intensely bright.
I imagined those creamy childhood cherub cheeks her mother would kiss as a child. The squeals she'd make when she landed a perfect gymnastics move. Her smooth, assuring voice and how her two younger brothers, Tyler and Travis, would do without their older sister's wise embrace.
And her father. She was the apple of his eye, every second of her precious life. Would they ever get over this?
Soon I decided No, they wouldn't. Just as she thought, spoke and moved so vivaciously through life while breathing, Aja would live with no less of a spark after she left her body. The pit of sadness left in the hearts of all who love her, would feed the depth of empathy and love we were all capable of choosing, and might even be moved to choose more, once she had gone.
At her ceremony, held in a gym packed wall to wall, it was the words of her father that broke the dam withholding tears inside my chest.
"This is not a sad day." Tim Chew spoke into the microphone. And just when I thought he might gloss over the sadness, highlighting only the beautiful life she lived, he continued, "No, this is not about sadness. If it were, there would be no flowers. There would be nobody here..." He went on, "What is sad is all the people who die every day unnoticed, unnamed." Dam, busted. That a man so eternally in love with his first born, his only daughter, on this day dedicated to her, could take it to this level... Pulling from within his noble heart, a voice for those far less fortunate than his daughter. Awe.
Dear Aja, I am truly touched by your existence. Your wide open love made me feel like an instant big sister, and your acceptance helped me feel free in my own skin. I was one of many witnesses to how you loved, and my life is forever better because of you. Thank you for living. Shine on, feisty mermaid.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. (Fred) Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.