Funerals can be happy events

I found out yesterday that a good friend of mine from elementary school died the day before Valentine’s Day.

I hadn’t seen her in many years, but I felt the need to attend her funeral today at the Catholic Church of the Nativity in Lutherville, Md. — a suburb of Baltimore — and found the experience to be a happy one.

Of course I wasn’t happy that Stacy Burke Danko, 44, had recently died. She was a very important part of my life when I was young, and upon learning of her death, I’ve discovered she remained an extraordinary force in the lives of so many.

I met Stacy Burke when we were young children. Our parents were friends and we went to the same school and church.

In the second grade we had become so inseparable that we declared our never-ending love for one another and had a mock wedding ceremony, with my sister acting as the priest, to make our union official.

Stacy was an energetic and spontaneous girl. She was goofy and wild and just attracted friends easily.

Stacy also had cystic fibrosis and her parents were told that she wouldn’t live past the age of 18.

I remember my mother telling me this when I was young, but it never seemed possible that Stacy — a girl with such spirit and enthusiasm — could be chronically sick.

Though Stacy would talk about her disease, she never dwelled on it, let it slow her down, or let it define her.

Like most second-grade romances, Stacy and I grew apart, found separate circles of friends when we were no longer in the same class in school, and our contact with each other through junior high school was limited to the occasional friendly greeting in the hall.

We ended up going to different high schools and would bump into each other once in a while, and we’d share a laugh and chuckle about our childhood antics.

I ran into Stacy at a party when we were in our 20s and she told me that she still had the tinfoil ring with the tip dipped in nail polish that I had given to her at our second-grade wedding, a gift she said was very special to her.

I did think about Stacy during the next 20 years, but didn’t see her.

I heard from other friends and her brother Brian that she had become a nurse, gotten married, had a son and two daughters, gotten divorced and had become a crusader for research and public awareness for cystic fibrosis, the disease that had continued to dog her.

When I received word of her death, and read the obituary in The Baltimore Sun, I just knew I wanted to pay my respects to her family and attend her funeral service, and I’m so glad that I did.

The church was so packed, they had to set up chairs in the vestibule, and I was about to find out why.

Her children told funny stories about their mother that made me realize that funny little girl had grown into a free-spirited woman who continued to appreciate each day as if it was her last.

One of her dear friends spoke about how Stacy knew her time in this world was limited, so she saw each day as a gift.

I also had to the chance to see old friends who were very important to me. I sat with two people I attended high school with and it was a moving reunion.

Though tears were shed during the Mass and the reception afterward, I didn’t leave the church with sad feelings.

I walked away happy that Stacy had touched so many lives and, in death, brought us all together to enjoy one another and celebrate her beautiful life.

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