There’s a note on my phone that is simply 21 tally marks. Twenty-one laps my sister and I walked around the track at a Relay for Life last year. Twenty-one years of life we would have celebrated with our cousin Mason. The problem is Mason wasn’t given 21 years; he was given 14.
I suppose Mason needs a bit of an introduction, although it feels weird for me to give one because he’s never far from my heart. Mason was my best friend from birth, quite literally. I can say that because my aunt gave birth to him three months and 15 days before I was born. He was my first friend and my best one at that. There are pictures of us reaching for each other as babies — pictures that now stand as reminders to me that he loved me more than I ever knew.
Mason was diagnosed with brain cancer when we were 13 years old. When I heard, I was scared — terrified, actually. Mason, on the other hand, was calm and collected. His number one concern was me. He knew I was worried so he took me on a cousin date to show me he was okay. We went bowling, and I kicked his butt.
That night was far less about the turkey I bowled in the last frame, and far more about love. Mason wanted to show me he loved me unconditionally; he always had and he always would. He taught me love has no bounds. It doesn’t stop for anything. Not distance, not cancer, not fear, not even death.
Something that goes hand-in-hand with that love is the importance of being yourself and encouraging others to do the same. Mason was phenomenal at that. I never had to put on a mask for him. I was silly and ridiculous, and I never felt the need to impress because I knew that he loved me regardless. He loved me when I was grumpy, when I was sad and when I was bouncing up and down with excitement.
Mason loved me because he knew me, and I think that is the key to love: to love someone you have to know them. I don’t mean knowing them in the cliché “walk two miles in their shoes” way, but rather, loving them when they are their most unlovable self. You love them when you’ve seen their scars and you know their ugly truths. I think real love means knowing the bad, but seeing them as good. Mason taught me to look for that goodness in everyone, even in the people that I didn’t want to see it in — especially in those people. He believed that’s what God does.
God goes out of his way to love us. He metaphorically takes us bowling and tells us there’s nothing to worry about. He says over and over “do not fear, for I am with you.” In fact, he sent his son to die in our place because he loved us that much. There is nothing that he wouldn’t do to prove his unconditional love to us. And the best part is he loves us this much because he knows us. The real us. God doesn’t see our made-up faces; he doesn’t see our fake smiles; he sees our true “woke up like this” selves. He sees our silliness, and he loves it.
On Friday, my sister and I will begin a new set of 22 tally marks as we walk laps at Harding’s Relay for Life. As we do, I will think of Mason, and I will smile because I know he’s looking down from heaven still loving me just as deeply as he did when he was here beside me.