Remembering Denise MacDonald

denise header2Denise MacDonald died this week at 53 after her motorcycle crashed outside of Truro, Nova Scotia.

I first started talking with Denise when I launched a 30X30 Challenge in August of 2012.  I asked listeners of the radio station I worked at back then to commit to going outside and doing something active for thirty minutes a day for thirty days in a row. Then, as a way of sharing ideas and holding ourselves accountable, we had to post a picture each day of us being active.

When 644665_10151047992282030_1782657722_nDenise reached her first milestone goal on her weight loss journey she sent me this picture from the grocery store.  She’s proudly hugging twenty-five pounds of potatoes.  They represented the twenty-five pounds she’d lost over the six months.

The core group of people who joined me on that challenge got really close and became a great support network for each other. Rather than always doing our own activities we organized a couple of group hikes too.  We started out easy at the Baille Ard Nature Trails in Sydney, Nova Scotia.   At that point I probably hadn’t walked a trail or spent any time in the woods since I was 12.

That was the first night I met Denise face to face, and actually only one of three times we ever met in person.  The last two years have been filled with regular Facebook chats and check-ins as we both continued to invest in ourselves and our health while facing a bunch of new challenges in our lives.  Her blind belief in me made me stronger.

As we walked the trail that first night she told me about how much her life had been opening up since she took control and started losing weight.  Her confidence was up.  She was laughing more.  She was full of the urge to live in a new way.

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In the weeks that followed she posted photos to our group of her doing new things: playing on a trampoline, belly dancing, doing tae kwon do and of course – head to toe in leather showing off her new motorcycle. And if I’m being honest, there was also a really creepy picture of her in pigtails playing with a skipping rope that we all lovingly mocked her for endlessly. But that was Denise. Part of her success was returning to that youthful drive to just find fun in everything she did.  Her constant smile and her laugh changed from being something she hid behind, to something that reflected her new outlook on life.  She told me she could hear the difference in her laugh, now that it was real.  She chopped off her hair after decades of hiding behind the strands.

I keep in touch with a couple of hundred people just like Denise – who have reached out and shared their struggles.  People who have met my honesty with their own.  Our friendships aren’t broad – but they are deep.   Most of these people I know little about aside from their struggle to change and get out from under their extra weight.  But the connection is strong, the friendship is real, and the impact is incredible.   Like one woman put it last week – we’re like soldiers swapping war stories.  We won’t talk about our struggles with people who haven’t lived through it.  We are broken and we feel safe opening up with other broken people. This blog and my book are my attempts to change that. It comes from my news background.  Honesty keeps us clean.

I’m not a religious guy, and I don’t believe in much beyond our own capacity to help ourselves by helping others.   I can’t make sense of her family and friends losing her but there is a small comfort in knowing that for a little while we helped each other help ourselves, and both our lives were bigger for it, even if not for very long.

And again we’re reminded to make the hard choices and big changes it takes to find joy in the body and life you have now because one of these days you’re going to count a “tomorrow” you might not get.

If Denise had known it was all going to end at 53, she surely would have made the changes sooner than 51.

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