family at dinner table with woman laughing

Linda Williams was a Grandmother to three beautiful grandkids, and that was the thing that she loved most in her life. I got to know Linda a few years back. Most mornings I would start work around 5 am, and I could bet on Linda riding up to the gym and parking her red Cannondale bike right there up front.

See, Linda had just moved to the suburb of Atlanta I was working in to be closer to her daughter, and those grandkids. Over the years she had put on a bit more weight than she’d wanted to. Hence coming to the gym. And making friends with people who could’ve been her mom’s age in the water aerobics class.

She’d come into the gym and do a few rounds on the machines before heading into the locker room to get changed for her water aerobics class. That’s where she hung out with most of her friends. Linda certainly wasn’t old by any means. She was 57 and had bright eyes that locked onto you. Once she was talking to you, there was no getting away. Not because you couldn’t get away, but because you didn’t want to. Linda was gonna make sure you knew that you were the center of her world at that moment.

I still remember the first time I got caught in that Linda Williams tractor beam. She came bouncing into the gym, just like she did on most mornings, walked right up to me like I was the only person in the whole wide world, and said:

“Hey Tanner, when’s the best time to plant a tree?”

“Uhhh, I don’t know, Linda? Maybe in the Spring? I’ve never really been a green thumb.”

“No. You always overthink things, boy. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

But the gym wasn’t the only place she was known.

She was a regular at the Starbucks across the street and the bookstore a few blocks over. Most days I’d stop by that bookstore and, more often than not, I’d find Linda meticulously searching for her next book. The thing she’d read every morning while drinking coffee, watching the sunrise from her porch.

In the six months since Linda showed up in that quiet little Atlanta suburb, she seamlessly became a pillar of that community. She was someone that everyone knew, and more than that, she was someone that everyone liked to know. She was always there to listen to you, to talk to you, and to make sure that you knew you were heard. She had even managed to drop about 20lbs since moving.

Then something changed.

See, for all the joy that Linda brought into the lives, one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, and the lives of a couple of my clients, also involves Linda.

On a warm August, Wednesday morning at about 8:30 am Linda walked out of the locker room after her water aerobics class. It was a quieter time in our gym, and around then is when Linda always loved to come hang around the front desk, drink coffee, and gossip with the staff. When we got to feel like we were friends with Linda, and I think when Linda got to feel like she was friends with us.

But on that Wednesday morning, not a thing went as planned.

Linda came walking out of the locker room, and I wished I could say it was all the same as normal, but in reality, it was anything but. She looked more pale than normal. Her normally bright and smiling eyes were as wide as dinner plates, concerned and frantic. She started to clutch at her chest, and that’s when she took about 3 steps and collapsed. Right there on the gym floor. A mere 20 feet from my manager, two of my co-workers, a couple of my clients, and myself.

We weren’t even the first people to Linda. That was a member at the gym who was on a machine right next to her. As fate would have it, he also happened to be a paramedic. He immediately went to work on Linda, while we called 911.

By the time the ambulance got there, Linda was gone.

I’ll never forget that day. It will forever go down as the most memorable day of my career, if for no other reason than the sheer magnitude of it. It was something that rocked our community down to the bedrock for months to come. Something that left all of us reeling, in more ways than one.

But then something funny started to happen. Especially at the gym.

People started to do things in remembrance of Linda. We started to host fun-runs in her name and donated the money to diabetes foundations, a particular point of interest for Linda. We put up a memorial for Linda in my gym, and it wasn’t long before we were constantly involving Linda’s daughter and grandchildren in everything we were doing.

In her passing, Linda became a sort of rallying cry for many of us. Someone that served as a reminder that we no longer had time to wait. That if there was something we wanted in life right now, it was something that we must chase after. We had to chase after it with the fierce kind of reckless abandon that flirted with insanity and love every minute of it.

She became a totem to help us remember what was important in life. A reminder that, deep down, we probably all know what we want. It’s just on us to chase it. It’s on us to put as much love and care into our relationships as we possibly can. It’s on us to recognize that the best time in the world to change is right now. Because there is no other time that is actually guaranteed.

At least, that’s what my good friend Linda taught me.

I tell you the story of Linda because to me, there’s no better story that encapsulates the lesson of an ancient Chinese proverb. That same proverb that Linda told me about.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

That’s a line that I’ve heard thousands of times, said probably hundreds of different ways. You’ve probably heard it too. But the amazing thing is that the truth of that proverb, and the truth of Linda’s story, remains the same. And it’s a truth that remains deeply applicable to each and every single one of us.

We all have things that we’ve put off. Monsters hiding under our bed. Problems that we’re afraid to shine a light on for fear of that finally making them real. But those monsters are like compounding interest. Every single day that you don’t face up to them, they only grow more in size. And the longer that goes, the more out of control they get. And the more out of control they get, the more time and energy we have to spend just ignoring them.

And I get why we don’t want to face our fear. Our biggest fears often live in the mirror. They live in us. It’s one thing to solve someone else’s problem. We don’t have to bring that home at night. But solving our own problems? Well, those live in our bed, our head, and our reflection. That’s exactly where they’re waiting, and that’s a different ballgame. It’s scary and it’s heading off into the wild unknown. It’s taking a risk on yourself, knowing that you might fail. And let’s all be real; failing can be a painful experience.

But take a lesson from Linda, just as I have every single day since, doing new things like moving to a new city, starting a new fitness program, and chasing a weight loss goal are all hard things. They’re even harder when done all together. Those are hard things that not many people can manage. But you know what else is hard? Waking up every single morning knowing that one more day has passed without you choosing to take the plunge. That you have one fewer day to make that decision.

They’re both hard. But it’s up to you to choose your hard. Or, like Linda taught me on that warm August morning:

It’s on us.

And, you know, I think that’s good news.

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