A Tribute to My Friend, Sylvia Bays

It’s been a decade since Sylvia Bays came into my life—a tall, stately woman who oozed casual elegance. But after the first few meetings that persona melted away and what emerged was a strong spirit—an unfinished woman, for certain, who was quietly in search of truth—of knowing herself  beyond the roles that she played and then simply BEING THAT.

Wherever she was, be it Iona, Scotland, the Kenwood Inn in Sonoma, Cape Cod on retreat, her cozy home on Balboa Island, visiting children in Syracuse and Modesto, you could be certain she would be involved—aware that the sand moving through the sand timer never stops and thus, not a second of this precious life should be taken for granted.

Then came the dreadful diagnosis. A doctor, at his most insensitive, gave her the grim prognosis and Sylvia (who rarely felt the slightest bit sorry for herself) teared up.

“What are the tears for,” the doctor asked.

“I’m not ready to go,” she answered, promptly exiting his office with a quiet determination. She had miles to go before she slept, and so began her crusade of connection—criss-crossing the country via airplane—touching down like a fairy godmother waving her wand of love.

Relationship was everything to Sylvia—be it a friend, family member, son or daughter. She was truly a  GRAND mother to us all. And how we benefited from her quiet generosity, snippets of wisdom, unfounded compliments, and encouragement. Whenever I needed a dose of truth or a no nonsense perspective on anything I would call Sylvia. She always had a more than satisfactory answer to get me through a crisis or calm me down in the midst of one.

What’s more, Sylvia’s suggestions were always to the point. “Don’t get involved in your son’s divorce—it will eat you alive. Being alone is better than being with someone non-authentic. Make sure your grandchildren know who you are. Compliment, don’t criticize. Love. Touch. Hug. Breathe. And at the end of the day, get down on your knees and thank God for all the blessings he has bestowed upon you up until now.”

She also forgave herself the few mistakes she made, taking solace from the poet Robert Frost:

“Do you have hope for the future?” someone asked Frost.

“Yes, and even for the past, that it will turn out to have been all right for what it was…something  we can accept, mistakes made by the self we had to be or was not able to be.”

Fortunately, for Sylvia, she had learned a long time ago that for her, love was the ruling principle and authentic connection was a must. She stepped up her game, particularly with her grandchildren. (Even her old email address  identified her as grammy@something.com).

She hardly ever missed a musical performance or  sporting event, made it to everyone’s First Holy Communion, took her grandsons camping, and who could forget the infamous trip to  Disney World.

As for the grand daughters they went to London (probably to see the Queen), did some incredible shopping, indulged in fancy lunches, stayed in fun hotels, and always kept the room service people very, very busy.

So I am not surprised that she would chose to leave this earth around Valentines Day—she gave so much from the heart that we who benefited will be imbued with her love forever.

The Latin definition for inspire is to breathe life into. Funny that she succumbed to a lung ailment when she was a person who literally breathed life into others.

But most of all, what she insisted and taught me was the importance of being real. Our favorite verse was from the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit.

“What is REAL?” asked the rabbit of the Skin Horse.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” was the answer. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the horse.

“Does it happen all at once, or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once. You BECOME. It takes a long time, that’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

Generally, by the time you are REAL, most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to those people who don’t understand.”

Oh to have been blessed enough to know Sylvia.

17 thoughts on “A Tribute to My Friend, Sylvia Bays

  1. Hi Joan..I just read this. I was lucky to meet Sylvia at your retreat last year on Cape Cod. She was everything you said..truly a grand lady. I am sure she will be sending you little reminders from heaven from time to time to continue your work unafraid, and to be your authentic self…even as you face these hard times with your son’s divorce. I am so glad I got to meet her. She was a beautiful woman.

  2. Thank-you for the wonderful tribute to Sylvia, Joan. I’ve been thinking of her a lot recently from afar, as I’ve been living in MI to be close to my parents. I have so many warm memories of Sylvia in her wonderfully cozy, sunny home on the Island. But the memory I most treasure is our holding hands as we climbed up the hills on Iona. It was a difficult climb for her, as she’d been in bed sick for the first 2 days of the retreat. As I turned around and offered my hand, she took it, allowing me to pull her up and steady her on the steep ascent. We made it to the top, hand in hand. Her gracious acceptance of my support taught me so much that day. Sometimes it takes more self-assurance to gracefully accept what others are happily offering to us. And it certainly was a powerful, bonding experience to have climbed to the top of Iona together. Hand in hand. I love you, Sylvia. Susan

  3. Joan:

    I felt graced to have shared a brief moment in time with Sylvia at the Cape Code retreat last February. You could feel her spirit while engaging in the simplest of conversations. Blessed be the memories that you shared with her and that her family shared with her.

  4. I’m very sorry for the loss of your dear friend, Sylvia. This post is so touching as we are going through some difficult times with the health of our daughter, Marisa, who has Cystic Fibrosis. Her time is very limited now and it touches my heart to read: The Latin definition for inspire is to breathe life into. Funny that she succumbed to a lung ailment when she was a person who literally breathed life into others.

    That describes Marisa, she touches and inspires everyone she meets. And the quote about being REAL hangs on my wall and is something I live everyday.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely tribute.

  5. Joan,

    Thank you for the beautiful tribute. I too, lost a dear and special friend when she was 69. I reflect on our great times and the lessons I learned from her, which I deeply treasure.
    Special friends are never forgotten, only away.

  6. Ah Joan, I was so sorry to hear about Sylvia. I barely got to know her at Cape Cod last year, but she was the kind of person I knew I wanted to know better. She had a special quality about her..a wisdom, I think, from taking the lessons she learned from the difficulties in her life and using them to make her life her own. I remember thinking that “she glowed”… no doubt the world will miss that light. Well done, Sylvia… <3

  7. Joan, I was so touched by this blog about Sylvia. I hope she’s reading it as I write this. I lost my best friend when she was 41. I still want to call her up and tell her
    things. Thinking of you.

  8. Thanks for sharing Sylvia’s story. Loving unconditionally begins with forgiveness of self. Sylvia had a deep sense of who she was, is, and wanted to be which fueled her ability to live with grace and extend it freely to others.

  9. My deepest sympathy to Sylvia’s family and to you Joan. I did not know her but your writing deeply touched me. I honor the spirit in which she lived and may it be a reminder to me to live deeply every day with a heart full of gratitude.

    • indeed…each one teach one if that is possible….she taught me so much by example. I can onlly hope to hold on to her lessons (taught only by action) and better my being.

  10. Joan,
    I’m so sorry to hear of Sylvia’s death. I met her at a Cape retreat just last February. She was indeed a special woman. I only wished I had had time to know her better. I know how hard it is to lose a dear friend. My deepest sympathy.


    • Marlene, She visited me just last November even though her breathing was difficult and moving around very tough. But she had a list of things todo and she managed to accomplish it all…visiting me, thanksgiving with a daughter in Rochester, Xmas with family, taking another daughter to Las Vegas for her 50th birthday (imagine!) The sky was the limit and now she soars above us all.

      • I read your FB post on balance and touching base with those who bring meaning to your life. I keep this poem by Rilke by my bed and read it everyday:
        You see, I want a lot.
        Perhaps I want everything:
        the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
        and the shivering blaxe of every step up.

        So many live on and want nothing
        and are raised to the rank of prince
        by the slippery ease of their light judgements.

        But what you love to see are faces
        that so work and fell thirst……

        You have not grown old, and it is not too late
        to dive into your increasing depths
        where life calmly gives out its own secret.

        Keep up the Pilates, the meditation and touching those you love.

  11. Your writing is a blessing, Joan. I am moved and grateful to know Sylvia through your words—words that take me to a spiritual plane and a deeper level of insight and understanding in my own life.

    Love and Light to Sylvia’s family. Gratitude to you, for words that offered me an anchor today.

    • how wonderful if we can be an anchor to others…share, share, share that’s what we have and that is what we need to always do…us women of many lives!

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