Forever Friends: Leaving a Legacy of Learning and Love

Friends Sylvia Patzlaff (left), Chris Clarke Epstein (middle) and me bed-dancing (instigated by Chris) at my first NSA Convention, 1987

One of my forever friends, mentor, colleague, instigator of all things creative and empowering, Chris Clarke-Epstein passed away on Friday from metastatic breast cancer. Whew. You think you can handle it and you should hold it together because that’s what she would do and want for you, and yet my walks are plodding and my heart hurts—for her, her family, for all of us who knew her and those who never will.

I know I’m writing a memoir here in this post and Chris would edit me for brevity but some moments, some lives, give and teach you so much, you ask for a one-time papal dispensation on word count.

Last Wish

I also know so many, many people are feeling as deeply as I am. Her leadership, reach, and impact on members of the National Speakers Association (NSA) and her local Wausau community are legendary. Our shared friends on Facebook number 319 and many have written such beautiful tributes and memories to Chris and I have loved reading all of them. If you didn’t know her, I hope you have a Chris in your life, and if you don’t, make it a priority to find one. And vote. Early if you can. One of Chris’s last wishes.

Along with the feelings of sadness, I’m equally grateful for all the life I was lucky to share with her and her family over the years, especially during the early growth of my speaking career and our leadership in NSA that gave me a life I never could have dreamed up on my own.

Big Sisters, Best Advice, Hardest Truths

Chris and I met at our local Wisconsin chapter back in the 1980’s. Wow, we were young and so excited to share our motivational messages and learn the speaking business. Similar to many of you, along the way Chris and I became close friends. She was the big sister I had always hoped for. She always had the best advice and sometimes the hardest truths, spoken with care and always with the intent to help me be a better me.

Chris celebrated me, encouraged me, made me laugh (including dancing on hotel room beds when we were conference roommates), lighten up, and step up, and cheered me on as we moved through NSA Chapter Leadership and into National leadership. She’s the one who whispered in my ear at a Wisconsin chapter meeting for board nominations, “Put your hand up. You’re ready. You can do this.” Two chapter presidencies followed.

“Yes, your decision is difficult for many reasons. So try this on: What is it that you most want and need? Decide for that and decide on a reasonable time to re-evaluate, let’s say, six months. And in between then, live that decision with your whole heart, no wavering or looking back, only forward until that future day arrives. Only then, evaluate and ask yourself, “Am I better off now than I was back then?” Likely you’ll be better off, but if not, you go back to the other choice or make a new one.”

Chris’s values, her belief in herself, and in me gave me the confidence to follow my heart and move to San Diego. Twenty-eight years later, it’s turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

A few months after moving to San Diego, 1992.
There is nothing like Big Talk on the beach with a best friend!

“Of course we’re here. Where else would we want to be but here!”
-Chris Clarke Epstein

My Mother, My Friend

After my mom died and while I was writing my book, “My Mother, My Friend,” Chris shared her stories and her mom JunieB with me. When the book came out, my first stop on the book tour was hometown Milwaukee at a Barnes & Noble where the most intimidating audience of family, high school and college teachers, and friends who had never seen me speak were coming. Chris and June drove four hours from Wausau and surprised me just before I was ready to go on with the biggest hugs and “You can do this.”

Chris, her mom JunieB, and me at my book signing, 2001

Happy Moments, Memories and Photos

As the years went on and our paths went in different directions, we didn’t connect as often but every phone call was as if no time had passed. Two summers ago I took her writing class and as always, her insights and edits made everything better. When her mom passed last January, Chris wrote on Facebook that she went through photos to remember her mom from her favorite memories and suggested that we not only do the same but that we remember to take the photos in those happy moments. I’m so glad I did. Over the past few days as I’ve been going through my photos, thinking about Chris, her fierce love, messages of lifelong learning, showing up, and embracing change, the words from an old Flavia card kept wandering into my mind. I finally looked it up. For those of you who knew Chris, I think you’ll agree that she was all of this and more…

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to a new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom. Some people make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. They stay in our lives for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.”

– Flavia
Mentors matter. These three women leaders (top/Leslie Charles, center/Chris Clarke-Epstein, right/Marilynn Semonick) mentored me through my speaking career.

Who is a Chris in your life? Do they know? I encourage you to write them an email or handwrite and send a letter, or better if you can, go visit them. Tell them what you’ve learned from them while you still have time. Chris would love that.

PS. And remember to vote. And vote early.

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