A steady stream of cards flowed into her mailbox last week, increasing in number as Mother’s Day approached. Trish Lewis didn’t always recognize the name or handwriting on the front of the envelope, but she knew a connection to her daughter was waiting inside.
Some came from friends who knew Trish could use a boost. A woman from Bradford, Pa., sent a necklace, a simple act of kindness from one mother to another. There was a card from a professor at the University of Richmond. There were notes that said, “You don’t know me, but …” and others that began, “It took me a year to write this, but …”
What followed were brief stories about Natalie Lewis and the ways in which she touched others before she died May 9, 2014. Individually, they’re anecdotal examples of her gift to reach people on a personal level. Collectively, they tell a story about a woman who packed a full lifetime into 24 years.
It was hard to fathom that last Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day, marking the first anniversary of Natalie’s fatal freak ballooning accident in Virginia. She was director of women’s basketball operations at Richmond, which overlooked the former swimmer’s lack of hoops knowledge and embraced her love for people.
The past year has been busy for her family, which took comfort knowing how much she selflessly affected people around her even if it couldn’t smooth the edge from their pain. The grief for parents who bury their children never completely goes away. Their lives are never quite the same, never quite as full.
Richmond held two memorial services honoring her and associate head coach Ginny Doyle, the other passenger in the balloon. Nardin Academy, from which Lewis graduated in 2007, established a scholarship in her name. The Police Athletic League created a tennis award in her honor. The Atlantic 10 remembered her.
An architect drove from Virginia and left a wrought-iron mermaid with her gravestone, an angel, at her gravesite at Forest Lawn Cemetery. He wanted to remember her for setting up a master’s swimming program in Richmond. He told Trish he hoped his own daughters, both in their 20s, adopted her zest for life.
“If there’s one thing that I’ve been able to reflect on this year, it’s that we’re all capable of having a positive influence on our world,” Trish Lewis said Thursday. “It’s by our skills, our talents, our examples, our work, our touch, how we care, how we love. We all saw in her how much we’re capable of putting value on people and our own lives.”
Lewis’ impact will be felt again this weekend when the Natalie Lewis Spring Invitational is held at the Town of Tonawanda Aquatic & Fitness Center. More than 800 swimmers are expected to participate in the event, which will be part swimming meet and part celebration of a life that ended much too soon.
Her favorite event in swimming was the relay, which she anchored throughout her childhood and into college. The meet this weekend will use only three swimmers, a tribute to her for swimming the final leg but finishing first in more ways than family and friends could count.
“It was such a disbelief how this could happen,” Trish said. “The message is that we all have to step up our game and be better people. You just never know when you’re going to be called home. We all assume that we’re going to live forever.”
The swim meet will be complete with a Wall of Encouragement, something Natalie established with handwritten messages during her swimming days. It will include stickers with her mantras such as “Lead by Example” and “Live to Inspire” and “Love Conquers All” and T-shirts and, of course, cookies.
She said it so often when making cookies that it became her slogan: “Say something sweet before you eat.” Yes, this woman was a gift from heaven, which summoned her back for reasons many will never understand. The angels must have identified someone who was more suited for their line of work.
Sometimes, you never fully appreciate the impact one person can have on others until you add up what’s said about them after they’re gone. In her case, the irony can’t be dismissed. It was Natalie who identified the best qualities in others and felt compelled to celebrate them with everybody else.
“It’s contagious,” her mother said. “She had a way of taking away the ceiling above our heads. She believed that if you had a dream, you could make it happen. She said, ‘The best dream of all is not having this great job, not driving this great car. It’s loving and being loved. That’s a dream come true.’ ”
A dream come true. That’s what she was because that’s how she lived. She was born Oct. 10, at 10 o’clock, a perfect 10 – times three.
Stunning on the outside, even prettier on the inside, you wonder if Natalie ever counted a bad day in her life. She approached defeat in the pool as victory for giving her best effort without getting bogged down by results. She welcomed challenges as learning experiences rather than necessary inconveniences.
Natalie was a star swimmer at Nardin, but she was not the fastest when she arrived at Richmond. She was the first one at the pool every day. Nobody on the team worked harder or cared more about her teammates or complained less. It was no wonder why she was named captain for her final two seasons.
Her passion for others, her eagerness to get more from life by giving more to the people around her, is what set her apart. Wins, losses, records? They were results. They were numbers. They didn’t explain how she used sports to bring people together for a cause that was bigger than anyone.
Natalie united the basketball and swimming teams by having the basketball players swim and having the swimmers play basketball. It was comical, yes, but taking both teams out of their comfort zones helped them appreciate one another. She also taught a basketball player how to swim.
Sure enough, before long, they were each other’s biggest fans. She had many, which explains why a contingent from Richmond, including two of her best friends in swimming, will be in town May 24 to run the Buffalo Marathon in her honor.
“Natalie had the ability to make everyone else look better,” Trish said. “It’s a gift. I started believing I was a better mom because she reflected so beautifully on me. We all need to build each other up. … It’s important to live out her mission, not be completely destroyed and give back.”
And that’s what Trish and Evan Lewis, their surviving children, Evan Jr., and Caroline, and Natalie’s fiance, Michael Jerge Dougher, have carried with them for a year and counting. At times, their profound sadness felt too deep to overcome, but her family kept thinking about what she would do. They kept moving.
Mondays are particularly tough for her mother because it means starting another week without her daughter. Some days, it means swimming one lap at a time, the way Natalie did. She jumped head first into life, paddled tirelessly from beginning to end, and never looked back. If only she knew the ripple she left behind.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Every now and again, we find a child who can lift a village. Just ask her mother.