For the birthdays of my friends Jeanne and Linda, I decided to take them to see the play, "Our Town."
Of all the plays I've ever seen, it's the one that sticks in my mind decade after decade.
Before the play, I told Jeanne and Linda at first the play might seem simplistic. But I assured them it had the most profound message.
As they watched the play, I'm sure my dear friends were wondering why the heck I took them to see something so depressing.
The three of us have a pact that we will never pay money to be depressed. We carefully pick uplifting movies, books and other forms of entertainment.
In the first two acts of Our Town, next-door neighbors Emily and George fall in love and get married. Then Emily dies while giving birth to their second child.
At that point, I'm sure my two friends were thinking: "She took us to see THIS as a birthday celebration?"
The third act opens in a cemetery where Emily goes to be reunited with friends and relatives who have passed away. It is when the dead speak that life's truths emerge.
"Oh, life, it is so wonderful," Emily says. She begs to be able to "go back," at least for a day. Just for a day, she wants to again see the faces of her loved ones, to relive one glorious day.
Granted that request, Emily is told to pick one happy day out of her life for her to revisit.
She picks her twelfth birthday, expecting it to be joyous.
It's what she discovers when she goes "back to life" that delivers the profound punch.
She sees that she never really appreciated life until she lost it.
"Earth, you're just too wonderful for anyone to realize," she laments. "Live people don't understand."
Most troubling for Emily is being able to observe how we all go through life on autopilot. We go from task to task, from one care after another, not fully aware of the beauty of everyday life. "We don't look at each other. Let's look at each other, just for a moment," she pleads as she watches her 12th birthday unfold.
It doesn't happen, of course. The day slipped away in mindless moments without her family really seeing each other.
Emily frets about the way we earthlings waste one precious day after another.
"We waste time as though we have a million years," she observes.
I relate so much to that play because if there's one message I've spent years trying to give, it's this: Every day of life is a precious gift. Live it fully by being aware of each moment.
Our Town was first performed in 1938, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Thornton Wilder. The message is as timeless today as it was when it was written:
"Earth, you're just too wonderful for anyone to realize."
While my birthday friends might have thought it was strange for me to take them to a play about death for their birthday celebration, I hope they realized the play is about life, not death.
It's about living every moment. About really "seeing" those around us.
What can be more life affirming that that?
After the play I went to interview the high school drama teacher who chose that play. He admitted people were aghast at his selection.
His high school, Lemon Bay, has the best theater program in the state of Florida. They repeatedly win top awards at state and national competitions.
Always, in the past, the high school put on big production musicals. "Our Town" was such a departure.
For kids, anything older than yesterday is too old. A play written more than 84 years ago must surely have been a turn off.
"At first, it was a tough sell," says drama teacher Dennis Hall. "But the more we talked about the meaning in the play, the more our students understood why we were doing it."
He says he was gratified to see many in the audience "got it."
In his first year as a teacher at Lemon Bay, Hall took an immense risk by selecting that play.
So, why did he do it?
"Because I personally relate to the message in the play and think it's important for everyone to hear it," Hall says.
He says he understands first hand the fragility of life because he is a cancer survivor.
"Those who come to grips with how fast life can be snatched away learn to appreciate every single minute of life," Hall says.
"While I was undergoing surgery, then 44 radiation treatments, my doctor said to me, 'Don't worry. You will go back to your old life.' I didn't do that. I went back to a more aware, more joyful, more meaningful life," he affirms.
In some ways, having cancer was a blessing, he says, because he has kept his vow to make every day meaningful.
"Fighting cancer drives home the point that time shouldn't be wasted," he says.
That's a message we all need to heed.
Why waste one hour of this precious gift we call life?
Thornton Wilder's conclusion: "Oh, earth. You're just too wonderful for anyone to realize."