Letters, Words

I Already Miss Your Smile

For Leslie

I already miss your smile. I know you had to go, but we are left heartbroken. I don’t even know where to begin.

Maybe I should start at the beginning, back when we both had far fewer children and you and Larry were still living in the little shaded trailer in the woods. Just after Michael was born, I think, or maybe Hannah. Definitely before Rebecca. Back when Caroline had to stand on a kitchen stool to stir blue box mac and cheese on the stove.

Or maybe I should begin in the mother’s lounge at church, because that is where we truly became friends. The kind of friends who laugh together and share secrets and let the other one see our tears. I remember vividly how we would sit and talk the hours away as we nursed our babies, enjoying the luxury of doing just one task instead of twenty, as toddlers played around us. I remember when my last baby outgrew the ritual, but I was not ready to give it up. From that day on, I kept an eye out for Rebecca (or whichever child trailed behind you) on your way out of the chapel, hoping to be of help to you; taking the trailing child’s hand and following you quietly out of the chapel. I was so grateful to you for letting me help, though it was always you who was thanking me, as if I was doing the favor. I wish I could say that my offer of help was entirely altruistic, but that would not be true: helping you with your little ones gave me a higher purpose than sitting in the pew watching the clock painstakingly tick-tick-tick away, not to mention the free pass it gave me back into that all too exclusive young mother’s club once again. Those long ago days, sitting and talking with you in the mother’s lounge, surrounded by our little ones, are some of my favorite memories from those days. As we often remarked, we all worship in our own way.

Or maybe those early years when Rebecca and Emily were new babies who grew to be the best of friends, and we made more trips back and forth between our two houses than I can count. Over the years, even after they drifted into separate lives, there remains a heartfelt affection and trust between them that will endure beyond either one of us, and that brings me a sort of peace in this moment.

Maybe that year when my one of my girls was struggling to fight her demons, and you opened your home and your heart to her, and asked her come over and help you out with the babies. As if you needed another child in the house, But despite my best efforts, she was feeling alone and alienated in her own home, and you made her feel needed and wanted and important when she needed that most of all. So many others turned away from her…us…, silently, tacitly registering their judgement and fear, but not you. You reached out and pulled us both closer. I will never be able to thank you enough for loving my sweet daughter when she needed it most.

Maybe the rabbit, or the dogs, or the chickens, or the kittens, or a million kids bouncing and giggling on the trampoline out back. All those memories we made together over the years – the rocks and pebbles and sand and water all together, filling up life’s jar.

Maybe that day when I shared my most terrible secret with you: that my world was falling apart and I feared I had lost my faith. Once again, you opened your home and your heart – this time to me. You made me feel loved and needed and accepted at a time when so many others couldn’t turn away fast enough. I will never be able to thank you enough for loving me when I needed it most. So many, many people claim to follow Christ. You radiated Christlike love simply by the way you lived your life.

Maybe that night when you invited us – the new Us – over for a family barbecue, and treated Rick like, well, like a person. Instead of a curiosity. Or a pariah. You and your family never once made us feel out of place. Our visits to your home were always a high point in our week. I don’t know if I ever mentioned how much that meant to us both. I hope you knew.

Maybe all those times when we talked about life and love and faith and the nature of God. I think I will miss those talks most of all. You were fearless in your faith, unthreatened by my existential ramblings, and always open and ready to share your thoughts as you listened to mine. It meant so much to me that we could have such honest conversations and be so open about something so sacred. You never made me feel “less than” for taking a different path, and your friendship and love never wavered: you were a profound and enduring example of unconditional love.

Maybe that day when you shared your most terrible secret with me, when for the first time I saw a flash of fear race across your face before you could catch it and reel it back. Thank you for letting me cry with you that day. Those tears cemented our friendship into the eternities.

Maybe that last visit, when we talked and laughed and considered the great unknown while I did the dishes and we ate warm chocolate chip cookies together. Even as your strength waned, you were fearless in your faith. Dishes, as you know, are my least favorite household task ever, but I did them with a truly grateful heart that day, I would wash dishes for a thousand days for just one more of our talks.

Maybe all the laughter. About our little kids, and how they survived despite their best efforts to break themselves. About our teenagers, and their gangly, angsty, long-legged, hormone-fueled attempts to make us crazy. About the church ladies who thought you were “practically perfect in every way.” (If they only knew, as you used to like to say.) About the never-ending loads of laundry, even as we spent the afternoon folding and talking for hours, slowly moving an Everest of freshly washed clothes from one side of your long couch to the other, transforming it into a folded fabric skyscraper by the time it reached the other side.

Maybe all of those. But most of all, your smile, because that is where it all begins and ends. I will miss your smile most of all, my dear friend. In it, I found comfort, and friendship, and acceptance, and love. I know that this was a gift that you gave freely, to all who would receive it. It was one of the precious gifts you were given in this life – the gentle, abiding faith that at their core, people are genuinely good, and that love transcends everything.

Till we meet again, dear friend.

* * *

Note: While sitting on a plane waiting to take off on a five-hour cross-country flight, I learned that my dear friend Leslie had lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 47, mother of twelve, and one of the kindest people I have ever known. With no other outlet for my grief, I wrote this while in flight, and published it here the same day, in its rawest form. My apologies to my in-flight seat mates for all the tears.