Remembering a Dear Friend

Today is an interesting day for me. I’ve had wonderful people in my life from the very beginning, perhaps the biggest reason I’m in the vocation I am. One of those was a seminary professor who became Academic Dean, the first woman to hold the position at St. Paul, and one of the first women in a United Methodist Seminary anywhere in the United States to hold that position. Judy was a Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling by way of a Social Work undergraduate from Ohio Wesleyan, a Master’s of Divinity from Iliff, and a PhD from Claremont School of Theology. Along the way she was an Executive Director of a halfway house for women coming out of prison. What all of that meant was that she saw through games very quickly, was not easily given to drama, and had such a humble appreciation for people seeking to find their way that even as a deep introvert, she loved knowing people beyond the surface masks that we often wear for protection from imperfection. And she and I became fast friends. I know, right? I’m rather loud, given to no small amount of drama, and have had and still have a little tendency toward perfectionism that makes life harder than it needs to be. And yet we were simply “just a pair” as my mom liked to say.

Judy had chronic bronchitis and COPD from the time I met her. That meant that she had trouble breathing more and less depending on the weather, stress, a passing virus, altitude, the time of year, level of tiredness and a myriad of other factors most of us don’t give a second thought. I never once knew her to complain. As pie in the sky poet and dreamer that I tend to be, Judy was that much practical and detailed and common sense. For her, lung disease was simply something she had to deal with as she taught her classes, did research and writing, and read more books than I could ever imagine. The disease was never front and center nor an excuse not to complete the list of tasks she had on her agenda each day. She was NOT a dog person. But I convinced her we needed Fred, a big red Chow/Collie mix that became more loyal to her and she to him than either were to me. Fred came with us on every trip we ever took. He hated riding and being away from home, but he loved Judy.

The last few years of her life she had assessments and testing done and was put on the lung transplant list at Barnes-Jewish Medical Center in St. Louis. We made trips there every month on a Tuesday so they could keep up with her disease and be aware of any decline. Our nurse coordinator was named Sema and she was a pistol. Quick-witted, sharp of intellect, and oh so compassionate with those struggling with debilitating disease and their families. Judy was not athletic but knew she had to stay mobile for a transplant to be a possibility. On the days I don’t feel like running, I sometimes remember her determination to get on the treadmill with an oxygen cannula and tubing connected to the concentrator against the wall, and no matter how slow, she would keep herself going to maintain muscle mass and strength. She kept that goal in her heart and mind for two years until a final infection occurred. The Big 12 tournament started and I happened to have tickets that year down at Kemper. I think because I didn’t want to know what we both knew, I was in and out of the house to the tournament and home to check on her and to the tournament and home to check on her. Antibiotics were no longer a strong enough defense. Iowa State won the Big 12 that year.

On Tuesday, March 14, the day before March Madness starts, Judy rested and stopped struggling so to breathe. Even when you’re prepared, you’re really not, I think. When I called Sema to have them take Judy off the list, she told me Judy was at the top. I wondered later if that was some sort of cruel joke. But then I had a wonderfully good friend in the medical field who offered the possibility that maybe God knew that a transplant might not be a magical answer for Judy, and that maybe there are worse things in life than death. Maybe grace is sometimes letting go of that which we have determined to be the only answer and trusting that the God who wants good things for us has more wisdom than we can comprehend.

So it’s been 18 years.  And it’s different. But the date and the time of year are never far from my awareness. And I am perhaps more grateful to have known her now than any previous time. I learned from her a deep and abiding faith and patience when living and leaning into struggle. I learned from her a quiet courage to accept good days and bad days, happy times and difficult times, and the imperfections in self and others with a measure of grace that moves us beyond our own limitations. Don’t get me wrong, those are lessons I’m still working on in a life-long learning curve, but there is a greater compassion perhaps in the period of life in which I find myself than there ever has been. I learned that in the smartest of the smart, Jesus is both an intellectual pursuit and a concrete presence on whom to pray and rely and experience in very real and tangible ways.

Today I’ve had a favorite breakfast, although I canNOT put the chickory stuff/flavor in my coffee that she liked so much. I’ll listen to a cassette of my favorite sermon she preached on Rahab, one of my favorites in the scriptures as well. I’ll take a walk with Bud and remember old Fred who died about 6 weeks after Judy, I think of a broken heart. And I’ll be grateful. Grateful for the people God brings into our lives and through whom we are invited to learn and grow and be challenged for short times and long times and tough times and times filled with joy and laughter. And I’ll probably spend a bit of time wondering how, in the grace of God, the veil between eternity and this world is so very thin and yet as Ecc. 3:11 says, “…God has put a sense of past and future in their minds, yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end,” and realizing as sort of frustrating as that seems to me, I’m also very aware it is a magnificent gift. And I’ll be grateful for this day, just this day. Getting to live and breathe deeply, and laugh and love, and know all kinds of people in all kinds of places with all kinds of gifts and all kinds of struggles and that God’s life is in and with every. Single. One.

The hymn below was one of Judy’s favorites and one that we shared in her room in those final hours and one that is so very much a part of our Lenten journey into Easter and the promise of resurrection to eternal life. May you walk in grace this day…