Carol was her best friend, her spiritual mentor, her second mother. How could she go on without her?
Posted in , May 27, 2021
Carol and I sat on the balcony of the condo we’d rented for the week in Branson, Missouri, sipping our morning coffee and watching the sunlight wash across the Ozarks. It had become our habit on this trip. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we prayed together, but often we sat in companionable silence, the way two old friends do.
I thought about the four bottles of perfume Carol had bought in the gift shop the day before. They’d filled me with hope. No one buys that much perfume unless they expect to be around to enjoy it.
I glanced over at her, following her gaze to the horizon. Her features were soft but indecipherable. What was she seeing? Thinking? I wanted so badly to show her a good time in Branson, like so many good times we’d had over the past 30 years.
We ate blackberry cobbler with ice cream and waffles topped with fruit and went to a different music show every night. We played spades in our pajamas. We laughed and we cried, then we laughed some more. And later, in my bed, I cried myself to sleep.
“I had a dream last night, Kristy,” Carol said now, still looking off into the distance. “I was dancing in heaven. I felt so safe, so loved. Whether I live or die, I know I’ll be okay. That’s all I can be sure of.” What I thought was, Would I be okay?
On the last day of our trip, Carol returned the perfume to the gift shop.
I met Carol in 1984, when I was 24 and she was 38. My husband, Donald, and I were newly married. We’d fallen into a whirlwind of alcohol and clubs while dating but realized it wasn’t what we wanted for our marriage. Don had grown up in a strict Christian home but had lapsed in recent years; I could count on one hand the number of times I’d gone to church.
We both knew something was missing in our marriage. Don and I needed a faith family where we could grow close to God and root our lives in biblical principles.
We met Carol and her husband, Sam, at one of the churches we visited. Carol quickly took us under her wing. Don and I are naturally shy, but it was impossible not to be drawn in by Carol’s laughter and fun. Her joy. Soon we four were inseparable—dining out, attending Broadway shows, traveling. We took vacations together, including cruises to Alaska and the Bahamas, as well as road trips to Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore.
Sam and Don became best friends, and Carol was like a second mother to me. My own mother struggled with mental health issues, on the path to early Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t call for motherly advice without having Mom turn the conversation to herself instead. She would cut me off so that she could talk about delusions concerning my father.
“You won’t believe what your father did now...” she’d say. I’d end the conversation feeling more stressed than when I started. “Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease,” Carol would remind me. “All you can do is pray for her.” And I did, eventually.
Carol had two sons. Jim was married and starting a family of his own, while Jason was still at home. Still, she was always there for me. We talked nearly every day, sometimes over a quick cup of coffee or a long lunch at our favorite restaurant. Whenever I had a question or a problem, I’d go to Carol.
“I prayed for you yesterday,” she’d say, touching my hand, “and God revealed a way forward.” It wasn’t just that she was a little older than me—that helped—but she had a spiritual maturity I admired and wanted for myself. She believed in me, in my dreams, in my art, in my writing, until I could believe in myself.
Then came that day seven months before our trip to Branson. Carol hadn’t been feeling well, her joy dampened by something that worried her doctor. She went for tests. And more tests. Finally there was a diagnosis, Carol said. Late-stage cancer of the stomach. The prognosis was poor.
I took in the news with disbelief. I knew what the words meant. People I knew had died of cancer. But not Carol. How could God let this happen to my best friend? The godliest of women. How could he do this to me?
Carol fought. She consulted specialists, but none of them offered hope. Then, a month after Branson, she weakened dramatically. Her family moved her to hospice care, where she would be comfortable and have room for visitors. It was all happening too fast.
I sat beside Carol’s bed, watching her sleep. Come on, God. We’re out of options here. Time to save her. My father had outlived his terminal cancer diagnosis by almost five years. We’d gone on cruises, thrown birthday parties and cried with joy when he was baptized late in life. That extra time on earth had brought him closer to God and to us, his children. Why couldn’t Carol have that? Why couldn’t I?
Even after our trip to Branson, even after she shared that dream, I never actually believed this day would come. I still didn’t believe it.
I knew Carol would be fine. The second she breathed her last, Carol would enter God’s embrace—if she didn’t make it to heaven, none of us had a shot. But I wouldn’t be fine.
One day fell into the next one and the next. Carol, miraculously, seemed to have no pain. She would sleep a bit, then wake, talk a while and listen. I struggled to work through my emotions, as if I would simply come to an emotional standstill once she passed.
I was alone at Carol’s bedside when she stirred and, without opening her eyes, whispered, “It’s strange…how close one world is to the other.” For a long time, I watched her slow breathing, trying to draw peace from that fading rhythm.
Carol died a short time later. Not long after her funeral, Jim and Jason invited me over to pick out a few special items to remind me of Carol. I chose a pastoral painting of sheep in a meadow, which reminded me a little of the Ozarks, and a clay vase that reads, “Without faith nothing is possible, with it, nothing impossible.”
The items held meaning for me—meaning I needed to find in Carol’s death—not only for what the items were but that they were Carol’s. It’s been said that grief can be the most selfish emotion. The pain one feels is for one’s self, not for the departed, who has often been released from pain. I believe grief is the price we pay for love. The deeper the love, the deeper the grief, like a law of the universe. My grief was deep and deepened as the days and weeks and months passed.
Yet even as I mourned the loss of my best friend, I could still feel her. I slowly moved through life again. Though she was gone, her love, her strength, lived within me. They didn’t die. They sustained me. The things she believed in, I believed in, in my writing and my art and the ever-present compassion of a loving, merciful God.
Friends die, but friendships live on. I often remember those final words she spoke to me: It’s strange how close one world is to the other. I remember the quiet of that balcony in Branson, where the silence was more comforting than any words. I know Carol is dancing in heaven, dancing with God. Sometimes I can almost hear the music.
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