Monday morning my sister Priscilla and I attended the calling hours of an old friend and neighbor. Gretchen was more my friend than that of my sisters. We didn't really hang out together when we were in school, we did that more with her brother, but Gretchen always knew I cared about her. Last Thursday my telephone rang and on the other end of the line was my friend Adam, calling to tell me that his sister had passed away early that morning.
Gretchen had sent me a Facebook note back in early January informing me that she had been diagnosed with cancer the day after Christmas and soon after had started chemo. " I don't want any of my family to know. I moved on from them." she told me. "The out come is not good but I am going to beat it."
I didn't really know what to say. I fumbled about for a bit on my end. Gretchen had always been the dramatic kind. When she told stories it was impossible to decipher fact from fiction. Her only brother is like a brother to my sisters and I, yet I knew she hadn't spoken to him in years. She had disowned both her parents along with her oldest son when he was still a child. "I'm sorry to hear that," I wrote. "Will keep you in my prayers." It seemed lame, but I wasn't sure how much to draw out the conversation. I am ashamed now. It was the last time I talked to her.
I don't know what this friend of mine dealt with growing up, I only know that she was a soul in pain, and she reacted to that pain by fighting. Her life was mostly painful and unsettled. Trouble seemed to plague her, but she was stubborn and resolute. If she got knocked down, she came up fighting. She was a woman bent on making it in a man's world. She wore high heeled shoes and mini skirts, and drove a tow truck, sometimes at the same time. She competed in beauty pageants, rode motorcycles, and drove snowplows. She loved men in uniforms; police officers, firemen, EMT's, and soldiers, and she had a strong opinion. I never found the urge (or courage) to challenge her and looked to avoid confrontation, sometimes by avoiding conversation, but never by avoiding her. If I chanced to see her out and about, I always stopped to say hello and see how things were going.
When my older children were small I babysat Gretchen's oldest son. I think he was about 6 or 7 years old, the same as my Bethany. Gretchen was driving snowplow that winter and would bring her son in my house to sleep on the couch well before I came downstairs in the morning. It was our agreement and it worked well. Sometimes when he went home from school on the bus the house was empty and he would call me on the phone. "Martha? My mom isn't home. Can you come and get me?" he'd ask and I would.
When Gretchen's husband went off to military training, I held her while she cried. When her second child, who had just begun to pull herself up and walk around the furniture, began to cry each time her mother put her down, we both found ourselves concerned. It was as though the baby was in pain and I encouraged Gretchen to follow her gut and take her to the doctor. It turned out that the baby had leukemia. (Today she is 22 years old.) And, when she struggled to come to terms with a third pregnancy when her daughter was still an infant, I was able to encourage her with the news that I was pregnant too. Although they've never even met, my son Ben and her son were born just days apart.
I sat in the church yesterday with my sister and looked at the grieving family across the aisle; an older brother who hardly knew his younger siblings, a grandmother who raised the older son and was denied a relationship the younger two, and Gretchen's own brother who was and is so very much like a brother to me. I watched the oldest son lean over and kiss his little sister and then his brother. I marveled at how the men in this family all had clean shaven heads and facial hair even though they barely knew each other, and I watched as a young woman grieving the loss of her mother, clung to her grandma and cried, and I ached inside for what should have been.
There are too many people in the world who decide to cut family members out of their lives,who give up on those they should hold on to, and who hold onto the pride and grudges they should let go of. I have friends and family members who know the pain of severed relationships and unanswered questions, and I know a bit of that too. Sometimes we have to let our loved ones go in order to gain them back again. I had to because the good memories needed to live on. I couldn't allow myself to be eaten up by bitter thoughts and unforgiveness. My prayer for this wounded family is that they will learn to love and forgive and be an example of love and forgiveness to a hurting world around them.