I’ve been searching for the smallest number of words to sum up my friend Alma. The pithiest statement. The one that nails it and leaves everybody nodding because that little word comes as close as you can come to sum up what was so uniquely Alma. The thing that makes you want to stand up and applaud God for making an element in one of His creatures so spectacular. The way you do when you see the sky painted like you’ve never seen it before, or a mountain range buried in puffy white clouds, or the giggle of a baby that pushes away frustration, or the beam in the eyes of a groom as he glimpses his bride for the first time in all her splendor. The thing that makes you want to say – thank you for making this transcendent thing so very apparent through this one human being. Do it again God. Do it again. Help me see this again. Find it again. See it in myself maybe. And in others. Do it again.
She loved her kid. She loved her family. She loved her husband. She loved animals. All those things would leave us nodding about Alma, but we could say that about many people, couldn’t we? I think I could say it about myself. About many of my friends. Those are good words. Very good words. But the truth after thinking through her life, at least my limited exposure to it — how I met her, how we came together at significant points, how she died — I think there is a great word that smushes it all into the most succinct package. When we hear this word later in this piece, later today, later this month, later in our lives, I wonder if God will use it to remind us of something profoundly holy about the way He shows up in a life. Not only in Alma’s, but how He offers Himself in life in general. Because, by holy, we generally mean set apart. Profoundly different than the hard and hurt and cold and efficient world we see around us day in and day out.
Just about every encounter I had with Alma left me with this growing idea inside my heart. This notion that there was a theme that kinda defined Alma. A word. I picked three short vignettes to share with you hoping that you’ll arrive at the same conclusion. The same or a similar word before I reveal. Hoping that God will continue to live through the story of Alma’s life to bless and reach and transform. The first story, I hope, will make you laugh. The second, I think, will probably make you cry, but in a good way. And the third, well, I believe it may help you cope. At least it is helping me. All three lead me inescapably to the conclusion — Alma had a word.
So let’s start by laughing. How I met Alma. I was at my friend Laura Dahne’s house having lunch and she says something like,
“Hey Kat, I gotta cut this short. I have a dear friend who is really sad and I need to go and love on her.”
“Oh,” I said. “Why is she sad?”
“She had a miscarriage. I know it must be emotionally very painful.”
Having had a miscarriage myself, I’m thinking – emotionally very painful? Oh, yeah. It is awful. And for odd reasons that transcend the general harsh reality of death. While a miscarriage is like any death, it is generally more isolating and met with less sympathy because most people are not even aware that you were pregnant to begin with. Nobody saw your round belly move or felt the wild delight that you were bathed in as you imagined pink or blue, what kind of mom you’d turn out to be, how many kids you’d have, what you’d name this new little human. To a longing and expectant mother, a miscarriage feels like someone hit you with a two by four of despair and you just want the whole world to stop spinning while you get your hope legs again. The drunkenness of delight gets broadsided – bam – by the two by four of death. Sound like I’m overstating it a bit? Ask just about any woman who has been through it. It sucks.
So I said to Laura with a sudden pain for this stranger I’d never met, “I wanna go.” Laura, who knows me very well, did not think this at all weird. And being full of wisdom, she decided on the spot, that our conspiracy of love for Alma would be much more successful if we didn’t actually tell her that I was coming. We would just show up together and Laura would rely more on forgiveness than permission if everything went to hell in a hand-basket.
Over we drove to Alma’s parents’ house where Alma was sunken into the fibers of the couch exhausted from crying and desperate for the arms of a friend. Broken-hearted. The minute Laura walked in, she looked relieved and ready to be safely held by someone who didn’t care what she looked like, how she was dressed, whether snot got on her shoes or tears stained her dress. She looked like the shipwrecked sailor who sees the rescue plane hover over the SOS she painted desperately on the shore. That is, until she saw me, a complete stranger, emerge from behind Laura. Alma kinda froze. Didn’t say a word. Her eyes bounced back and forth from Laura to me. The beautiful look of relief turned to confusion and then to something akin to piss-off-ed-ness. She didn’t have to say a word. Her eyes said it all. Really? You brought a friend with you? A stranger? You brought someone I don’t even know into the middle of this most intimate horrible time? Really Laura? Are you kidding me? I thought you were my friend!
As I started to question what seemed a few short moments before like a really good idea, I decided to keep it brief and to the point and then get out as quickly as possible. I walked right over to Alma, sat on the couch and said, “my name is Kat. I’m not going to stay. I just want you to know that I’ve had a miscarriage. I know the pain you are feeling. And I want you to know that God carried me through it and that’s how I know He can carry you too, if you’ll let Him.” I told her some of the things that I learned on my journey and then I got up to leave. Only Alma, my new miscarriage-BFF was coiled around me like a grape vine sobbing, starting to let it go, and starting to heal. It seems the two by four of hope had transcended the two by four of death. That it hits harder than death and it leaves you just as dizzy, but in a good way. In a way that you may still be flattened but you’re eyes are open and you’re looking up nonetheless. And it was only possible because Alma didn’t reject the presence of a stranger in the midst of her pain. She didn’t say no to hope. She said yes.And so a friendship began. We would go to retreats together, text and call each other, celebrate her post miscarriage pregnancy. I would see her arrive in Weston months later with baby Matthew holding him like a promise from God in front of my face – behold God’s miracle! Behold hope! What an awesome friend.
But that damn two by four of pain. It would come again. Like a wallop leaving her dizzy and undone. She had been coughing. The doctor ordered a lung biopsy. There we were again. Laura, Alma, David (her husband) and me, wound up like a little grape vine praying before she went into the procedure. Only this time, Alma had invited hope into her pain. Come on! You got a two by four of hope? Come to my biopsy! Come on. Let’s hit it harder than it is hitting us. Come on! It was in this second encounter with Alma that the word – Alma’s word – got a little more defined for me. I didn’t know it then. But I know it now in the rear view mirror where things always seem so much clearer.
The procedure took a long time. Alma’s sister, Laura and I found ourselves sitting together in the surgical waiting room having the kind of conversation you have with a stranger. You see, we didn’t know Alma’s sister. As we were getting to know her and swapping Alma stories, this loud wailing in Spanish started to drown out our conversation. It wasn’t Alma. We all knew her voice. But it was coming from the same place where Alma was having her procedure – behind the doors where people aren’t supposed to go. DO NOT ENTER UNLESS AUTHORIZED. Nohimi, the Spanish speaker amongst us, finally acknowledged the white elephant we were all trying to suppress – “do you know what she’s saying? She’s repeating over and over — I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to do this alone. I don’t want to be alone.”
So Nohimi, suddenly feeling the pain of this total stranger, says, “let’s go sit in there with her. So she doesn’t have to be alone.” So we went where nobody was supposed to go, three strangers, into a room of a woman who was wailing under the weight of the two by four of despair. I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to do this alone. I don’t want to be alone. We didn’t do much really. Nohimi, Laura and I just sat with her, prayed for her, sang to her, listened to her, told her about God and how He promises us His presence. That we were only present because she cried out. And then, eventually, she just fell totally and completely calm. Started watching TV and eating the food that was set before her. The two by four of hope transcended the two by four of despair yet again all because Alma invited us to be present in her pain. The two by four of hope was hitting harder than the two by four of pain leaving its lasting mark on us all. Thank you Alma for inviting His presence into your pain. We were all transformed by that wallop of hope. Dizzy, in a good way. Looking up at the end of the day. Not drown in a sea of despair.
Over the next few years, I would watch Alma intimately involve others in her cancer journey. The B.A.D. Girls of ECC. The girls you see in these prayer jackets — the Green Smoothie Girls— would pray as an army, drink green smoothies daily for a month, sip from the same water goblets where the words “renew us” were written.
She’d go away for a girl’s weekend, then to another retreat, no hair, sick as a dog, grabbing on to hope. Looking up. Praising/Asking God in her pain for His presence every step of the way. She didn’t let despair and pain and sickness drive her into isolation. She invited the presence of God and He always seemed to come with this crazy group of 2×4 hope swingers. Everybody looking up in some way after each dizzying blow.
And then, the last two by four of pain would wallop. Try to hit us harder than we could bear. The pain of death. We were in Atlanta. At Cancer Centers of America. The whole family was a part of her journey there — husband son mother father sister brother brothers-in-law sisters-in-law nieces friend. The whole shootin match. We started visiting the highlights of her life with her. Best moments with mom and dad. Best friendship moments. Funnies stories. What do you want Matthew to know? And then this random question. Did you have a favorite childhood song? One that takes you back to your comfort as a child? Transcends time? Circles you back to the earliest beginning? I looked at mom with a question mark face? It was just too overwhelming to go there. As a mother myself, I can’t even begin to imagine.
So Alma, barely able to speak anymore started to mouth the words of a song her mama sang when she was a little girl. Then mama, reeling from the 2×4 of death, started to sing. And that two by four of hope rose up in the middle of that place yet again. Taller than the other. Hitting harder than the other. Later in the waiting room I would meet a man whose adult daughter could barely speak because of a problem with her esophagus. “Can I tell you what I just learned from my friend Alma? When you can’t speak, you need to sing. Sing her favorite childhood song. See what happens. See what rises up in her. He lit up with hope. Yes! That’s it. I can sing to her. That is what I will do. I’ll sing.” When Alma couldn’t speak, the room was often filled with her favorite worship music. She wasn’t singing with her lips, but sometimes her foot would keep the beat or her face would radiate peace. Bam. Dizzy. Up. Hope.
Later I would realize that the shorter two by four, the horizontal one, the one that is filled with the pain and death and suffering and despair that we can see at eye level with the world, is cut right through the center by the two by four of hope. That second two by four is bigger, points right into heaven and makes itself into the shape of a perfect cross as it crushes death and pain and suffering. God overcoming death. Hope bigger than despair. God literally with us in death and rising to life everlasting. Where heaven meets earth like a sloppy big kiss. Fully present in our pain and then overcoming it. Transcending it. So we can too. By His presence.
So here’s my word for Alma.
Your first guess will probably be hope. And that’s a really good answer. It’s the primary answer for another friend of mine who was great with a 2×4 — Tricia. For Alma, I think that’s the B+ answer. Because it’s dependent on the A+ answer which is presence. Hope, I believe, comes from the presence of the Lord. God with us. At the cross. Alma had a peace that came from PRESENCE. The two by four of hope always transcended her pain because she invited the presence of the Lord into it. And He, as He always seems to do, brings His body along in the process.
God, thank you for Alma. For her willingness to invite your presence into her pain. And for what you do when we are willing to be there in Your presence.
Do it again Lord. Do it again. Transcend this place with the 2×4 of the presence which brings hope.