When Elissa and I hung out for the very first time, it was fall in Syracuse and she wondered if I wanted to climb a tree.
“Of course I want to climb a tree,” I’d said and meant it. We were in our twenties, in graduate school, and I did not get many offers like tree climbing. So we climbed and she told me about her family that afternoon in the tree near the parking lot on the south side of campus. We just stood there, leaning against limbs, talking about our lives before we’d found ourselves writing in Syracuse. She was smart and kind and a little silly.
Elissa became my friend, despite the fact that she had every right to be offended by me, a smiley, evangelical girl from Texas. She was a lesbian, a bohemian, who loved performance art and YA novels. And, for some reason, she was never afraid to be my friend, even though I represented so much of a world that often did its best to reject her.
Elissa wanted to understand my faith. So we talked about it: what I loved about Jesus, my passion for ministry with teenagers, my struggle to hold onto a God who felt so slippery. She had grown up Catholic and had lost many things from her childhood faith, but she held out hope for beauty and goodness. She was one of the most hopeful people I’ve ever known.
She introduced me to chocolate croissants. We shared many chocolate croissants in silence while reading or working across the cafe table from one another. We taught a third grade after-school creative writing course together. Actually, she taught it and I learned from her. Elissa and I drove to Rochester to watch Gone With the Wind in an artsy movie theater and we then drove home talking politics. That night I told her how much I hoped she would have the chance to be a mother. What a mother she would have been.
What she was was a teacher. A great one, I imagine, though I never sat in one of her middle school English classes. I only got her Facebook messages asking if we had any ideas for YA novels to recommend to her students in various life situations.
When I gave birth to August, she sent me an old Mother Goose book, with a hand-made card of a 50’s style mother smiling perfectly at the camera. I keep the card in that book, still.
When I got the email that she was gone, that the brain tumor she’d lived with for the past ten years had finally taken her, I was walking to the coffee shop where I write on Thursdays, my little boys dressed in their Halloween costumes, safe with their babysitter in my apartment. And I walked right past the coffee shop, straight to the park. I didn’t even think of climbing the tree. I just sat for two hours. I just sat in the rare San Franciscan sunshine and I thought about my friend. God, I prayed, open up the Great Hope to her. Right now. And I imagined what mystery my friend Elissa may have entered into. The sun shining down on me, the day before All Saints Day. The day we celebrate the ones who have already gone away from us, I sat in the sunshine and prayed for light.
When I finally made my way to the coffee shop, two hours worth of work undone, I passed a parade of preschool aged trick-or-treaters. “Look!” One mom yelled, “A Jack o Lantern!” I’d forgotten what I was wearing and looked down at my bright orange shirt. When I dressed that morning, I didn’t know Elissa was gone. I’d made “ghost” pancakes with blueberry eyes and had snuck a Halloween note into my little boy’s lunch box.
I looked back at the preschool parade. A lady said, “Someone to cheer for our parade!” And I thought of what Elissa would have done. She would have cheered and laughed and I did my best as the parade moved past me.
“Wow, you look so cool!”
“Yes! You’re an astronaut!”
And after they passed me by and I passed them, I stood at the counter of the coffee shop searching, begging God for one chocolate croissant I could eat in Elissa’s honor, but all the croissants–chocolate and plain–were gone. So I settled for a cappuccino and thought how much this is life: The beauty and the joy and the loss and broken-losing and the memories of chocolate and the memories of trees and how those things never leave. They go on and on, like grace. Like the grace I hold out, the hope I hold that we are all being tucked in tight by the God who is near the brokenhearted, the God who pours out grace we can never comprehend.
Please God. Pour out grace we can never comprehend.
Photo by The Wandering Angel on Flickr