Kathy Bradley is an author, newspaper columnist, speaker, and prosecuting attorney in Georgia. Her book, "Breathing and Walking Around: Meditations on a Life" was awarded the inaugural Will D. Campbell Prize for Creative Nonfiction in 2010 and garnered her the Georgia Author of the Year Award for Essay in 2013.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
My friend died.
And I am hurting in a way that death has not hurt me before, a way that has nothing to do with my own mortality or lost opportunity or regret. Hurting in a new place, a place where the loss of adored grandparents did not reach, a place where neither the sudden, tragic death of a classmate or the slow and brutal taking of a cousin dragged me. There is a gnawing in my gut, a gnawing to understand, to put to words the sudden numbness that seized me when I got the news and that faded at unexpected intervals over the next few days to leave me weeping.
On Sunday afternoon I found my way to the pew where we, the women who, as a group, go by any number of appellations, but on that day were simply mourners, would sit together. We’d all worn red, Margaret’s Wesleyan class color, in some form – scarves and jackets, dresses and jewelry –, our mourning clothes splashed with the color of Valentines. We sat as closely as we could, shoulder to shoulder, trying and not succeeding to hide the fact that we were actually leaning on each other.
The congregational hymn was “Jesus Loves Me” and, having seen photographs of Margaret as a child, I could imagine her learning the words at Sunday School in Druid Hills. Learning them not just by memory, but by heart, learning them in such a way as to carry that certainty with her right to the end of her 84 years. After the first verse the words in the hymnal blurred into marbles rolling around the page and I left the singing to more stalwart souls.
The ministers who conducted the service knew Margaret well. We laughed when the senior pastor told the story of how Margaret had asked him why he did some particular thing and, after hearing his answer, replied, “Well, that’s a dumb reason.” After reflection, he’d decided that, in fact, it was a dumb reason and adopted Margaret’s suggestion for doing it another way.
We nodded when he explained that, upon joining the church, Margaret had insisted upon being given something to do. “I didn’t join this church just to sit here.”
Near the end of the service, as the minister’s words and the organ’s notes and the bell’s chimes mingled like some rare incense over our heads in the church’s vaulted ceiling, I had a startling moment of clarity: With Margaret’s death, there was one less person in the world who loved me. One less person who loved me. One less person who loved me. I suppressed the gasp that rose in my throat. I raised my fists to my eyes now incapable of containing the tears.
Outside the church is a prayer chapel. Margaret took me there shortly after its dedication. I wrote about that visit, how after she had told me all about the architectural details, she had left me to be alone. Leaving the funeral I walked up the narrow path to that chapel, noting the plaque at the doorway that indicated the date of dedication – five years ago to the day.
Inside it was exactly as I remembered. Candles flickered. Late winter afternoon light came through the high windows. The stone altar remained fixed, unmoved, unchanged.
I knelt, covered my face with my hands, and realized I had nothing to say. No prayer worth praying. No petition worth offering.
Then I heard it. The voice in my heart. Call her the Holy Spirit. Call her my true self. Call her Margaret. Call her whatever you want. This is what she said: “Love is all that matters. Love is all that matters. Love is all that matters.”
And in that moment I understood. There will be no more endless amounts of food pulled from a seemingly bottomless freezer and no more endless rounds of Mexican Train Dominoes around a table in a mountain cabin. There will be no more picnics in Oakland Cemetery, no more nearly-indecipherable notes, no more unsolicited advice. But her love is still here. Reminding, encouraging, provoking. Soothing, healing, holding.
And love is all that matters.