“I will be your shield, because I know how it feels, when you are a soldier” Stephen Curtis Chapman
Weeks after my sister and I (19 & 22) made the decision to remove our mother from life support, I found myself wondering around the campus at Clearwater Christian College. I should have been in class, but one of the best things about CCC is, well, it’s on one of the most beautiful pieces of land in the state of Florida. It was easy to get distracted on a good day; on a bad day it was essential to skip class and enjoy the scenery. As you can imagine, I had a series of bad days; lots of skipped classes and one trip to the Dean of Women’s office that would change my life forever. When I got the meeting slip in my mailbox, I pretty much knew they were going to kick me out for missing classes. But, that is not what happened as Mrs. Grubbs took a different approach, one I wish more people would take in situations of a 19 year old breaking the rules, but that is a whole other topic.
Her office over-looked the bay and as I sat down at her desk, I just starred out at the water. She asked why I had been skipping classes, and for a second I looked at her, and the kindness in her eyes made me cry. I told how we had to turn off life support from my mom; I told her about planning a funeral with $22 in the bank. I told her how I had to beg a rental car agency to rent me a car to drive to Jacksonville; and how that rental maxed out the only credit card I had. But mostly, I grieved in her office that day. I grieved for what I did not say, do or forgive, and at 19 years old, had no idea what to do with any of it. Mrs. Grubbs promptly handed down my “punishment” which was to make an appointment with one of the Resident Advisors once a week for the rest of the semester. That RA, Kris DeWitt, is one of my best friends to this day. We met alright, sometimes it was at Taco Bell, sometimes at the beach for a sunset, and a lot of time at Philipe Park. It was those moments when I shared with Kris my grief; and a whole lot more.
“When you are a soldier I will be your shield, I will go with you into the battlefield, and when the arrows start to fly, take my hand and hold on tight, ‘cause I know how it feels, when you are a soldier”
It wasn’t long before Kris asked me if I would be part of a group she was starting on Monday nights. It was difficult for me to be there on Monday nights as I was working at the home in Tampa, but made sure that I found a way to get to this group on Monday nights. It was a group designed for the safe sharing of grief. I asked Kris recently, if she ever had the group after that semester and she told me this was the only time she ever did it; and that it just seemed “right”.
The meeting was held in her tiny apartment in one of the dorms, and 10-15 of us would scrunch in, sit on the floor and just talk. There was no structure, there was just sharing, there was bonding; we were soldiers, all having fought the same war, the same battle; and I bet almost all of us were very close to letting the grief over-come us.
The first night, I met many people for the first time, my friend Michele Griffin (Damron), Karen Pevy (Chandler), and this, this is where I met Pam Woolfrey for the first time. I knew the moment I saw her that she was my people. Her tender ways, her jovial personality and magnetic personality made me want to be her friend. Hearing her speak of her dad, who had recently passed, was difficult as she was the apple of his eye—and she grieved his death, she grieved it properly; she grieved it until her last breath, I just know it.
Pam & I started hanging out together outside the grief group (we never named it) and got close quickly. She did not have plans to return as an RA/nurse the following semester, but planned to stay in Florida. So, she rented an apartment got a snazzy nurses job in Tampa, and her apartment became a haven for many of us; all of us trying to figure out our way through life. Most of us were brought up with similar principles and all of us needed to (and often did) test the validity of those principles. We all attended the same church and after church Pam would make us lunch and we would all pass out in various parts of the apartment before Sunday night church. After Sunday night church we would return to her apartment, have dessert and almost always play a game. Phase 10, she loved Phase 10, and I swear to this day she cheated! She was one of the most competitive people I have ever known; finally we all ganged up on her to win—it was the only way. After all, she needed to learn some humility. 🙂 We would race back to school and make it just before curfew, and all of us would look forward to the next weekend where we would repeat the same. After awhile, I didn’t even have to fill out a weekend pass, they knew where I was.
I was on a full-ride academic scholarship, but it did not include room and board. And, by my senior year, I had worked so hard at places like Publix and Wendy’s I was completely burned out. I saved every hard class in my major for my senior year. There would be no way to work full time and carry the academic load I had to carry to graduate on time. By then, Pam had down-sized her apartment, but offered to let me live with her anyway. We put two twin beds in one room and suddenly I was back at summer camp again. Girls, you understand, you remember, when you were with somebody who you loved and loved you, there was always something to talk about, and you never wanted to be the one to fall asleep during a conversation. So, night after night Pam and I would talk about all kinds of things; but it almost always came back to the same discussion, which had something to do with both of us thinking we deserved better than God was giving us because we had ALWAYS “followed” His ways. That was a year of some dumb decisions and some quick maturity. The same group of us still hung out, went to the same church and all got very hurt at that church. When I graduated from college, Pam moved back to Philadelphia and begged me to move with her—and the only reason I did not was because of the cold weather, true story.
We stayed in touch and out of church for a decade. If she were here to tell you I have no doubt that she would say some of the dumbest things she ever did was during that time and I am here to say I definitely did some of the dumbest things in my life during that time, including getting married. Only a few people were at my wedding, Pam & Kris were two of them. I would fly up to see her a couple of times a year; walked with her through the repercussions of her version of bad decisions. She was the first person that took me to NYC. I still remember driving out of the tunnel and suddenly seeing the city that still captivates my heart.
“When you’re tired from running, I will cheer you on, look beside you and you’ll see, your’e not alone, and when yours strength is all but gone I will carry you until you are strong, And I will be your shield, because I know how it feels, when you are a soldier.”
It didn’t take too many years for Pam to figure out something was wrong, even though I never told her. She asked and I lied, I lied a lot. Everyone agrees that Pam was one of the most joyful people you would ever meet, but for any of you that ever saw her mad, well, you know why I didn’t tell her. She loved me fiercely and there was nothing she would not do to protect me. At some point the decade long hold out from church was over and we were both back in church. I remember the time she called me and told me about this cute guy that she met playing volleyball. It was about then that hurricane Katrina hit and she was one of the first to sign up for a trip to travel to Slidell, LA to help rebuild. And, as it would be, the cute boy from volleyball was there too, what a coincidence! The next thing I knew I was honored to accept her invitation to stand beside her as she married the love of her life.
My life, at the time, was unraveling quickly. One of my greatest regrets is that I let my husband make me stay home from the wedding. So, every time she looked at her wedding photos there is one more groomsman than bridesmaids, and it constantly made her heart sad as she quickly realized what was going on in January of 2007 when I fled him and the country. I left less than 30 days after she married Matt; and I did not get to see her dreams fulfilled—the dreams she and I discussed well into the wee hours of the morning on so so many nights.
“When you’re lost in darkness I will hold the light, I will help you find your way through the night, I’ll remind you of the truth and keep the flame alive in you, and I will be your shield cause I know how it feels, when you are a soldier”
It was about that time my, shall we say my “technology challenged” friend learned to text. She called me everyday for that first year. Most the time I did not pick up because I did not want to talk about it; so she learned to text and I knew that she meant what she said when she said she loved me, because her love knew no boundaries. She was there, she was there through the thick and the thin; and oftentimes found my blog hard to read because that is who she was; it was too much for her. She had too much regret. She asked when she would show up in the blog, as she knew she would because she was such an important part of the “success” story, as I would have never graduated from college without her letting me live with her for free my senior year in college. I kept telling her, to be patient, that I was getting to her part; and well, sadly, I didn’t get to her part soon enough.
So, it is fitting as I grieve the death of one of the most important people in my life that I remember that I met her while both of us were dealing with grief. I met her BECAUSE both of us were dealing with grief. And that grief formed a bond that was never broken. There were no amount of years or miles that could break that bond. More nights than not, she would notice I was awake at 3AM and she would text me and we would have long chats about whatever, but it always came back to the blog; or more importantly the details she was reading in the blog. And each time, she would tell me how mad she was that she “stood there while I married that monster”. I told her she couldn’t have known and neither could I. My last long text exchange with her was about this very topic about 7 days before she died. And if I got to pick the last text I get to send to somebody before they are taken from me, it would be one like this one. I am so grateful that these were the last words she heard from me.
But first, her last words to me, well almost last words, stay with me.
“I just read your last blog post. I think it was the hardest one for me because in that 60 days between Thanksgiving and the day of your leaving was my wedding and we were robbed of sharing that together. I remember your calling and saying you were sick but I was just so busy/excited and naive that I just believed you were sick. I should have known. I just looked at pics on my wall of my bridesmaids and one of my most special friends is missing and she needed help and I didn’t know. Then when you did tell me after…and you were literally fleeing to Canada…I knew it was the right thing…but I still didn’t know the gravity of it. I don’t even think when you came for Thanksgiving that I really got it. But, I am thankful now. Thankful for the people God put in your life to help you these 8 years. I am thankful we will always be friends and that we had our time in Florida…those were some crazy times, but I cherish them and you. I love you.”
My last words to her
“Those times feel like the twilight zone to me. Remember it was 8 or 9 years before I told anybody, and they only knew because they were local. I can’t even go there in my mind about your wedding, can’t even think about it. And you have been, and will continue to be part of the the team that sticks by me. I came to you that first Thanksgiving for a reason. All of my special/best friends have had a part in all of the healing, even if you don’t realize it. Some of you pruned, some of you planted, others watered and now you are all seeing the fruits of that labor. I love you Pam, don’t ever forget that and don’t forget you were the reason I finished college. A lot is behind us now, but He’s not done and I still need you, don’t forget that either! Remember He has come to restore what the enemy came to destroy, love you!”
Her final text:
This randomness of words won’t be her official debut in the blog or the book, but I wanted to write it while the grief of her death still stings like it did when my mom died, when I met a fellow soldier who spent 2 decades doing nothing but walking beside me; shielding me; loving me; protecting me—because she knew, she knew how it felt and she used that pain to help me and countless others.
My only question is this, what do I do now? I know that in time, this will sting less, but that life will never be the same. One doesn’t get a friend like Pam very often in their lives. I am grateful for the time I had; so until that time when I do see you again, I know your memory will continue to be a shield in my life; and when I am in the trenches and I see my soldier is not there; it will only make the anticipation of my own home going that much sweeter. Until then, though, I am going to live a vibrant life, one that you helped build; and maybe I can be somebody else’s soldier.