December 11, 1952 – March 24, 2011
I was raised Catholic – at least through my early teens – but haven’t been to mass in years. I no longer believe, perhaps never believed, in the rituals of organized religion. And yet throughout my years living in Mexico and travels in Europe, the Catholic church was always a place to go for quiet rest and reflection, for peace and refuge. The doors were always open to those in need of a place to sit for a few moments or a few hours.
Yesterday I received word of the the death of a dear friend, a woman I knew and loved during our shared lives as expats in Mexico in the 1980s. A friend who returned to her home in England with her young son only shortly before I moved back to Seattle. We remained in contact through the years – long rambling letters back before email, holiday and birthday cards. Judi never missed a birthday, mine or that of my daughter. Yesterday my daughter, now twenty-one, said, “I loved her birthday cards. I always looked forward to opening them.”
Judi came to Seattle only once. June 1998. We took a girls’ road trip down the Oregon coast and hiked the dunes. We went white water river rafting and attended a play in the Elizabethan theater of the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. Judi spent her life in theater – teaching, acting, directing. The trip was perfection.
Last winter, when I learned that Judi was fighting cancer, I decided to spend June in England. She met me at Heathrow, and I recognized her by her eyes. Brilliant blue vibrant eyes. Her body had changed. Once plump, Judi was not only thin, but somehow smaller than I remembered her. Still, she was energetic, and she wanted an adventure. We met another friend from our Mexico years and spent a long weekend in London together: Judi, Leandra and me. We hadn’t been together in twenty-five years, but it was as though we’d never separated. It was as though we were in our twenties again. We talked of our lives, present and past. We laughed about writing a book together, even choosing a title: The Ex-Mexican Wives Club.
After London, Judi and I did another road trip together, this time to the east coast of northern England, Edinburgh, Loch Lomond, the Lake District. We stumbled into an art gallery in Judi’s hometown of Birmingham, surprised by a Bob Dylan show, and bought matching prints: Rose on a Hillside. By the time we returned to her home in Cheltenham, Judi was tired, but happy. I hoped she was truly in remission, that she had fought and won. But nine months later, Judi lost the battle.
When I learned the news yesterday morning, I was lost in the universal pain and sorrow of grief for a friend, a woman who will not see her son’s wedding, will never hold her future grandchildren. It was a beautiful day in Seattle – bright blue sky, pink cherry blossoms, yellow daffodils. The sweet fragrance of spring was in the air. I wandered my neighborhood trying to walk away the pain. I walked to exhaustion and still felt troubled, a heavy sadness settling into my bones. I’d been calling England every other weekend or so since last summer, not wanting to lose the close connection we’d reestablished during those long driving hours last June. We talked of dreams. “What’s on your bucket list?” I asked during a recent call.
“More travel,” she said without pause.
“Where?” I asked.
“Southern Italy,” she said, her voice dreamy and soft. “I’ve never been to southern Italy.”
I wanted to make that trip a reality this summer but that too was taken from Judi.
As I walked the streets blindly until I passed Holy Rosary, the local Catholic church – a church I have not entered in the many years I’ve lived in West Seattle – an old urge returned. I longed for the cool quiet of an empty church, the filtered light through stained glass windows, the heavy smell of candles and incense. I wanted to find that gentle peace of acceptance. I tried the side door. Locked. I tried the front doors. Locked. I stood for a moment, surprised and disappointed. Solace denied. I could not sit in meditative silence. I could not light a candle for my dear friend. I didn’t know that churches were locked. I remembered entering churches on a recent trip to the east coast. Is it only tourist churches that remain unlocked during the day?
Disappointed, I walked home. There, I gathered a few photographs of those I have lost: my dear friend, Judi; my writing partner, Sandra E. Jones; my sister, Maureen, my father. I collected a few mementos: a jade ring, a tiny theatrical mask, a Celtic medallion, a candle. I arranged my tokens on the corner of a bookcase in my writing room under a red T-shirt shaped lamp that once belonged to Sandra, and I lit the candle for my most recent lost loved one. For Judi.