I just got home from visiting a friend. I finally got to meet her husband and we had a nice long chat. I hugged her children’s necks and laughed with her friends. I told her every wonderful thing I love about her and thanked her for being such a well of encouragement and inspiration. It was amazing, and I almost missed it. I almost didn’t go.
My friend’s name is Tammy and she’s dying. Right this very minute she’s lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, trying to navigate her way from this world into the next. I’ve got the distinct impression that it’s harder than it looks. But Tammy is a badass and she can handle anything.
Several years ago she opened a children’s bookstore in East Nashville. Now, this was no ordinary bookstore. Yes, there were books, but there were also toys, and crafts, and a big ol’ area to play with them all. And the very best thing? There was an area in the back with couches and coffee and good smelling candles and it was there for mamas and papas to sit down and RELAX. Imagine. A place actually designed for children and families to enjoy.
From the time Fairytales opened it became our go-to for birthday and Christmas gifts. In fact, at any neighborhood party, you could bank on 75% of the gifts arriving in the signature white bag with colorful tissue paper and fairy stamp. So I saw Tammy a lot. She was hard to miss. She had bright red hair and a giant grin and she was ALWAYS at the store. Still, we weren’t actually friends. In the 300 times I came into the shop, I never introduced myself; I smiled and “thank you-ed” and tried to stay invisible. I’m a little intimidated by red-haired badasses who open businesses and become community linch pins.
It wasn’t until I started this blog that Tammy and I became friends. I have no idea how she found out about it, but one day she began leaving comments, and the next thing I knew, we were talking a couple times a week. I felt like I’d won the lottery, like I’d just been picked first for dodgeball. Here this incredible woman was offering to be my friend. I’d like to say it’s because I’m special, but the truth is, Tammy does that for everyone. With Tammy, everyone is in. That’s part of her magic. That, and an infectious sense of optimism.
Tammy has been sick for a while. She successfully beat cancer once, only to have it return. Still, she continued to raise her three amazing daughters, run her store, and treat every setback as only another obstacle to beat down. In the midst of it all she kept loving on others and drawing larger and larger circles, pulling more people in. When Mike was fired a couple months ago, she showed up at my front door with a large bag of wrapped gifts for my kids – books and toys from her shop. She had the thumbprint bruises under her eyes that gave away how hard the fight was proving to be, but still, she glowed. Her bright light couldn’t help but shine.
I got the word yesterday that Tammy was failing and had said she was ready to go. She’d slipped into unconsciousness. As much as I wanted to go say goodbye, I didn’t want to intrude. I imagined her surrounded by a small circle of family and best friends. I’d heard that her husband was welcoming people to come visit, but I figured that was meant for other people. You know, people who really belonged. People who had passed some kind of friend litmus test. Maybe people who’d delivered her babies, or also had badass red hair like hers, or had solved world hunger or something. Worthy people.
I teetered between resigned and hysterical all last night. I paced the kitchen for half of the morning. She was still there. I could still tell her how important she’d been to me in this last year, though she might not hear me. But I felt hamstrung by insecurity and unworthiness. Death is a sacred thing. I didn’t want to taint it.
Even so, I was haunted by a need to show up for her like she’d shown up for me.
And then it occurred to me: Tammy had no idea that we’d be friends when she reached out the first time. She had no way to know for sure that I wouldn’t laugh her off. No way to know when she opened her store that it would be received with love and loyalty. She just stepped out with her whole heart, hoping. She just showed up. The realization felt like a holy lesson.
So I sent a text to a stranger (her husband) to make sure it was not inconvenient, dragged my blubbering and grateful butt into that ICU room and had one of the most meaningful experiences of my entire life.
I have no idea if Tammy heard any of the things that I said to her. Perhaps she can tell me someday when I see her on the other side. But this I know for sure: that waiting room was filled with people. Most I knew, some I did not. And every single one of them belonged there. Everyone was in, because Tammy had drawn them in. That is Tammy’s legacy. The legacy of belonging, the legacy of community.
I’m heartbroken for her children. I’m heartbroken for her husband. I’m heartbroken for all of us. But I’m okay with it. Sometimes, if you’ve really been wholehearted, you are going to have your whole heart broken. And if there is one thing that Tammy personifies it is wholeheartedness.
We will be ok. Her family will be ok. Scratch that, her family will be more than ok. We will all make sure of it. After all, she spent her life building up the world’s best
life love insurance policy.