On Sunday morning, I got word that my dear, lifelong friend Denise passed away. Denise and I grew up together. She and her family moved in across the street from us when she was three and I was four years old. We spent years playing baby dolls and dress up. We dug in my sandbox or played on her swingset. We whispered a million secrets to one another during a thousand sleepovers. We even pierced our fingers and swapped our blood so we could be "real sisters."
Denise was a part of every one of my major life events. She was in my life when my parents divorced. She was around for every move, every school transfer, every life struggle and celebration. We've been side-by-side through movies, plays, and concerts. We vacationed together both as children and adults. She saw me through schools and international adventures. She knew about every boyfriend -- every happiness, every heartbreak -- and over Braum's biscuits and gravy, she convinced me to have a wedding instead of eloping when "the one" finally came along.
Denise was my most constant companion through 15 weeks of pregnancy bedrest when I was expecting Gracie, my first biological child. She supplied me in banana splits and painted the toenails I could no longer reach. Then, she stood at my delivery room bedside and coached me as well as James. Since our move to Texas eight years ago, she and I have traveled back-and-forth to stay with one another, and we've had loads of phone time. Denise was the single person in my life to share Christ with me, and though I vehemently disagreed with her religion at the time, it was her love and constant grace in the midst of my craziness that planted the seeds for my eventual salvation.
About four years ago, Denise had gastric bypass surgery. The doctor in her case did a really awful job, and she began growing sicker and sicker with no hope for reversal. Her husband (who had also had the surgery) had similar complications, and he had to leave his job to go on disability after developing a seizure disorder. Their lives changed drastically, and they lost so much in a very short time. In 2009, their losses led to a kind of despair that caused them to begin drinking heavily (something Denise had never done before), and she no longer wanted the same kind of contact with me. I don't know if it was depression or shame, but regardless of whatever drove her desire for isolation, the fact that I was homeschooling two children and had a newborn made it easy to honor her request for space.
I always thought we'd have time to catch up...
In 2010, because of her altered absorption, the drinking led to Denise developing a severe case of cirrhosis of the liver. I didn't know about it until her sister emailed me to tell me that Denise was on hospice and not expected to live long. Evidently, she'd gotten sober and had been on a transplant list for a few months, but when she relapsed, she was removed from the list and put back on hospice. In 2011, she was moved between family members across different states, and her moves coupled with the fact that we added two more infants to our family while I became the primary caretaker of my cancer-ridden, terminally-ill mother led to a total loss of contact. I kept thinking of reaching out, but I didn't. I made excuses, but the reality is I was afraid to face both her addiction and her mortality (along with dealing with everything else on my plate), so I made the choice not to press forward. Because of my selfishness and fear, I missed out on a sweet window of opportunity as I now know the whole time I was here in Texas making excuses, she was with her husband and daughter in Oklahoma, sober and in decent health. She relapsed in September 2012 and declined rapidly, dying January 26th, 2013.
The emotions I have about her death are complicated. I've loved Denise my whole life long, but when she needed me the most, I wasn't there. I know she asked for the space, but I should have pushed through. The eventual absolute loss of contact was totally my fault, and I'll forever regret it. I rarely look back on my life and want a do-over, but this is one of those circumstances where I would do things in a totally different way if I had the chance. Logistically, I'm not sure how much more I could have offered during that bone-crushing, exhausting time of my life, but I just let space and time overwhelm me, and I couldn't be more sorry about that decision.
Oh, to have been a better friend when it mattered most...
At this point, I feel convicted to never again completely neglect those I deeply love, no matter my own circumstances. Life is never too difficult for a short phone call or a card in the mail. Additionally, I feel the need to keep my circumstances in check and to continually cling to the cross of Christ so that I too do not slip away into a despair that leads to physical death. It astonishes me that the consumption of alcohol is ultimately what consumed the friend I could never convince to drink, and if a shockingly-altered lifestyle could take her down, it could take anyone down. Moreover, I feel a commitment to the eight-year-old daughter she left behind. I believe it's largely my continued responsibility to keep Denise's memory alive in that little heart. I feel that, at the very least, I owe it to Denise to be as crazy an "auntie" to that little one as I was a crazy friend to her mother. Most importantly, I feel it's my responsibility to have the relationship with her that makes Christ accessible and approachable, because without her mother, I'm not sure anyone else would have done that for me.
[This was the summer Denise told me about Jesus in an unrelenting way...]
[My first Christmas as a Christ-follower]
Denise's friend Robin, me, and Denise's sister Gloria