I first met Dee in 2007. Kelley, my ex-wife (and current best friend) and I were just beginning to date. We were caught up in the emotion and excitement of discovering life together, but there was a deep hurt that she and her kids, Aidan and Kya were walking through. The year before, Kelley’s first husband, Ed succumbed to a brief but intense battle with cancer. He was 31.
Behind every smile and laugh were broken hearts and distant stares, but I knew this and was hopeful that we could walk the road together. My biggest fear, however, was meeting Ed’s family. I know how I would feel if I were in their shoes, having lost a son, a brother, a cousin…and having to meet someone who was following after. That moment was my greatest apprehension and as someone who can adapt to practically any social situation, I had no clue how to act or move or talk…and I knew I wouldn’t figure it out. So, Kelley decided to throw a Labor Day get-together at her place and I flew down from Annapolis to meet her circle of family and friends. I was anxious and excited because of one person in particular that I would be meeting…her name was Delores and she was Ed’s mother.
So, the day of the gathering, I was a bundle of nerves and energy. Kelley stopped me several times to just hold my face and tell me that everything was going to be great. I mentioned that I was just having anxiety about meeting everyone…especially Dee. I remember Kelley looking at me and saying,
Rick, you have never met anyone like Dee…and she will love you.
I smiled and nodded my head, knowing that this was what Kelley should say. But you know what…
Kelley was right.
When Dee and her husband Edwin, who is just about as wonderful as Dee, arrived, I smelled them before I saw them. She is renowned for her BBQ ribs, which I could dedicate an entire blog to, so I was hit by the fragrance of ribs and collared greens and I knew that if nothing else, she had my stomach. I walked into Kelley’s tiny kitchen and saw Dee who is this petite, perfectly elegant woman crowned with brilliant silver hair and Edwin who is built like a retired defensive end standing there. Both of them were smiling. Not in a way to be courteous or hospitable, but the kind of way that you smile for someone who you love and haven’t seen in a very long time.
I smiled back…but I’m sure, much more awkwardly. I walked over and introduced myself and held my hand out. Delores walked, bypassing my hand and my fears, and embraced me. She squeezed tightly and quietly sounded a mmmhmm (which she always did when she hugged you). It is hard to explain, but in that one moment she painted a perfect picture of grace and love and redemption in a way that a life-time of working in a church never could. I glanced at Kelley and she just smiled a knowing smile a mouthed an, I told you so.
I’ve never known anyone like Dee.
After that hug, she looked up at me and said,
You are welcomed and loved and we are so glad to have you in our lives!
Incredible right? What’s more, instantly, I believed it. Then Edwin introduced himself with his deep baritone voice and gave me “hug” as well. His was less gentle and comforting and more rib-crushing vice grip…but loving in the same, inexplicable way. I smiled at Edwin to mask the internal bleeding that was happening inside. Looking back, I now know that Dee treats everyone this way…with love and dignity and light…and hope. But somewhere deep inside my heart, I’ll always believe that I am somehow special to her. And everyone who knows her will tell you the exact same thing.
The rest of that day was a blur or stories and laughing and very, very good food. As everyone was beginning to leave, Dee pulled me to the side and gave me some of the most encouraging, lovely words I’ve ever heard. I’d share them, but they are just for me…
A lifetime of highs and lows have rolled in and out like the tide in the years since that day. The life that Kelley and I were beginning on that Labor Day weekend looks very different from how we’d imagined it. Kelley and I discovered that we are more loving as friends than we were as spouses. Aidan and Kya are now adults for all practical purposes with their own lives starting to begin. And a little boy who is now 6 and will tell you that he has 3 “Grammas”. Dee makes no distinction between family made and family inherited.
All during the past 1o years, there would be Dee, flying in for a visit, sending a text message on a holiday…giving love and wisdom and hugs that would squeeze your heart from your eyes. (Carter’s analogy)
I’ll especially miss the early morning trips to the airport. Just Dee and I…talking about life and God and the messiness of caring and grace. She, explaining to me that it’s ok to be screwed up, just so long as you never give up.
Now, Kelley and the kids sit in a hospital in Detroit…repeating the same terrible drama that they did a decade ago with Dee’s son. They deserve better…they deserve more. Dee has been battling cancer and had contracted pneumonia…and has been moved to hospice. They are all surrounded by family and friends and people who are somehow more because of who Dee is. I sit in my apartment wiping tears away…watching Kelley’s updates…texting back and forth, thinking about how such goodness and light leaves a world in such need of it. It’s not fair. If anyone has ever deserved to shine a little longer in our darkness, it’s Dee.
Thank you for loving me.
For treating me with love and respect and dignity when I had none. Thank you for smiling through the hurt and for insisting that I was yours too. Thank you that I never once felt unwanted by you…never wondering about how you felt about me. I want to be more like you…in how I love and rise and bring everyone up with me. Thank you for convicting me with your relentless love. Thank you for using your own hurt as fuel for beauty and grace and love. Thank you that you never used it as a weapon or an excuse.
I’m not there to say, goodbye, but that’s probably just as well…because we are all desperate not to.
We’ll will watch for the butterflies…
Update: Dee joined her son Edward in eternity an hour after writing this. Please pray for the family and consider helping in a practical way by helping Kelley fund the cost of a journey that no one should have to make. Anything is appreciated: