A little over a week ago I sat in a pew at my home church and wept as I remembered the life of one of the most beautiful people I've ever known. It's been a very long time since Ashley and I were close, but at one time, we were good friends. We had a special relationship and special names for one another. She wasn't Ash. She was Shley. I wasn't LA or Les. I was Lie (like Les-lie). I, being three years older than her, considered her my "little sister" in the youth group. She always made me laugh, and we had such wonderful memories.
I remember teaching her the alto lines in our youth choir. Leaning over and singing the notes into her ear so that she could hear the harmony. We went to Knoxville and painted a falling-apart house that was scheduled to be torn down and replaced. But we did it anyway. Ashley kept taking a break to talk to the owners of the house. She shared her light with them. We were just trying to make things better for them in the short term. We got in trouble on that trip. If you ask me why, I might tell you someday.
I remember when she found out she had cancer, six years ago. I was a sophomore at Mississippi State. She was a senior in high school. When mom told me the news, my jaw dropped in shock. Ashley? Cancer? It couldn't be. She was one of those girls that everyone loved. She was gorgeous, one of the most popular girls in her school. Captain of the soccer team, on the homecoming court and student council. If you didn't know her, you would assume that she was one of the "pretty people" who couldn't care less about others. But that wasn't the case with Ashley. She was a kind and gentle person, always willing to widen her circle to let others in.
I remember going home for a weekend and seeing her. Not knowing what to say. What do you say to a girl who just found out that her dreams will not happen after all? How do you express your sadness and disbelief to someone whose life was turned upside down? She kept me from having to come up with something to say. Asked about my life at school. My boyfriend. She wanted to know when I'd be coming home again, how I liked dorm life. With her quiet grace she turned the focus off of herself and cancer and onto me.
I remember praying for a miracle. That God would heal her and take the cancer away. She had surgery. They replaced the bone in her leg with a metal rod, and her life returned to normal for a little while.
I remember sitting in the Dallas airport a few years later with my cell phone pressed to my ear as mom told me that Ashley wasn't doing well. Tears rolled down my cheeks when she told me that the cancer came back, and this time, it didn't look good. When I hung up the phone, I stared out the window as airport staff loaded our baggage into the cargo hold. I wondered how and why all of this was happening to someone so young and beautiful. Someone with so much promise.
I remember praying for a miracle, again. That God would heal her and take the cancer away. Our church rallied around her. Raising money and pulling together for her sake. When things fell apart at the church and politics got nasty, Ashley was our common concern. We may have disagreed on a lot of things, but we stood united when it came to her.
I remember seeing her dancing with her sister at a wedding. Her face shone with happiness. She was having the time of her life. We talked. Took pictures. Laughed. Remembered the good times. Then we left, and I got married, and it was a while before I saw her again.
I remember reading my e-mail and dropping my jaw in disbelief when I read the report that her cancer was gone. God took it away. She was healed. Cancer-free. On her way to Chattanooga to go to college and live the life she had dreamed of. Finally.
I remember reading my e-mail and shaking my head in sadness when I read the report that her cancer was back. In her spine. In her lungs. It was not good.
I remember praying for a miracle, again. That God would heal her and take the cancer away.
I remember seeing her at another wedding. No dancing this time. A limp. A grimace of pain when she thought no one was watching. But always a smile. Always the questions about my life. I still didn't know what to say. Hugs. Laughter. Smiles.
I remember waving good-bye, wondering if I'd ever see her again.
I remember driving to Nashville, dreading the night. Stepping out of the van with my mother outside the church. Taking a deep breath. Going inside, waiting in line. Waiting. Looking at pictures, smiling at how goofy we looked when we were in high school. Waiting. Hugging the family. Standing beside the casket. Telling my precious Shley good-bye. Tears trickling down my face.
I remember sitting in the pew, watching her fiance walk in the side door with the minister. Standing at the front of the church, in front of friends and family. Waiting for his bride. Her fathers brought her in and left her with him, but there were no vows. No exchange of rings. No kiss. No pronouncement of marriage. Only the celebration of a life well-lived. A life of faith in God. A life that refused to ask "Why me?" and asked "Why not me?" instead. A life that touched so may others. We bid farewell to a beautiful girl, and we left with the hope of seeing her again someday. Because God has answered the prayers for a miracle. He has healed Ashley and taken the cancer away.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more...Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
(Revelation 21:1, 3b-4)
Until next time, grace and peace.