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Some people make an indelible difference in our lives. A woman named Sally was one of those people in mine. I’m sure many called her their best friend and she was surely mine. I called her Grace, she called me Gracie, to remind ourselves, she said, how much we needed it! This story was originally posted in 2015. I was both grieving her loss and celebrating her life, as I pondered what she might have to say about my turning sixty that year.

(In memory of Sally Bjorkman March 2, 1942 – May 18, 2015)

From the distance, the limbs layered with maple leaves look like the tree’s heavy overcoat. Up close, just a breath of air, a bird’s wings, and each leaf flutters its independence. How stately and majestic the tree stands in its new summer attire. It wears its age well as unseen life strengthens it—leaf to limb, trunk to root to depths of the earth and shooting up skyward. It’s a sign that summer is coming and with it reminders of youth, when my own roots had not yet grown deep.

I’ve stumbled around the past weeks, the heavy curtain having fallen around me, once again, with the sudden loss of my dear friend. I had her in my life for just ten years, one important decade, and felt as though she would always be there. As I write, I realize maybe she is. Words bring her into these moments with me. But I can’t shake the sadness. I’m wearing that old heavy overcoat I was certain that I’d tossed. A tree can shake its leaves, can’t I my grief? As an intruder appears without warning, grief sneaks into the space inside me that my soul sister, Sally, has left vacant.

Old Dog Sam stays near my feet, sensing my sorrow. Unaware, feisty cat Rose stands outside at the window on her hind legs, begging to come inside. I open the door and she purrs all the way across the house to the kitchen where I feed her and pet her as she eats. I remember Sally answering her cell phone at midnight once, as I roamed the neighborhood with Sam, looking for a missing Rose. “She’s a huntress,” Sally assured me, “she’ll be back.” She was right. I think of Sally’s cat alone now, without her, like me.

We come in, we go out. What do our days add up to and what do I do without my friend, the woman who stepped in when first my brother, then my mother stepped out? Good people are gone, one after another and I am still here. Why? Who is worthy? Certainly the kind, life-giving nurturers like them. Those who always ask, “How are you doing?” and really mean it, then stop to really listen when you answer. The givers who pray into the deep crevices of one’s wandering soul. 

Startled from my thoughts by the sound of a boom against the window, I realize a sparrow has hit it and fallen…as have I, time and again.

If I surprised Sally when I confided in her about things I’d kept hidden, she didn’t show it. She seemed to understand. This was her gift to me. She listened and guided me and would inevitably ask, “How’s Todd” reminding me how deeply she cared, as she was gently removing weeds of fear and shame I couldn’t let go of.

Years ago, I rented a house in a forest off a university campus, nestled safely away from the street. There was a long path leading to my front door with detector lights protecting me from prowlers. The lights were important because there were prowlers—one at least, maybe two. The owner of the house kept a good eye on me, and if the lights went on, he was at his window just sixty or so yards away. I would see his stern brow, his stare into the dark, and know I was safe.

He could keep the prowlers away from my house, but not out of my heart. There, the weeds grew as thick as the garden that was just beyond my kitchen window. It wasn’t my idea to plant the garden. As a single mother with two jobs, I knew I wouldn’t have the time, and I had little interest in tending to it as cornstalks grew spindly, simply because I wasn’t paying attention. The person who had insisted I plant it scolded me when he saw the overgrowth and would take bags of tomatoes and zucchini home with him. I made some pasta salads but didn’t tend to my garden.

It seems ironic now as I plant the little plot of ground beside our house, to grow squash and tomatoes, peppers and collard greens. There is no corn, but this year maybe an eggplant. I watch the progress each day, watering and pruning. I get so attached to the vegetables it’s hard to eat them. I take photos and add them to the family album. Cooking is a ceremony and when we eat, I say a blessing over the soon-to-be, dearly departed vegetables.

As the tree, the garden grows—its roots, strength, and transformative beauty are new each day, pulsing with unseen life. I remember then the true Gardner pulsing life through me.

When I turned fifty, I prayed that during the next decade, God would make me into a woman after His own heart. I joined a new church where I met Sally, and danced for Jesus—literally, to Chris Tomlin’s worship song. After that, I was soon baptized in Lake Michigan.

It felt like Sally was weeding and pruning me with her unassuming presence and infectious laugh, but I can see now how God was in her, tending to me. He brings people into our lives for His own purposes and takes them out. They are temporary gifts, but Christ is ours to keep. He is the same always, giving us grace to grow up, to become more like Him. With transformation, my story became His and His Grace became mine.

Oh, Sally, this morning, once again, like you said you’d always be with me, I can just hear your giggle. And a still small voice saying, “Gracie, grow more dependent on Jesus, and like the tree, you will always wear your age well.

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