Whimsical . . . warm . . . friendly . . . cheerful . . . caring . . . compassionate were all words I would use to describe Jill. I had come to this town alone several years ago to begin a new life as a teacher and youth worker. On the day I moved in, our youth pastor and one teen, a handsome young man named Kyle, came to help me carry in an array of boxes from the truck and arrange furniture in my new apartment. Kyle was helpful, polite, a little shy, and yet personable. My encounter with him as he lifted boxes and bundles, and rearranged furniture (until it suited me just right) left me with a warm, pleasant memory. As I settled into my new life, I saw Kyle occasionally at church or youth group. After a time, a pretty girl started coming with him. Before long it became apparent that Kyle and his blonde-haired, freckle-faced Jill had a very special relationship. I enjoyed watching them grow together and was delighted when eventually they were engaged and married. Although I didn’t see them often, I enjoyed talking with Kyle and Jill when I had the chance. They greeted me with smiles and hugs and plied me with questions about my life and I asked them about high school, then college, and most recently, their teaching jobs and new home.
Although young, Jill was a cancer survivor. She had gone through chemo, hair loss, insecurity about relationships and love, and the fear of impending death. I think perhaps it was that close brush with death while she was still a teen that gave her that extra-special quality of reaching out to people, of seizing every opportunity, of facing life with energy and enthusiasm.
As I started to reach out my hand to pluck a flower and then pulled back, I remembered a moment three days before. I had been walking down the hall in our church, unsuspecting, when our pastor’s daughter stopped me. Normally a bubbly, outgoing, happy person, Carrie seemed subdued. She asked, “Did you hear about Jill?”
“No. What happened?” I replied, a sense of foreboding coming over me.
“My dad got a phone call last night to come to the hospital. Jill was in a car accident. She died.”
Memories of Jill and Kyle flooded my mind as I tried to take in this news. I had just talked to Jill at church the week before. As always Jill’s face had been aglow with a smile that included her eyes, her cheeks, her eyebrows, even her nose. Also, as always, she asked me a million questions about me and redirected the conversation back to me after she had briefly answered my inquiries about her. Whenever I saw Jill and talked to her, I felt like I was the most important person in her world at that moment. How could Jill be gone? She had been coming home from her graduate classes in a bad rainstorm. On a curve her car had gone off the road and she hit a tree. I heard the facts. I understood the facts. Yet still my mind and heart struggled to comprehend that Jill was gone.
I hesitated. I didn’t want to pluck a carnation from one of the many baskets. I did not want to say farewell. If I pulled a flower from the arrangement and laid it on Jill’s casket and walked away it would be real and it would be final, too final when I didn’t want to say farewell at all. I felt the pain of losing someone I didn’t know well, but who had touched my life. I felt the pain of losing the opportunity to ever know her better. I had thought I would have many years to build a friendship, but now I saw I never would. The chance had passed me by. I regretted every instance I hadn’t taken time to talk to her longer, all the opportunities I had missed to really get to know her.
I looked across the casket at Kyle, his face etched with pain, in some ways so like a lost, lonely little boy, in others so like the strong, mature man he had been forced to become overnight. Kyle was surrounded by his family. His mother and grandmother were seated beside him. His father and brothers stood behind the chairs. His father laid one hand on Kyle’s shoulder and the other hand on his mother’s shoulder. Jill’s family was there too. There was no way to disguise the raw pain they all were enduring. The tears streaming down cheeks, the jaws set hard, the eyes so sad, the drooping mouths told the story of their pain.
I hesitated. I felt a strong resistance deep inside. I did not want to say farewell, but really that choice had already been taken from me. Jill was gone and no one had asked me if that’s what I wanted. Surely no one had asked Kyle, his family, or anyone in Jill’s family. Yet, Jill was gone and we were left with her memory and countless questions all beginning with “why” or “what if”. We’d had no choice whether she lived or died, but in our love and grief we had all come together on this day to lay to rest someone we loved, someone who had made a difference in our lives.
I hesitated. Then, at last, I bent down and pulled a flower from one of the baskets surrounding the casket. I fingered the pink carnation for a moment; still fighting the struggle within, still loathe to say farewell. Then I laid the flower on the casket as my heart whispered, “Farewell, Jill, you loved well and were loved well. Farewell, dear one, until we meet again one day.”