On Monday, my dear friend Mary died. Though she’d survived the cancer she had in her thirties, the cancer she was diagnosed with in her forties proved to be incurable. Monday morning, she passed quietly on to her new life. And all of her family and friends are struggling with a new life, too — one that is a lot less bright without Mary in it.
I’m going to try to capture her spirit here, because I want people to know about it. I’ll start by saying that Mary was one of the most generous souls I know. She was a huge heart that welcomed everyone. She loved the children she taught, many of them immigrants, and they loved her. I remember her telling me about the ICE raids in that community a few years ago, and the pain she felt for those kids who lived in such constant fear of a knock on the door. Last summer, she showed me pictures of her students, telling me all about them, and her affection was palpable: “Look at him. He’s such a character. Look at her. She’s so smart and so beautiful.” Student after student, Mary saw the unique and precious individuals that are too often lumped together under the category of Other. They were not Other to Mary. They were Us.
One of the readings that she and her husband Tom chose for their wedding was Hebrews 13. Part of it goes, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” At the time, I remember thinking that that reading captured Mary’s spirituality in a way that no other reading could. She saw angels in everyone, with a clarity of vision that inspires me. In her wedding, she wrote a special intention for gay, lesbian, and transgender Catholics, praying that they would always feel welcomed by the Church. She felt so strongly that no one is excluded from the love of God, and that we are most like God when we show that love here on earth.
“I’ve learned so much from your spirituality,” I told her on a sunny day last February, standing by her car in the parking lot of the church. “You include everyone, without exception, and you reach out to people on the margins. I find that so inspiring.”
In typical fashion, she shrugged off the compliment. “I just don’t understand why everybody doesn’t do that,” she said frankly. “I mean, that’s what this faith is all about. That’s the whole point.”
Last weekend, my friend Trish observed that Mary’s favorite hobby — photography — was a perfect metaphor for Mary’s spirituality. Mary could look at a parking lot and see the sunlight shining in a gorgeous way. She could look at a weathered old fence and see the little vine growing around it. In every way, she had a clarity of vision, seeing and celebrating the beauty below the surface. Long before it was fashionable to do so, Mary was taking pregnancy photos of her friends, amazing works of art in which expectant mothers stood on the beach or among the trees on the Presidio or, in my case, on a sunny hillside at a meditation center in Marin, bellies on full display. This was all the more poignant because Mary, due to the uterine cancer she’d had at age 34, could not have children herself. But she celebrated her friends’ pregnancies with such joy and enthusiasm. I remember her proudly showing me some of her most recent photos of a friend’s huge pregnant belly and then saying, half to herself, “If you don’t think that’s the most beautiful thing in the world, there’s something wrong with you.”
Mary was full of life. She was invariably late to every get-together, because she would cram so many things into her day. She adored good wine, rich coffee, camping trips, laughing, folk art, travel, farmers’ markets, and gardening. She loved kids — her nieces and nephews, her godkids, including my son Matthew. She was able to listen to kids, really listen. Seeing her with my sons, I caught a glimpse of how marvelous a teacher she was.
And Mary had a gift for connecting. So many times, when I was with her in a shop or a restaurant, she would make some comment to the clerk or the waitress: a little compliment on their earrings, a question, or an observation that let them know that she was seeing them as a human being, not just as someone to facilitate a transaction. I’ve seen clerks and waitresses go from frazzled and surly to smiling in Mary’s presence. She saw their humanity, in every case, and she responded to it. It was not forced; I don’t think it was even conscious on her part. It was who Mary was. It was why we all loved her. It is why we miss her terribly.
In October, I had a phone conversation with Mary, and it was that conversation that made me realize, with terrible clarity, that she was dying. Afterwards, I went into the kitchen and cried. It was so unfair, so terribly unfair, that someone like her would die so young. Why does it have to be Mary? Why can’t it be some mean selfish person instead? I asked God. And then I thought about how if the purpose of life is to learn to love as God does, then Mary doesn’t really have anything more to learn. She’s been loving like God for years.
What’s painful is that there are many of us who need to learn that kind of love. I wish she were still here to teach us.
The grief is coming in and out for me, in waves, which I know is normal. Some moments are very very bad. Last night I was thinking about how I would never again hear her greet me with her cheerful and melodic, “Hi, Ginnyums!”, and that realization hurt with a physical pain.
But I find myself thinking back to a conversation I had with Mary years ago. It was a few months before her wedding, and we were in her car, driving through San Francisco on some errand. She was telling me about how excited she was about the wedding, but how she had random moments when she realized that if anything were to happen to Tom, she would be devastated. “It is hard to love someone so much and to think about how you might lose them someday, ” she said, getting emotional.
Sitting there in the passenger seat, I told her that I understood. And I shared a quotation I had heard once, at a memorial service for 9/11 victims, one that has always helped me. The quotation was “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
There was a pause from the driver’s seat. Then Mary said, emphatically, “Then you know what? Bring it on.”
Vaya con Dios, sweet and wonderful Mary. I love you like crazy, and I always will.