There were two beautiful services for my friend Mary this weekend. It felt good to cry, to share stories, and to meet people from her past whom I’ve heard Mary talk about fondly for years. And we all miss her terribly, and are sort of fumbling our way into a life lived without her. As one of her friends said, we all need to keep calm and Mary on.
Over the last several months, as Mary’s illness progressed, I kept making the same offer to God. Look, God, if you bust out with a miracle here and cure Mary’s cancer, I promise I will write about it and tell the world about her miraculous healing and so many people will come to believe in you. Win-win siutation! I was, very clearly, in the Bargaining phase.
It did not happen that way, for reasons that I cannot presume to know. But over the last few days, I have realized that Mary’s very life, short though it was, was still a kind of miracle. And I realized that I can still write about her, and that her spirituality just might help people come to know God a little bit better, because if anyone ever radiated the love of God, Mary did.
So I’m sharing a few things that I’ve learned from being Mary’s friend. They are things that she did instinctively, and often, and they really do — to use that old cliche — make the world a nicer place.
1. Make a little human connection with everyone, even with people you’ll never see again. When it came to salesclerks and waiters, Mary could make an instant connection with a compliment, an observation, or a friendly question. She could put herself in the shoes of the overworked sales clerk and empathize with their situation, letting them know that she was with them, not against them. At this time of year, when stores are overrun and tempers are short and cashiers are overwhelmed, this reminder is especially apt.
2. Find something beautiful in your immediate surroundings, and savor it. As a photographer, Mary did this in spades. She could see a bin of erasers in a store and marvel at their color and texture and then photograph them in a way that made them look like priceless works of art.
3. Get goofy. For all the suffering Mary put up with in her life, namely two separate bouts with cancer, she had an irrepressible sense of fun. As Scott and I were going through the photos on her hard drive, looking for some to decorate the hall for the reception, we came upon this photo and laughed.
It’s one of a series of photos Mary took in our backyard about six years ago, at a barbecue with friends. Fueled by sangria and inspired by the grimaces of the tiki mugs, we raided the house to find all sorts of random tchotchkes and figurines. Taking them to the backyard table, we invented a story for the characters, told in a series of ten photographs, each with a handwritten caption. That was the kind of fun that would spontaneously happen when Mary was around. From her sister’s eulogy, I learned that when Mary was a teenager, she snuck out of the house one night, headed to a friend’s yard, and drew happy faces on every orange on the orange tree. When her friend looked out the window, she was greeted by a tree full of smiles. Mary brought goofy fun to an art form.
4. Get to know Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mary loved Our Lady of G. She told me that even as a child, the Anglo Madonnas never did it for her — she once referred to them as “translucent-looking Marys” — but she adored the Mary with darker skin, a Mary that she saw often in the California town where she grew up. Our Mary’s very house was a testament to her devotion: icons of Our Lady of G. were everywhere.
And the day that Mary died was December 12th — the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
5. Listen to others when they are suffering. The word compassion means “to suffer with,” and no one did that better than Mary. When you were having a hard time, she would listen, really listen, and she hurt for and with you. And she would say things that were not advice, necessarily — she wasn’t trying to be Ms. Fixit who had all the answers — but she would let you know that she was present in your pain, and somehow, that made it less intense.
Last fall, she and Tom came over one Saturday for the boys’ joint birthday party. After everyone else had gone home, they stayed, and she and I and Tom and Scott sat in the huge rented bouncy house on the front lawn and talked. We shared some worries we had about one of the boys, worries that were very fresh and very raw, and she listened and shared our pain. She’d just been on a trip to Portugal, and she gave us some medals she’d bought at Fatima, and I think back to that day — the conversation, the little silver medals in their small envelopes, the inflatable comfort of the bouncy house, the love in her voice and her eyes and her hugs — and it’s one of my favorite Mary memories.
6. Welcome the immigrant and all those excluded by mainstream society. As our priest said so eloquently in his homily, the one thing that really got Mary angry was cruelty. She saw the dignity in every person and treated them as people who are beloved by God. Her heart was open, always, to those who were on the margins.
After Mary’s rosary service on Friday night, many of us stood behind in the church and talked. My friend Maryellen shared a surprising experience she’d had during the service. She was sitting with her friend Kirsten about halfway back in the church while friends and family members shared their memories of Mary. All of a sudden a little woman with dark skin and an accent, clearly an immigrant, sat down right next to Maryellen and Kirsten in their pew.
“Your friend Mary,” the little woman said, “it sounds like everyone really loved her. It’s nice that people can express their feelings in such an open way.” She remained sitting in the pew, sitting very close to them, smiling warmly. and asking them about Mary. It was odd to be so close to a total stranger, said Maryellen, but it was comforting too.
“This is a beautiful church,” the woman said finally, looking around. “I’ve tried to come inside and see it at other times but it was always locked. Tonight, it was open.” And with that, she left.
That’s Mary: open to the immigrant and the poor and the excluded. She was open to God and to beauty and to laughter and to the pain of others. And she made me a lot more open than I would have been without her in my life.
“I just want everyone to know how much I love them,” Mary said the last time that I saw her. It bothered her that she was not going to have a chance to say it to everyone before the end.
But when you live life like Mary did, the words aren’t necessary. We already knew.