Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Tribute to Theresa Desmond-Chiarello

First published in the monthly newsletter of St. Mark's UMC of Daleville, VA in the summer of 2010. Over at the Daily Fast Fuel, I've been writing and thinking about how service has affected my life. My musings have brought Terry to mind this week. Reprinted here to honor the memory of my dear friend.

It's been almost a year and I still think about you all the time.

I miss you, gal.

Terry died on July 4th, Independence Day. She was my friend. We usually caught up with each other one or two times a week. Sometimes we’d just chat about our days. Sometimes we’d share photos, she of her family, and me of mine. Terry was one of the first people to know I was pregnant. She fawned over my ultrasound photos and looked forward to meeting my new son. She prayed for my husband, Phillip, when she learned that his cancer had returned. I prayed for her when she struggled with health problems of her own. Sometimes she and I would talk over food. The last time I saw her, we shared a big bowl of watermelon. Sometimes we’d watch T.V. and try to guess “whodunit” on “Law and Order” or gab about the latest celebrity on “Oprah”. Other times we’d just talk…laughing about the silly things in life, sharing our individual struggles and challenges, and even pondering together God’s purpose for our lives. Terry was my dear friend and I’m still trying to adjust to the idea that she’s gone.

You might be surprised to learn that while Terry was such a dear friend, we never spoke on the phone – not even once. We never texted or emailed each other. She was not my “friend” on Facebook or Myspace. We never caught a movie together or went out to eat. I never had her over to my house, and she never had me over to hers.

I met Terry on December 24, 2009 as I was delivering Christmas gifts from St. Mark’s Youth Ministry to a rehab facility in Fincastle. Terry was a 50-year-old resident who had a tragic fall down a flight of stairs about a year and a half ago, and was paralyzed from the neck down, breathing only with the help of a ventilator. Though by the time I met her, Terry’s body was failing her in many ways, her mind was just fine. She had been a talented nurse before her accident. For reasons I think only God can explain, I felt drawn to get to know her.

What began as a simple visitation became a friendship with a closeness that seems to have defied the circumstances. Our first meeting was certainly fun, seeing as how it involved presents! However, the next three or four visits were rather uncomfortable. I often found Terry crying, missing her family, or enduring great pain and calling for a nurse. Then, as if those things weren’t challenging enough, there was the issue of reading her lips to communicate. The ventilator prevented most of the sound from coming out of her throat when she spoke. Not to mention that when Terry tried to speak for long periods of time it became difficult for her to breathe because of the phlegm that would build up in her ventilator. Early on, it wasn’t unusual for Terry to cut our visits quite short by telling me she was “tired and needed to rest” but, “oh, by the way, can you turn the T.V. up on your way out?”

Awkward situations and the fear that I was intruding in her world were tempting reasons for me to discontinue my visits to Terry. After all, I could hardly understand what she said to me anyway. Then somehow, slowly, something changed. I can’t put my finger on what. One day, Terry didn’t hint for me to leave so soon. I began to read her lips more effectively. She smiled as she told me about her life and her family. I think we shared a joke or two. And after a few more visits like that, occasionally an hour and a half or more would go by before I realized how long I’d been there. She began to ask me to wake her up if I came by to visit and found her sleeping. She didn’t want to miss our time together. She told me she loved me. And I discovered I had grown to love her too. Ultimately over time, when I visited Terry and we talked so easily together, it was as if the ventilator had disappeared and her body wasn’t broken and immobile. We were just two friends who cared deeply for each other, lost in a world of our own conversation.

I never dreamed when I delivered gifts to Terry back in December what a gift she would ultimately be to me. And in her death, Terry gives to me still. Through the process of mourning her death, it has occurred to me that hers is not the first friendship I’ve had of it’s kind. I can think of another friend who I seemed drawn to but with whom, given the circumstances, it seemed impossible to connect. I can’t call or spend time with Him like I can my other friends. But given time, persistence and faith, I have come to love my friend, Jesus. Just like with Terry, I found that Love crept up on me and surprised me with its power.

Spiritual skeptics often ask, “How can you believe in and love a God you can’t see or hear?” I don’t have an easy answer for that. Nor can I easily explain the gift Terry’s friendship was to my life. The only answer I can provide is this: Love often comes unbidden… and in unexpected places. It doesn’t follow worldly expectations. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never fails… And God is Love. Praise be to God. Amen.