In leaving the island, my wife and I rediscover the blessings that accompany true friendship
Leaving is hard — whether it’s leaving Los Angeles, as I did almost ten years ago in October 2009 to go home to reconnect with my mother, or whether it’s leaving Vashon Island, WA, to go to Virginia to support my wife’s Ph.D program at George Mason University.
I remember that trip home in 2009 like it was yesterday. I thought I was starting a road trip across the United States, but it turned into a year in Hartville, OH with my mother and father, living with them and taking care of my mother as she began her eventual decline and passing.
One of the moments that stands out to me on that trip was a stop I made near Fountain, Colorado. I spent the evening with two of my former students and their families.
I was sleepy that night, exhausted from worrying about my mother, from closing my life down in Los Angeles, and from wondering how my family would react to me.
Eventually, they saw my exhaustion. But before the evening disbanded, they asked if they could pray for me.
I agreed, a bit groggy.
But I came awake during that prayer. Both families —adolescents, adults, children — crowded around me, placing their warm hands on my forehead, shoulders, arms.
And then they prayed.
At that point in my life, I wasn’t much interested in prayer. As I had told a friend of mine a week earlier, “God and I are in the middle of a fight. We aren’t talking much.”
The next morning, after that unexpected prayer, as I pulled away into the bright sunshine of a snowy Colorado day, I couldn’t forget the night before. The warm hands, the trusting prayers of the children, the honest conversation between my former students and their God — I didn’t know what to make of it.
I might not be talking to God. But perhaps, I thought, these past students (who were now my adult friends) were talking for me.
Part of the difficulty of leaving is this: how do you sever connections with friends? For me, you don’t. It’s impossible to unwind the heartstrings.
I realized this anew the other night. One of our dear friends on the island, Laurie Hennessey, threw us a party at a local eatery, The Ruby Brink. We were supposed to invite about 10 people. We told them, “Don’t bring gifts or even cards: just bring yourself, raise a glass, and wish us well.”
We had no idea how many would show up. Only seven reserved a place on FB. My wife worried we wouldn’t have enough to meet the minimum requirement.
She needn’t have stressed.
Ten minutes after the event began, close to 25 of our friends were crowding into the small space. The wait staff couldn’t handle the overflow, and Jake — the owner and a friend as well — came to me worriedly.
Could we encourage everyone to order a bottle of wine to make it easier?
We allowed they could.
It was another blessing, of sorts, spending time with people who share a mutual view of the world, who enjoy our presence, and who took time out of their Saturday night to come share time with us.
One of my friends on the island actually arrived, told me he had an emergency he had to attend to, but would be back later after he took his friend to the emergency room.
I figured he’d not make it back.
There are moments that stand out from that night. Our church flutist, Tom Parker, staggering in the door with a large water bottle reconstituted as a vase with wildflowers bursting out of it, growing higher than his head: White Roses and White Iris, and lavender Ocean’s Breeze. His smile of joy at finding all the right flowers — prowling the beaches and rambling meadows of the island, he told us proudly, just to cut and stuff them in a bottle for us — told us everything we needed to know about his affection for us.
The moment when Bob Hennessey, who is running for school board this fall, stepped away from his small table and then returned, only to find his political opponent, Dan Chasen (who is also our friend) had commandeered his seat. So they shared the seat.
They are friends also, after all. And this island is small, and the local coffee shop encourages discussion.
Oh, I forgot. That friend I mentioned earlier — you know, the one who disappeared to help another friend with her emergency? His name is Jim Dorsey.
When he returned, I was sitting with our friends Diane and Joe Krutzke — who happens to be our pastor at the small Lutheran church — and I introduced Joe to Jim.
They know about each other. Jim drinks two cups of coffee with me about twice a week as we sit out on the porch of the local coffee roasterie. Sometimes Joe drops by. I’ve even introduced them.
But now, as I watched them connect and find common ground, I saw them soon plunge into a conversation about their mutual distrust of religious organizations … even though Joe represents one.
He’s that kind of a pastor, real and authentic, one who’s figured out that pastoring is more about caring than theologizing.
Eventually, everyone drifted off home, and five of us closed down the party. Just Jim and us and another couple whose close friendship we enjoy. We enjoyed a final nightcap along with several more stories.
Somewhere along the way, we realized over half our friends who came that night also attended church with us. Even our friend June, in her ninth decade, who always ensures there are cookies during coffee hour after the morning service, had pushed open the door to the eaterie early in the evening, rolling her silver walker in front of her, cheerfully calling out good wishes to us.
Now Laura and I drove home, talking about how kind everyone was.
It was a gift, a gift of words and time given freely to us.
On June 16, our last Sunday morning in church, my wife and I had another surprise.
As he began the church service, our pastor — the one who always questions how much we should trust religious organizations — stopped everything and asked Laura and me to join him in front.
We did, standing there, feeling awkward. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Laura glance at me worriedly. This is still new for her.
Then Pastor Joe invited everyone in the church to gather round us. I felt the warm hands of my friend, Dinah Lindberg Helgeson, the brilliant pianist who has accompanied me so many times as I’ve canted out the Kyrie.
He asked us to tell our friends where we were going. Laura did, letting them know she’d be starting a PhD in International Studies. I told them a bit about the wonderful new high school where I’ll be advising the newspaper and teaching English.
Then our pastor invited anyone to pray.
And they did. Prayers wishing our best. Prayers telling God how much they’d miss us. Prayers offered generously.
Beside me, I heard Laura sniff, and I squeezed her hand. Behind me, a friend was also crying. Even our pastor’s voice broke as he finished out the prayer circle.
And then, as he likes to say, we did church.
Why are blessings — people standing together in a circle and praying for you — so powerful?
I’m not sure why. But they are.
My wife and I discussed it over a quiet lunch at our favorite local restaurant afterwards.
Is it the attention you get from so many people — a focused moment when people think of your needs? Is it the power of prayer, the wind of the Spirit blowing through you and warming your heart? Is it the power of friendship?
It doesn’t matter.
I just know it works.