Sometimes it’s pretty hard to find a silver lining in a tragic event – particularly the loss of a valued friend or family member. But time, the most enduring healer, and patient reflection can often point to something positive that resulted from a terribly sad time.
A little over a year ago, a college friend, Sally Chambers Bond, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. She was devastated. She was brave. She was hopeful. With courage and grace she took on the treatments we all know can be as virulent as the malignant cells.
During that year of stops and starts, ups and downs and incredible growth and candor, Sally brought a group of St. Mary’s girls back together in ways we had not connected in years. We didn’t call it a prayer circle, but emails and phone calls made their way from Pensacola, where Sally lived, to Jackson, Mississippi; to Atlanta; Charleston, S.C.; Petersburg, Virginia and Chapel Hill, North Carolina – and around and back again and again.
It has been more than four decades since we bonded at what was then St. Mary’s Junior College in Raleigh – a small, all-girls Episcopal school which, in those days, required chapel visits five times a week, curfews almost impossible to heed and an evening check-in with the head mistress sometimes difficult to pass.
Most of this small band – at that time, not exactly academic overachievers or community leaders – formed a counter-to-the-campus-culture group called Daughters of Columbus, founded on Columbus Day in October, 1965. We walked, biked, played bridge, shopped, ate, had a few drinks (!) and just thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.
So much has happened since those carefree days, it’s hard to even elaborate. But you can imagine: children were born and reared, parents died and were buried, husbands came and went, careers were pursued – or not – and over time, most of us drifted away from contact with more depth than a holiday greeting. Even in this age of technology, the calls, notes and visits would ebb and flow in an uneven pattern.
Until Sally became ill. Then we reconnected – talking, emailing, keeping everyone in the group up to date on her progress… or pitfalls. We sent her photos from the old days, and some of us were geographically close enough to visit. Those of us who weren’t regret not making a trip before it was too late.
In November, the Monday before Thanksgiving, Sally died. She was at home, she was at peace – if not exactly where she would choose to be were she writing the script.
Devastated and sad, it was difficult for us to believe and accept. A funeral on Thanksgiving weekend – much of it charted by Sally herself – was out of reach for many who had family obligations difficult to upend.
But we felt compelled to find a way to celebrate Sally’s life and what she meant to us, so a half dozen of us gathered in Atlanta on Martin Luther King weekend in January: Susan from Charleston, South Carolina; Tennessee from Mississippi; Sallie and Susie from Atlanta; and Jodee from Destin, Florida. We hadn’t been together, as a group, in two decades, and easily fell into our comfortable, reassuring relationships. We poured over photos of our younger versions, told outrageous stories from our college years and hung on every word recounted by Jodee – closest to Sally during her illness – of that final, sad journey. The laughs and tears we shared were filled with nostalgia, love and great appreciation for the friendships that have survived good times and sad and will continue to go on. Sally, thank you for your presence with us, and for your gift.
As so often happens, life and death come hand in hand. On her final trip to visit her friend in the hospital, Jodee told Sally that her son and daughter-in-law were planning to name their third child Sally if it was a girl. And, not long after Sally’s death, they did.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.
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