Shirley Stephens
Vulnerability

Saying Goodbye Is So Hard

I hate winter, especially the month of January and February. It’s cold, there is nothing going on and it feels as if time is moving at a snail’s pace. The one thing that gives me joy this time of year is my view from this house on the hill. In the winter I can see for miles. At night I could stare at the colorful twinkle of lights in the distance for hours in wonder. I get to see the beautiful colors throughout the year with the changing seasons. I have never lived anywhere else that has offered me the visual beauty I have seen from this house on the hill.

I am up unusually early this morning, I haven’t slept well the past week. After the news I received late yesterday my tears fell harder than a summer rain. My mind has been a blur of thoughts after learning a week ago my favorite neighbor was taken to the hospital with kidney failure. There was news that she had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and she was planning on going through dialysis and chemo. Then yesterday I learned that she was too weak for the treatments, had fallen into a coma and was in hospice on pain meds. I cried myself to sleep last night, this morning I received the text that she had passed at 1:35 AM last night. Why is saying goodbye so hard?

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For the past week I have been sad, angry and at times hopeful. It has been a while since I have lost anyone close to me. There were a few years it seemed that I was losing everyone…a boyfriend, a best friend, a grandmother, a step father and my dog. In Nashville that would make for great songwriting. I thought after those few years that I was prepared for anything, I was wrong. Death is something you can not prepare yourself for no matter what you do. The emptiness that fills your body, the sadness and the ache that you feel in your heart hurts as if it is actually breaking. All of this is inescapable. 

When I was in fourth or fifth grade I was a vivacious advanced reader in school. I read “On Death And Dying,” a book that explains the 7 stages of grief we experience with the death of someone close to us. To this day I have no idea why I chose to read that book, at the age of 9 or 10 it is not a normal choice for a kid. Other than a few pets, I didn’t lose anyone close to me until I was 17. That book is the only one I remember reading from my youth. I have often wondered if someone higher up was preparing me for life.

Shirley was such a wonderful person. At 78 she seemed to have the energy and spark that would allow her to live longer, at least in my mind. I always thought she would be one of those self sufficient strong women living in her own home until her 90’s. She still mowed her own grass and worked in her yard. She hired helpers to keep up the maintenance around her house and she spent money fixing things right when something needed fixing.

When I moved into my home in 2003 Shirley was the first to greet me, she made me feel welcome in the neighborhood. She truly cared about our street and the people who lived on it. While I do believe she loved the gossip, she was always respectful and kind with what she shared with me. She had no concerns over voicing her own opinion on curtain matters but never once did she disrespect others with her comments. She always spoke her mind, she knew what was morally right and she cared about her community. She believed people should work hard to earn what they had, that people should be kind and that they needed to respect others.

Shirley retired from the US Navy, she picked that career as a way to get out of Arkansas where she saw how deep black people were oppressed there, especially a black woman. Last year while the George Floyd protests were going on around the country I could tell she was greatly affected by what was happening. As difficult as it was, I wanted to have an open conversation as a white person with a black person because I needed to understand from someone with real life experience. I called her to talk, I wanted her to be honest and frank with me and I knew she would be. For the first time in my life I felt I had a better understanding of what white privilege meant, as a white person it wasn’t easy to hear but I needed to know. 

As I sit here in sadness today, I am so happy that I made that call, asked difficult questions and listened as she shared with me her thoughts. She told me about her life journey from a young black woman with nothing into a mature black woman of possibility. For more than an hour and a half I listened and asked questions, when I hung up I cried. I posted about that experience if you’re interested in learning more

In Shirley’s years after the military she was a social worker, she build her whole life around that profession and excelled with the desire of helping others be better versions of themselves. Her passing age is close to my parents age now and that has made me want to be with them even more while they are still alive. The idea that she was my current age when I moved into this neighborhood has put my thoughts into overdrive with the desire to get more accomplished in this time I have left on earth. It has me thinking how I need to take note of what the bigger meaning of life is all about.

My connection with Shirley was strong, we had similar stories in the men from our past and the same ideals with what we believed to be wrong and right in this world. I’m sure that the people who work with the city won’t miss her constant calls and letters on things relating to our neighborhood. Although I am sure that the sanitation workers will miss the cash donations she often gave for numerous reasons. She was always giving back and donating to the things that were close to her heart.

Shirley was an extremely private woman and she is probably cursing me now for posting my thoughts about her out loud here today. I approached her on several occasions wanting to share her military story online in a blog but she declined each time saying she didn’t want people to know her business. She did allow me to take a photo of her in front of her home years ago that I have included below. I am sure she would be upset with the grass in the photo because she generally had the most well kept yard and greenest grass in the neighborhood.

I will miss our long phone calls so much. With Covid, I made more of an effort to check in on her. I often would email her when I was headed to the grocery store to see if she needed anything. She was deeply independent and never wanted any help. I got into the habit of calling her every other week if I had not talked with her or seen her out in her yard. She loved to talk and I gladly gave her that hour of time, sometimes more. 

I have been so angry the past week thinking that her last year was spent isolated in her home due to her fear of getting covid, yet she suddenly became ill and died from cancer. It just doesn’t seem fair. I will miss seeing her in her big hat always dolled up working around her home. Her wave and her smile that was always so comforting. I will miss taking her a plate of food on Thanksgiving because she had no close family in Nashville. I will miss wishing her Merry Christmas and leaving a tin of baked Christmas cookies on her front steps. She was always welcome to my house parties where she loved to socialize with my guest. She always showed up with a tray of food, a bottle of Baileys and J&B for the after dinner coffee drink. I still have what she left here years ago in my pantry.

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Shirley made my neighborhood feel like home, she was family and I am unsure of how to react right now. I guess I am writing this because I want to remember these things about her. This past year with the wrath of this Pandemic, I have lost most of the work I love, my time with friends, hugs and I am desperately trying to figure out how to generate income. It has made life lonely, hard, isolating, weird and sad. I have questioned packing up and moving to start over somewhere with less taxes and quieter streets. Now that Shirley is gone I feel even lonelier, lost and confused. 

I drive by Shirley’s home every time I leave my house but it will no longer feel comforting, it already feels so empty. I dread the sight of seeing her things being packed and moved back to Arkansas by her sister. Even worse the idea of an estate sale and watching people offer pennies for the items that held special memories to my wonderful friend. That is something that has always felt sad about estate sales, although I know the items are just material positions. The joy and the memories that those items gave the person who once owned them is what gives them energy.

I am sure that as soon as word is out someone will snap up the property with the excitement of making a good profit, our property up here on the hill is valuable. Shirley lived in her home for more than 50 years. She paid a mere $17,000.00 for it in the 70’s. She laughed a few years back explaining to me how it cost her more to fix water issues in the 90’s than it cost to purchase her home. Her house is probably the best kept on our street yet it will likely be bought and torn down to build something three times its size.

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Today I am heartbroken with the loss of my friend, my neighbor and of someone I considered family. I never saw the color of her skin and I never felt angry with her despite the things we sometimes disagreed on. It didn’t matter to me how she dressed, what kind of car she drove or what that she loved to lead the conversation when we talked. 

I loved Shirley for the wonderful human being that she was. She was strong, kind, tenacious and intelligent. I loved her smile, her laugh, her humor and just being in her presence. I loved how excited she was over football especially the Titans and the Arkansas Razorbacks. She knew all the stats and although I could care less about sports she loved to share her thoughts on the players. She also loved wearing her favorite team hat or shirt.

This has all happened so suddenly and was so unexpected. I never had a chance to say goodbye, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit her in the hospital and right now my heart has a hole through it the size of Texas. I hope that she knew how much she mattered to me. I will miss her so, so, so much.

As I get older I am reminded that this is an inescapable outcome of life. We all will continue to experience loss and our own time will eventually come. All of this really makes it hard to see light ahead especially with where we are with this Pandemic. I have so many questions for God, that is for sure. 

I will forever remember my favorite neighbor….Ms Shirley. Why is saying goodbye so hard? I wish that I could have one last opportunity to call you, to hug you or one last chance to tell you…to be sure that you know how special you are to me. RIP my dear friend. I know that you are at peace, you are in good company and I miss you so much.

*UPDATE: I found her Obituary Listing online that shares more about her life if you ware interested in knowing more about this amazing woman.

Working through the bumps...living with intention, love and inspiration. Sharing my life experiences both good and bad in hopes of being a positive inspiration to others.

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