This reflection comes a little late, as my dear friend Michelle Tooley passed away several months ago. But, as we all know, grief is a process- sometimes I long one. This past weekend I finally watched a recording of her memorial service and felt inspired to continue writing my own reflections on her life and death.
In the winter of 2008 I decided to leave school for a semester and live in Tucson, Arizona with Michelle. The majority of my college friends would be studying abroad that semester and I began to have some deepening spiritual and vocational questions. Of course, as she did with young people year after year, Michelle offered a room for me in the duplex she would be renting as she spent time writing and studying the US-Mexico border. Michelle had been a part of my life since I was a newborn in Louisville, Kentucky, but this would be the longest amount of time I would spend with her thus far.
During this time I found myself in a dark period of depression in which I would not sleep through the night for more than 6 months. Loneliness surprised me, as it was a state in which I had never found myself. I cried a lot and at times felt that even this woman I had known my whole life could not deal with my extreme sadness. But I was quite wrong, and I have only recently realized the reality and depth of her care for me during this time.
Michelle did not pity me. Yes, of course she listened, and provided hugs and encouragement. But I think, for her, wallowing was unacceptable. Instead of saying this, she showed me her way of healing. We saw the world around us. She took me on hikes so I could be reminded of the beautiful desert in which we lived. We went almost weekly to the Mexico side of the border and helped at an aide station for recently deported migrants. We served food early in the mornings at Southside Presbyterian Church. And I began to find meaning and passion and joy again. Perhaps she wasn’t aware, but I believe she knew what she was doing.
I recently returned from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I was studying Spanish and about the violent history and resulting realities of the people of Guatemala. Michelle previously attended the same Spanish school at which I studied and had a huge space in her heart for the Guatemalan people. She definitely was an impetus for me to go to Latin America and engage in the beautiful culture she loved so dearly. I was fortunate to go and visit Michelle in Berea in April before leaving for Guatemala, because she completed her life’s journey while I was there. It was difficult to be away and unable to attend her memorial service. But the truth is, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
In her homily, Cindy Weber revealed Michelle’s desire for her own departure: “ I want to breathe in, breathe out, and then float away, like a butterfly.” Of course I did not hear this until recently, but I know that her butterfly spirit floated through Berea, and to many places, but specifically to the Guatemalan villages and mountains, and perhaps even to me, standing on the terrace of our school in Xela. And for this I am so grateful.
Michelle has taught me to find healing in caring for others. She showed me that I can hold anger and joy in both of my hands. And from her I am coming to agree that pausing to see small beauty is just as important as a persistent and unyielding fight for justice. Thanks be to God.
view from the terrace at PLQE in Xela
Michelle and I and her dog Toby in Tucson (2009)