This week has been a rough one. I've had to do something I never dreamed I'd do - not in a million years. My dear, sweet, friend Brandi met Jesus on Monday morning and I've spent the week learning how to say good bye. It has not been an easy lesson to learn. Let me back up and tell a little about this sweet woman who is dancing and singing on the streets of gold right now...
In August of 2006 I moved to Waco to take my first teaching job. I searched and searched for a church to call home and came up empty. I couldn't find one that fit me for anything! Finally, in February, a friend I worked with told me about her small church. It turned out I'd known the pastor since I'd been a small girl and within minutes of my first visit, I knew I'd come home. It wasn't long before I was plugged into a LIFE group and in less than a year I became the children's director. I loved the teaching and the children at Grace, but what made the church special was that LIFE group. Something magical happened in that small group of people. We went from a group of 20 somethings to a group of families to best friends. I've tried a million times to figure out what happened in that group of people to bond us so fiercely to one another, but I simply can't pin it down. Maybe it was the phase of life we were in. Maybe it was the fact that we were there for each other when each couple became parents (although I didn't become a mom until 3 years after I moved away from that group). Maybe it was the Truth Project where we re-shaped our entire thinking. Maybe it was the fact that we ate meals together often. Maybe it was the late night debates about free will and pre-destination. I don't know what happened in that time but over the course of the 3 years I lived in Waco God did mighty things in the hearts of each person involved. I grew to love that group of friends more dearly than I can express. In fact, I loved them so much that when DJ and I decided it was finally time to meet face-to-face our first date was at that LIFE group. I'm sure he was terrified, but it took him about 3 seconds to see why I loved them all so much. Thankfully, it took that group of friends about 3 seconds to see that DJ and I were head over heels in love and they immediately began planning our wedding for us.
Throughout the 3 years we grew to love each other, different people had moments when they were closer to one person over the others. However, through it all people kept telling me I needed to get closer to Brandi. I silently scoffed at the idea. She was quiet, introverted, and getting her doctorate in statistics. We had absolutely nothing in common! God had different ideas. We slowly got to know each other. When she gave birth to her first child I held her hand through contractions while her husband went to get a bite to eat. I sat in the waiting room for hours while she labored and pushed and brought that beautiful little girl into the world. About a month later, DJ asked me to marry him and I was thrilled to say yes. Little did we know, those 2 events would knit our hearts together forever. 6 months later I was heart broken to move away from that precious group of friends - but I was deeply grateful for the blessing of modern technology that could keep us in touch. I started e-mailing Brandi and we quickly discovered we had only scratched the surface of our connection to each other. That first year I was married I don't know how I would have survived without the loving and wise words Brandi wrote me every day. The last year in Waco had left me broken and hurting in a way I can't begin to describe. I was convinced I would never teach again and had lost my entire identity. Brandi's words of wisdom lovingly pointed me back to the true source of identity - my Lord and King. We shared stories of marriage and taught each other how to love our husbands more. I rejoiced with her when I randomly guessed one day that she was expecting her second baby. I prayed with her for the little boy growing in her womb. We wept and prayed together when I lost my own baby and pleaded with the Lord for a baby to be added to my family.
Then, on May 24, 2011 tragedy struck. Brandi got up to make a bottle for her sweet baby boy and discovered she was having trouble walking. Her husband took her to the ER, worried she had had a stroke. In the hours that followed, the doctors discovered that a brain tumor was causing swelling and reducing mobility on one side of her body. She immediately had a biopsy so they knew what kind of cancer they were dealing with. That night, members of that precious LIFE group (as well as everyone else who knew and loved Brandi) gathered together and pleaded with the Lord for healing and answers. Our hearts hurt in a way that we couldn't express. I felt my heart crushed under the weight of the events of the day. I remember that night I woke myself up crying several times. I didn't wake up, think of Brandi, and begin to cry. I woke up with tears already streaming down my face. There were no words for the sorrow consuming my heart.
Over the next 18 months, Brandi and her husband threw everything they had at the stupid tumor in her brain. God gave her more time than any doctor ever predicted she'd have. She got to experience precious birthdays and holidays as she fought the aggressive tumor growth. She learned countless lessons about God and grew in ways that constantly amazed me. Through it all, she carried herself with more grace and poise than I have ever seen in a person. Yes, she had moments when she cried and wept at the feet of the Throne. Yes, she had moments of anger that this was going on. But she never once wavered from the confidence that God was bigger and that she'd be healed. I learned so many lessons watching her fight. My faith felt so small and weak in light of her battle.
Eventually, the tumor stopped responding to radiation and chemo. It began growing unrestricted. She quickly lost the strength in one side and was confined to a wheel chair. But in it all, she praised the Lord. In it all, she knew God would bring healing. And on December 31st, God did. He healed her completely and perfectly. He called her home and I have no doubt He said, "Well done, my good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Maker!" I wish I could have just a glimpse of the party that followed. Brandi is now on the front row of heaven worshipping her King for all of eternity. I can hardly wrap my brain around it.
However, that leaves me here on earth with my heart physically aching from the loss. I miss my friend more than I can say. I miss the e-mails we once shared. I miss getting to tell her stories about Caleb and hear how her sweet babies are growing and changing. I miss having lunch with her every time we visited Waco. I miss having a friend I knew I could share with and have no shame or judgement. I miss having a friend who shared my views on parenting and technology. I miss having a companion who would e-mail me at any time of day or night. This week I'm learning how to say good-bye to her, even though it's a lesson I've been learning for 18 months. I thank the Lord for the wisdom of those who have grieved a great loss and have taught us the stages of grief. I'm so grateful to know that it's absolutely ok to be good and angry about the situation and that it's ok to be in shock. I'm thankful to know that the anger won't last. The shock will fade. But more importantly, the cloud of grief will lift because my God is bigger. He has a plan that I don't understand but trust whole heartedly. I know He's working and He'll heal my hurting heart. But I'm so thankful that for now, it's ok to cry my eyes out as I learn to leave my friend in my memories. It's a lesson I never wanted to learn, but God needed me to learn. In it all, may He be glorified by my pain. May He be glorified by the hurt that threatens to swallow my heart. And may He be glorfied by the story of Brandi who fought cancer and won when God called her home.