I received word yesterday that my friend, Carolyn, died.  Her life partner, Monty, sent a message to all those on her email list.  She died peacefully at home after a battle with an aggressive cancer.  I didn’t know she was sick.

I hadn’t had much contact with her over the past several years, though I did call her just a few weeks ago to notify her of the passing of a mutual friend.  It was my first time to hear her voice in more than a decade.  Her voice sounded weak, but she gave no indication that anything was out of the ordinary.  I wanted to linger, to catch up a bit with my dear friend, but I didn’t sense the same from her, so we ended without much conversation.  I didn’t know that she was dying.

Carolyn was one of the most influential people in my life during a crucial ten-year period.  From 1974 until 1984, she helped me through my young adult crisis.  We first knew each other through the church.  I was the young, fresh out of seminary, 25 year-old youth and music minister, she was on staff working with children.  Then for a couple of those years she was my secretary.  But she was so much more than a secretary, and she became so much more than that after I left my job at the church.

My few years in the ministry were years of great discovery and inquiry, a time to stretch my creativity and push myself as a young, eager professional.  In doing so I also hit some limitations and ran headlong into some serious questions of purpose and direction.  As my secretary, Carolyn brought enormous creativity, spiritual clarity, and some much-needed organization to my work.  She also brought some maturity and perspective.  She listened to my frustrations while we worked and planned together, and she helped me slowly make some sense of things.

I now know how important it is to run into one’s own limitations, to bloody your forehead by smacking into the real and self-imposed walls of your own abilities and energies.  At the time, though, I just got mad, frustrated, and eventually discouraged.  It was during that time Carolyn gave me a copy of Hugh Prather’s Notes to Myself: My struggle to become a person.  This was the first book that prompted me to seriously think about who I was apart from whom others wanted me to be, and about what I wanted to do apart from the expectations of others.  She inscribed in the book, “to John who is well on his way to becoming a person.”

As I thumbed through the book last night, remembering Carolyn, I read some of the faded notes I wrote with a blue fountain pen almost 40 years ago.  One stood out.  “Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it.”  That statement, derived from the reading and from Carolyn’s influence, saved my life.  I was good and talented at what I did.  I was good at being who I was expected to be.  I was doing what I was good at, but I was not being who I was, and I was paying a high price for it.  Carolyn saw that, and she was instrumental in helping me see that.

Our lives stayed intertwined for several years after my work at the church ended.  Carolyn was in a group that Judy and I attended each Thursday night.  I was then a psychology graduate student, the direction I chose as my next step to becoming a person.  It was a group devoted to study, to honesty, and to helping each other become fully human.  In that group I watched Carolyn painfully extract herself from her marriage and blossom into a new phase of life that allowed her to use her gifts of creative expression and healing.  She helped me take my next tentative steps in my life as well.

When I finished graduate school, Judy and I moved to Illinois and our contact with Carolyn diminished to Christmas cards and occasional emails.  Her cards were special, always full of exuberance and glitter.  The world was a brighter place just knowing that Carolyn was out there somewhere.  We didn’t get a card this year, but I didn’t give it much thought.  Until yesterday.

As I write this, a picture hangs on my wall over my desk, just above my line of vision.  Carolyn gave it to me.  A pickup truck cresting a hill in the distance is silhouetted against an evening sky.  A quote by Dag Hammarskjold at the bottom of the picture reads,

How long the road is.

But for all the time the journey has already taken,

how I have needed every second of it

in order to learn what the road passes by.

Carolyn taught me to value the journey, to treasure all that the road passes by.  I’m so glad she was on the road with me.