Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I'm Glad I Didn't Know

Whether you read what I write at this blog or my other blogs, you're probably getting tired of reading about my friend Phyllis, who passed away last week.

She's going to be a tough topic for me to let go — even after next Monday, when many of our mutual friends are sure to be in our hometown of Conway, Ark., for her memorial service. I can't be there, but I still have a very strong feeling that I'm never going to shake her, that she will always be there in the recesses of my mind, whatever I do, wherever I go.

And I will probably feel a need to write about her from time to time in the future. Sometimes, I am sure, it will be because something has reminded me of her. And other times, I am sure, it will simply be because I miss her.

I was on the phone last night with a mutual friend who is in Conway working on the plans for the memorial service. He seems to be holding up well, although there were times in our conversation when he sounded like he was struggling to maintain his composure. And I know there were times when I struggled to maintain mine.

Phyllis loved and appreciated music, all kinds of music. Really, it went beyond that. She was very talented, able to play instruments and sing better than anyone else I have ever heard. When the Bible said to make a joyful noise, she really took it to heart.

If ever anyone made a joyful noise, it was Phyllis.

Now, even though we grew up in a small Southern town where country music could be heard playing on the radios in just about every gas station, store and waiting room in town, my taste in music always leaned to rock 'n' roll, jazz, the blues. I was familiar with the country stars and hits of the previous generation, but I didn't really follow them.

What I learned of the country music of my day I learned from Phyllis. In fact, I will always remember one hot summer evening after we graduated from high school when we drove, along with a classmate named Ellen, from Conway to Pine Bluff to see Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris in concert.

I don't know how Phyllis felt about the country performers who came along later in her life. We never discussed, for example, Garth Brooks, who may be one of the most influential country performers of the last 20 years.

Now, I'm not saying that I am — or ever have been — a Garth Brooks fan. He burst onto the scene in 1989, the year after I left Arkansas, and then, in April of 1990, released as a single (at a time when vinyl albums and 45–rpm singles were still being produced and sold) what has come to be regarded as his signature song, "The Dance."

In the 20 years that have passed, I'm sure many people have drawn comfort from the words of the song — which could be interpreted as a tribute to a passionate love affair that has come to an end but has always seemed to me to be about accepting the death of someone to whom you are close.

Hindsight, as just about anyone will tell you, is 20/20. And, when I think of Phyllis these days, I am reminded of the words of Brooks' song.

I really am glad that I didn't know how or when — or why — Phyllis' life story would end. For that matter, I'm glad I wasn't aware of just how serious her condition was in the last month she was in the hospital. There was nothing I could have done — except hope and pray. And there were already plenty of people doing that, I imagine. Would one more person hoping and praying have tipped the scales and permitted Phyllis to recover? I don't know.

Our lives really are better left to chance. On a note Phyllis wrote about herself on Facebook last year, she said, in response to a question, that she would like to know in advance the day of her death — if such a thing was possible. But, if what people say of God is true, it seems enough to me that God knows when everyone will die. That is knowledge that I do not want or need.

When someone you care about dies, there is always, it seems to me, a tendency to wish you had known ahead of time so you could say your goodbyes. But I've been in the position where I knew someone I cared about was dying and I was probably seeing that person for the last time — and yet, I could never bring myself to say the things I wanted to say.

On those occasions, my friends were dying of cancer or some other disease, and maybe the very act of saying "goodbye" seemed like giving up. That is something I have never been prepared to do.

Afterward, I regretted not saying it — but I still prefer not to know when death is going to come to me or anyone else. If it's going to come as a shock, let it come as a shock. The pain will wear off eventually. Guess it beats knowing that you or someone you love has three days — or three hours — left. What would you do with the time that remained?

And, while I sure could have missed this pain, that would have meant that I'd have had to miss the dance. Knowing Phyllis was a real kick. I'm sorry for those who never had that pleasure. I'm sorry she's gone. I hope we'll see each other again. I'm glad she was in my life.

My life wouldn't have been nearly as rich if Phyllis hadn't passed my way.