One of my best friends passed away.
Over the years I’ve experienced the passing of people related to me and have attended quite a few funerals. I’m from a large family with an even larger extended family so deaths and funerals are part of that reality. Not until now have I lost a friend. The loss isn’t any more or any less, but it’s different.
With family, you love them all but treat only a few as friends.
With friends, you love them all but treat only a few as family.
Mary Dell Grey was family.
Mary Dell suffered a stroke several months ago and sadly things went steadily downhill. During those awful months she was watched over and cared for by her son Greg Eversole (my friend since fourth grade), her sister Brenda Taylor (my friend for years now), with help from their family and friends. When Mary Dell passed away everyone was understandably devastated.
A small group of friends and I knew Mary Dell for nearly forty years. In all of that time we remained close, bound by the glue of her loyal friendship with each of us. It was an honor when Mary Dell’s family asked if we, along with others, would speak at her service.
There was little prior discussion between those of us asked to speak. There was no planning, coordinating, or comparing notes, yet it was amazing to hear each of us in turn highlight the same great qualities of this remarkable friend of ours. Over the years she moved from being our second mother to being our best friend. She was forever smiling and always laughing – especially at herself. Those and other heartfelt comments were common themes when each of us spoke.
I’d never spoken at a funeral service and it was difficult for many reasons but she would have done the same for me without hesitation. More difficult than speaking was the process of picking just a very few things to say about our many years of friendship. I hope I did her and her family justice as I tried to recognize her loyalty, sense of humor, and devotion to God. I asked Greg and Brenda before writing this blog post about Mary Dell and I thank them for instantly agreeing. Mary Dell pushed me to blog and was a constant source of encouragement. I wanted more people to know what a friend she was. She was an incredible friend to so many.
Below is what I said at the service.
It’s hard to sum up thirty-eight years of friendship in just a few minutes. I’ve known Mary Dell since I was just fifteen. I’ve known Greg and Billy since fourth grade and I still remember Mary Dell’s very first words to me: “Why on earth do you have your feet on my sofa?”
I was at her house because she’d allowed Greg to invite Billy and me to the beach with them for the week. We, and other friends along the way, repeated that beach trip every summer for over a decade. Mary Dell’s generosity provided Greg, Billy, and me with some of the happiest memories we’ll ever have.
During those early years Mary Dell was mother not just to Greg but to me and Billy too. She watched us grow from kids to young adults. She advised us, guided us, laughed and cried with us and soon became the person we called when we needed to work through problems. At a moment’s notice one of us might call her to a “meeting”, which is how we referred to our coffee talks at Aunt Sarah’s. No matter which one of us called her she’d say “Of course I’ll be there!” and in she’d walk, high heels and a smile, “Hello boys!”
Years passed and she morphed from parental figure to friend. Our best friend. She grew older and we grew up and many times it was she who called a meeting about problems of her own and off we three went to meet her. Some of the deepest, silliest, and funniest conversations I’ve ever had were with those three. The four of us were inseparable for a time.
When life got busier we didn’t hang out quite as much but she was only a phone call away. Whether I called her or she called me I could count on a good hour of laughing. She was always smiling and laughing. She loved to laugh, especially at herself, and loved it if you laughed at her too!
One day she called and started the conversation in typical hilarious Mary Dell fashion:
“Save us all, you will not believe the hideousness I have just been through!”
Of course I laughed knowing a good one was coming. “What happened?”
“Well, I was reading in bed when something on the leg of my pants caught my eye!”
“What was it?” I asked.
“What was it?” I asked again.
“I couldn’t tell! I didn’t have my contacts in and I didn’t dare move for fear the loathsome creature would bite me!”
“Was it a spider?” I asked.
“Ohhh Stuart, it appeared to be the mother of all tarantulas so I screamed and jumped out of bed and stomped my feet to dislodge the beast!”
“Did it fall off?” I asked.
“No! I shrieked and flailed and it didn’t budge so I ran outside and stripped off my pants right there on the deck! Call the law!”
“Did you kill it?” I asked.
“Well, I dropped my pants on the deck and stomped them. Stuart, I nearly stomped a hole in the deck making sure I killed the evil thing!”
“So what was it?” I asked again. I’d been laughing hysterically all along.
“Well bless, I’d gotten so out of breath from all of the stomping that it took me a minute before I could shake my pants out.”
“And what was it?” I asked.
“Well, I unfurled my stomped pants and there it was. It fell out right onto the deck!”
“A spider?” I asked.
“Lordddd no, it was one of my false eyelashes that had gotten stuck to the back of my leg.
Mary Dell was always poised, always looked perfect, but never, ever, took herself too seriously.
A few years ago she asked if I would help her make a cottage garden in her yard. I jumped at the chance and we spent an entire summer making it happen. There were days we intended to work but instead sat on her deck talking. It was over the course of those months working outside together that she and I had a lot of deep conversations. She spoke openly, always smiling, about how much her faith and love of God meant to her.
She had watched me grow but I watched her grow too. She confessed regrets about things she had or hadn’t done in life, just like the rest of us. She wondered if she’d been a good person and hoped to become a “decent Christian” as she would say. I saw a calmness come over her that I hadn’t seen before and I think it was directly related to her faith. She credited her sister Brenda with guiding her in the right direction. Mary Dell often mentioned that she knew in the end she was going home to heaven.
One morning during that gardening summer I called to let her know I was on my way. No answer. I tried several times and still no answer. Knowing she lived alone I worried a little and called Greg. No answer. I just thought ok, she’s busy, she’ll call later. And she did. She’d been out of town and laughed at the anxiety in my voice in all of the voicemails I’d left.
It was no big deal. She said she and Greg had gone up home to see Mamaw, that was all. Since I’d worried, she said she’d let me know ahead of time from then on . She kept her word. From then on she left the same voicemail for me before every trip, “Hey kiddo, if you’re looking for me, don’t worry, I’ve gone up home.” After each trip she’d call and we’d catch up and laugh. She was one of those people you could actually hear smile over the telephone.
During all of these past thirty-eight years, when schedules aligned, Mary Dell, Greg, Billy, and I would meet up. Regardless of the amount of time that had passed in the interim, we’d fall right back to where we’d left off, just like we’d done for decades. Just the four of us.
I saw Mary Dell for the last time this past Christmas Eve.
I went to her house and Greg walked with me to her bed to tell her I was there. She had her eyes closed but when Greg said “Hey Mom, look who’s here.” she looked up. In spite of the stroke, in spite of the awful things it had done to her, she looked at me and smiled. She was incredibly weak but she lifted her hand towards me. In all the years I knew Mary Dell I had never held her hand until that night.
Greg and I spent some time with her and soon Billy arrived. Mary Dell mostly slept but we made sure we joked and laughed and I’m sure she heard us and was glad. Later on that evening at one point she opened her eyes and looked at us. In that quiet room with her was only Greg, Billy, and me, like a thousand evenings before. I’ll never forget that few minutes.
And I will never forget Mary Dell or her influence on me. I will miss her. She was unique, funny, and always one of my best friends.
But Greg and Brenda, when we look for her and can’t find her, we can use her own words for a little comfort:
“Hey kiddo, if you’re looking for me, don’t worry, I’ve gone up home.”
Stuart M. Perkins