Today’s mail holds more than the usual bills, magazine offers and circulars. A real letter, thicker than most is in the stack. The penmanship looks familiar, then again…not. I get on the elevator, scan Brooklyn, New York on the postmark and assume. Never assume. The letter is not from my friend Avis, but from her sister.

My mother’s friend convinced Ma to let me join the youth choir at Fenimore United Methodist Church. Ma cautiously released me and Avis wrapped me in her huge arms. We were fourteen. With a gapped tooth smile and infectious laugh Avis pulled me into her world of choirs, youth usher boards, Sunday School. Fenimore would harbor me for the next seven years and further the divide between Ma and me.

I step off the elevator, pull the envelope from the stack and feel the weight of bad news. I freeze as dread runs through me like that feeling I get when my sister leaves a message that simply says, “Hey, Aundria. Call me.” Never good news. Never.

We sang alto although Avis could handle tenor in a pinch. She was raised in the Methodist Church by parents steeped in its traditions. Avis, the baby in the family, was bubbly and lively. Later Adrianne joined us. Adrianne had the purest voice  and the most troubled life. Soon after we met she disappeared without a trace. Avis and I called her house, searched. We asked the pastor to call the police; but, the next day Adrianne showed up and said, “I wanted to see if you cared.” We passed her friendship test.

I rip the envelope open. The glossy program folded in thirds shows pink and red roses and the top of an orange hat. “No, no, noooo!”

We gathered in Avis’ basement (the place that felt like a home) and listened to Gospel music, ate Chinese food, pondered God’s purpose for our lives, and laughed, laughed, laughed. I finally belonged. We aged out of youth programs and moved into young adult leadership roles. The church added depth, a sense of purpose, and smoothed some of the rough areas in my life. I needed more. I always need more.

I’m crying. I try but I can’t stop crying.

In 1982 I left Brooklyn to attend Bible College in Bloomington, MN. For a few years we all stayed in touch by letter. But as often happens the letters came less frequently. We’d reconnect on my brief visits but I returned less and less. Avis and Adrianne grew apart. But in 2003 I landed back in Brooklyn for eighteen months as my mother died a horrific death dissolving what little faith I had left. Avis had lost both parents by then and said simply she could handle no more grief. So we sang the spirituals that no longer worked for me.

I unfold the funeral program. A Celebration of An Abundant Life banners above her photo. She’s captured in thought—her head turned to the left, the gapped tooth not quite smile, perhaps mid sentence. She loved to talk. A silk scarf around her ample shoulders and looking very much the church woman from her parents’ era.

I returned to Minnesota in 2005. We wrote weekly. I was surprised by her faithfulness. I kept my letters upbeat, skimming along the surface of my troubled existence, my complicated relationship with her God. Avis repeatedly thanked me for the handmade cards, letters. She rested vicariously through my just breathe, moment by moment tellings of swimming, parakeet antics, my not busy weekends. She responded with awe at the peace she believed I had writing “It has been a unbelievable roller coaster of spiritual ‘go’” and scrawled her itinerary of conferences, ministries, five jobs, and God’s faithfulness exhausting me. Then in subsequent letters she wrote, “…like you, I am getting rid of clutter…I must tell you I am very happy about it for it’s starting to make me feel clear in mind and free.”

Through my tears I read that she died six weeks ago. This delay bends me forward at the waist as sobs catch in my throat. I inhale, straighten, and make my way down the long, empty hallway. Inside my apartment I pull out her letters. I find the last one dated November 17, 2011. I had written of my brush with death earlier in the month and Avis had responded with, “Well, I thought I had special moments. You win. I have had a blood clot; not multiple. I had one that was shaking hands with my heart (that is what the doctor told me).” She ended it with, “You have put me in prayer mode. I have no other words.”

There is no personal note from Avis’ sister. I don’t know how she died and fail to convince myself that that isn’t important. The obituary begins, Avis Daisy Ellison put down her sword and shield, took up and donned her robes of immortality on November 25, 2011. She had completed her work here on earth for the Most High God in fifty years.

I don’t know what to do with my grief. In my journal I write, They keep saying life goes on. I read Avis’ obituary and again must ask, Why aren’t we all racing to the other side? Those who die are “in a better place,” “earned angel wings,” “put on their robes of immortality.” It all sounds so much better than what we endure here. We are left with the gaping wounds of their absences. So again, why aren’t we all racing toward the light?

As I face my season of anniversaries—death of Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights advocates, my husband, mother, Avis—I struggle. Where are they and what are they doing as I type? I want truth, not faith, to comfort me as I tilt my face toward the light.

In Memory of Avis D. Ellison

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