Dee wasn't what you'd call a friend--although she was infinitely friendly herself, and our interactions were always friendly, and even after I left her church, we remained friends on Facebook. I was in her home twice; as well as I can remember, she was never in mine. We never ate together except during church events. We didn't do the things that you might reasonably expect friends to do together. We didn't have much in common, to be honest. So friend doesn't seem the right word for her.
Dee wasn't what you'd call an elder--at least not in the technical, churchy sense of the word, or at least not during the time that we were involved in the same church. She served on plenty of committees, I'm sure, but she didn't attend meetings of the church's session (I did), and so she didn't have a vote on the issues that were moved and seconded and discussed and resolved there (I did). She was older than me, I guess, but I don't suppose I can, with ecclesial precision, refer to her as my elder.
And yet Dee, it seemed, was always around, mostly because we were both always around the church. We acted in plays together (she got the bigger laughs); we attended the same Sunday school classes; we participated in the same children's ministry; whenever the choir sang, my eye went to her--partly because she was the only woman singing the men's part, partly because she swayed and smiled and emoted more than most. I knew Dee's opinions about most everything, and there were times I was sure I could predict what she would say before she raised her hand and said it.
I've been at a retreat this weekend of people in my industry, and one of the women there reminds me a bit of Dee. And as she shared in a circle what's going on in her personal-professional-spiritual life she gave us language that I think best describes Dee for me: "I'm not an elder in my church," she said; "I guess you'd call me a fixture."
That's what Dee was: a fixture. Larger than life, impossible to ignore, technically on the periphery of power but powerful nonetheless, she was her own thing with her own rules. I've met a lot of fixtures over the years; some of them I refer to always by their full name, as though a less formal attribution wouldn't carry enough weight. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, C________ H________, K________ C________--I would never think of the latter two (I know them; you probably don't) alongside the former three, but when they come up I treat them the same. Fixtures of world history and fixtures of my history--they are rewarded with the same gravitas. But then there are the one-word fixtures--the Napoleons, the Stings, the Bonos, and Dee. More than one word would be gilding the lily, I suppose.
What would the world be like without its fixtures? That's a pointless exercise if I've ever heard one. The world would continue to turn; maybe others with their own expansive personalities would step in from the margins to take their place; maybe civilization would collapse. Who can say? It's enough to acknowledge that they were fixtures and move on. But the question is different when it's not the world but your world. It's our fixtures that are holding things together for us; without them, things fall apart. Not necessarily big things, and not necessarily things that needed desperately to be held together. But they do fall apart, break down, and so consequently we don't often discover how much we depended on the fixtures until after the fact.
Dee ceased to be a regular part of my life nine months ago, when I left the church we attended together. Yesterday I found out that she had died, after a long and painful struggle with all sorts of health problems. How do you say goodbye to a fixture? Who knows. This is how I'm doing it. I'm also praying for her husband, who already knew how much he depended on her, and who will undoubtedly discover things he never noticed that anchored him to her. I'm also praying for her church, which I once called my church; it has lost one of its fixtures, and while it will surely go on, it will not be the same without her.