A Tribute Judy Lewis

Jim Lewis’ wife Judy died on September 5. Jim and Judy were a team fighting for social justice for the 59 years of their married life together. What follows comes from Under the Fig Tree, an inspiring Jim Lewis publication located at http://www.figtreenotes.com/figs/?p=312

A Tribute To Judy

September 16th, 2013 |

Judith Graham Lewis—August 7, 1936—September 5, 2013

Life tests anyone who must suffer an illness in his or her very own specialty. Cancer was Judy’s specialty.

After graduating from nursing school on May 7, 1978, Judy went on to specialize as an oncology nurse, and then, six years later began her own fight with breast cancer. It was a battle that lasted for 28 years, five separate occurrences.

Over that period of time, I accompanied Judy to every doctor’s appointment. We were a team. At times I felt like a handler, a second in the corner of a boxing ring, providing encouragement for her as she slugged it out with her opponent. God, she did know how to fight! She sent that cancer to the canvas time and time again.

There were so many times, right up to the end, when I would ask her, “Are you still in the fight?” When she would say, “yes,” I would then say, “Well then I am in it with you.”

I have known for a long time that each one of us has to live our own lives, fight our own battles, and die our own death, but we don’t have to do it alone.

Judy spent the two weeks prior to her death in a hospital here in Charleston. It was a “nightmare,” as she described it. She died at home early in the morning on September 5 while in bed with me.

A friend has encouraged me to write about our relationship, one that goes back fifty-nine years. It is easy to follow that advice, because I had intended to do just that. What follows are some thoughts about Judy and our life together. I trust you will understand that I am seeking her presence in her absence.

*

When I was 18 years old, a junior in high school, I made a trip with a friend to Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. A senior, he had set his sights on W&L; I just went along for the ride.

At a fraternity party, I met a woman dating a man with my name—Jim Lewis. She approached me with an offer. If I decided to enter W&L a year later, she’d fix me up with a blind date. I laughed. College was far from my mind. W&L was an unknown entity.

A year later I did choose W&L and arrived there in the fall of 1954. Like some corny Hollywood movie, sure enough, the promise was kept. A blind date was arranged and I met Judy Graham, my first college date.

The woman who arranged this date had serious vision problems; she wore thick glasses and had to get up close to squint out a sight, which she did with Judy. Having met me, she decided that Judy was a perfect pick for me. As it turned out, she had perfect vision.

*

A few days before Judy was admitted to the hospital prior to dying, she went to have her hair cut. She loved her hair. The remarkable thing about her hair was the fact that she never lost it while undergoing chemotherapy. On one bout with the cancer, she bought a wig but it never found its way out of the closet and onto her head.

While having her hair cut, a woman in the shop struck up a conversation with Judy. She was wrestling with some serious problems and needed a receptive ear. Judy always had a receptive ear. And so she asked this woman if she would like to walk and talk.

When Judy got home, she fell exhausted into her favorite chair. She had walked to the Kanawha River with this troubled woman, and spent over an hour listening to her.

Being present with people, really present and listening, is such a gift. People who give it to us are so special. But death, like a burglar, has entered our home in the middle of the night and stolen her from me, and from others as well.

*

We always saw our children as precious gifts. I know some families who make very little of birthdays. Not in our home. Birthdays are always special days to be celebrated.

Down through the years, our daughters, no matter their age, would join their mother in bed to talk before going off to their own beds for sleep. In reasonable time, I would arrive on the scene. Okay, I would tell them, it’s my turn. It was my way of saying that we were around and in love before they were born, before they arrived on the scene.

The night Judy died, we acted out that ritual. Katherine and Debby, our last-born twins, were bumped out of our bed, and I climbed in, as I had done for 55 years. On so many nights I would move my body next to her and say, “bone on bone,” an echo of Adam’s words to Eve in the Garden of Eden, “you are bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”

When I awoke in the morning, she was gone. All I could do was hold onto her head and say, “Where are you? Where are you? Where are you? I will follow you. I will follow you. I will follow you.

*

The words of blessing from the marriage service in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer wash over me like a wave hitting the beach. “Let their love for each other be a seal upon their hearts, a mantle about their shoulders, and a crown upon their foreheads. Bless them in their work and in their companionship; in their sleeping and in their waking; in their joys and in their sorrows; in their life and in their death.”

*

It has been thirteen months since I had those five stents placed in my heart. After a night’s sleep in a Baltimore hospital bed, I awoke to the sight of Judy, who had spent the night by my side. I felt an immediate wave of dread and fear. This was no time for me to go down on Judy. I had to be there for her in her battle with cancer.

Looking back on that moment, while sitting beside her those last two weeks in the hospital, I saw that the rehab program I did when I came back from Baltimore had served me well. It had enabled me to be present with her.

Being present to one another. What greater gift can anyone give another person than the gift of being present to one another?

*

After our family departed for home, I ventured out on my own on Friday night. Judy loved to go out to dinner with me. We had discovered the power of that ritual early on in our love affair.

In later years, right up until her death, that time together was our way of walking away from the crazy schedules we kept while raising children and doing our work. We guarded that time together. It saved us from being consumed by the busyness that had a way of voraciously gobbling us up.

Now death has gobbled her up and the chair across the table is empty. Reading a New Yorker magazine article about the Alaska Pipeline while eating, two friends sat down at the table next to me. The woman hugged me and helped redeem the loss of my partner by acknowledging Judy’s 28-year battle with cancer. “She was a f_ _ _ ing street fighter.” I passed on dessert. This woman’s words were sweet deliverance in a wonderfully earthy way. The cancer must have known that about Judy.

*

Our dining room table was a holy place, a happy place. It was a place not only for family, but for friends as well. Both of us loved the small dinner parties in our home. Judy loved to decorate the table with colorful matching placemats, napkin holders from Kenya or handmade for special occasions, flower arrangements, and candles.

Ah, candles! If the table was a holy table mimicking the one at church where the community of faith comes to feed, she was the acolyte at home. There were one or more candles at every meal.

Ah, the meals! She loved to cook, and not only her specialties (leg of lamb and lamb shanks, lasagna, creamed onions, mashed potatoes, huge salads, and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding) but a variety of new recipes she would cut from magazines.

Judy loved to feed people and was always asking folks around the table if they wanted more. “Jimmy, Bob would like more meat.” She was a passer and pusher of food and loved to cut or scoop large portions of desserts.

After my bout with my heart, she worked tirelessly to serve heart-friendly meals.

Judy was heart-friendly. She always fed my heart and handled it with care. She knew so well how to tend to broken hearts, inside and outside her family. Broken hearts were fertile soil for her hands.

*

We have an overhead light-dimmer switch in the dining room. Judy would always turn the lights down low. She played with light. She adored a dim, romantic setting in which to dine. I liked the light one notch up.

Today, while eating breakfast, I noticed that the room was dim. Looking up, I saw two burned out light bulbs. I must either replace them or live in a dimness Judy prized.

I will replace the bulbs before they all burn out. There is enough darkness now as I peer “through a glass darkly” in search of my beloved, seeking her presence in her absence.

*

For many years, Judy has cross-stitched Christmas ornaments, one for each member of our family. As soon as they were mailed, she would go seeking new designs for next year’s Christmas. This year I noticed that she was hurrying that process along. I watched her spend more and more time on those ornaments. It now makes me wonder if she had a premonition of her own impending death, one she didn’t even share with me.

As I write those words, I don’t think she did. Instead, I believe she was, as always, aware that life is short and that time is precious. She heard me say more than once that we are all doing time. She agreed. Even more important, she made the most of the time allotted her.

*

Christianity is a material faith. Matter matters. The Spirit requires flesh and blood in which to light. It is all about incarnation. A disembodied spirituality is a vague oblong blur to me, foam on a glass of beer, a kiss blown from a hand and not derived on the lips.

The Psalmist gets it right with the words, “Taste and see the goodness of God.”

But the Christian way of life is not materialistic. Matter no longer really matters much when it is elevated in an idolatrous and greedy way. Christianity is not capitalism with a halo.

Judy loved matter. She delighted in putting her hands in the soil. I called her a “dirt buzzard.” Our home is full of all sorts of things that, if they could speak, would tell a story. Case in point, a piece of statuary on the living room mantle. Picked up in a trip to Annapolis, two figures are melded together in a kiss that bonds them into one figure.

She loved to get dressed up, was always bathed in fragrant body cream, and cared for small pieces of jewelry that had been given her, each piece with a separate memory. And the same for our furniture, passed down from her family, bought at sales, and purchased jointly. Sitting in my living room chair, I can see a piece of furniture that holds books and houses our music center. We bought it when we were newly married.

But a materialist she was not, no way. When I was pondering whether or not to go to seminary, my father took her on a driving tour of palatial homes in Baltimore. My Dad was by no means the devil tempting Judy in the wilderness. But he was a father who wanted his son to enter the family business. All this could be yours, Judy, if only Jim comes back home to work with me. But it didn’t work. From day one, Judy knew I had to lean into what I was meant to live into.

*

It is said that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. It could easily be said, also, that an appetite is a terrible thing to lose. In the end, Judy lost her appetite. This morning I saw six bottles of Ensure, the food supplement she relied on for bodily sustenance.

The word, ensure, is a transitive verb. Transitive verbs have two characteristics. They are action verbs implying doable activity. Secondly, a transitive verb must have a direct object, something or someone who receives the action. As for the definition of the word itself: “To make someone or something sure, certain, or safe.”

My God, need I say more? Only that Judy was action personified, always-directed outward toward others, both at home and in the community. I know of what I speak, for I was the recipient of her energy.

*

A crowd had gathered in front of the arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Ollie North was to speak at a rally for Senator Jesse Helms. There we were, gathered to protest U.S. involvement in Central America in what was labeled as the Contra War. North was in every way a war criminal and Helms was a chief supporter of the war.

We were a peaceful group of people, schooled in nonviolence. At the time, I was the Director of Christian Social Ministries for the Diocese of North Carolina. I had my clerical collar on and was wearing a shirt with North’s picture on it behind bars and the words JAIL OLIVER NORTH.

Judy had accompanied me to the rally and was handing out leaflets. Up pulled North’s limousine and Judy moved right for the window directing strong comments toward North. I advised the man next to me to pull her away from the car. Jailing North would be one thing, but not Judy.

*

The breast cancer that had spread to Judy’s lungs and now was attacking her with cancerous fluid was too much to overcome. The fluid was in her pleural cavity, that space between the pleura, the two thin membranes that lie between the cavity. In the end, she was just plain unable to get her breath.

Admission to the hospital and to the world of doctors is to be subject to vocabulary and definitions as obtuse as the vocabulary of economics, nuclear physics, and theology, my own specially. Talk of thoracentesis, pleurodesis and pleural effusion chilled me. How I hated the words pleural cavity.

The chest I have loved and touched caressingly was no cavity. It was filled with so much more than tissue and blood. I shied away from talk about Judy’s cavity. It was her chest, the place from which she suckled our children, and the place I kissed and pressed up against for so many years. To hell with talk of cavities. Okay for teeth, but not for her beloved breast.

*

The Rev. Doug Bailey, a dear friend from seminary days, preached the burial sermon. Judy had made that request. He did a beautiful job. He worked diligently on the sermon, and his wife Carolyn and I knew that he had sweated over the decision about including a story he felt might not be in good taste for his remarks. I wish he had. It goes like this.

Judy and I were at a summer cottage in Duck, North Carolina with Doug and Carolyn. On the day that O.J. Simpson was speeding down the highway and media were capturing his trip with helicopter shots, we went for a swim. Standing in the water, Doug began talking about a parishioner who had breast cancer and was undecided about a breast implant. One thing led to another and Judy saw the moment as an opportunity to give Doug a lesson in breast cancer.

Reaching for the top of her bathing suit, she pulled it down and showed him the scars on her breast, an unreconstructed breast. It was a magnificent show-and-tell moment, one we often laughed about and celebrated.

It was so Judy!

*

Years ago, the Rev. Allison Cheek told me a story that touched me deeply. She was one of the “Philadelphia 11” women who broke the Episcopal Church ordination barrier back in 1974. She told me about her husband Bruce’s burial. Before burying him, she gathered the children and had them wash their father’s body.

I spoke with our family about that just prior to escorting Judy’s body from our bed to the funeral home. They agreed to help me perform that ritual.

We climbed the stairs and stood around the bed and each of us washed different parts of her body. Before anointing her forehead, we washed her belly, the place from which they had come, the place of intimacy I had entered so many timers in our life together

*

My family loved the nametag I wrote and pasted on my jacket for the visitation the night before the funeral. JIM LEWIS—JUDY’S LOVER.

*

There was a competitive side to Judy, not seen by everyone. I saw it when we played tennis together. The kids saw it when they played cards with her. An excellent card player, she spent hours playing a game called Spite and Malice with two of our daughters. Never content to lose, Judy kept a running scorecard. Going through a drawer after she died, we found the results of the last card game she played with Katherine. It showed Katherine winning on points but written beside the numbers was the word close.

*

During the summer of 1974, while Watergate was bursting and Richard Nixon was about to make an exit from the White House, I took our family to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, where I wrote a series of reflections about my years as a pastor at Trinity Church, Martinsburg. Each chapter in the book, West Virginia Pilgrim, was based on the Canonical Hours of Prayer. I was attempting, through a series of vignettes, to hold up, as a form of prayer, various activities that take place during each particular hour.

Under the final hour of daily prayer, Compline, I wrote a meditation on making love with Judy. I have gone back and read that piece. It is too long to reprint in its entirety, but I think it worthwhile to share a few lines. Making love with Judy was the place where passion embraced caring love, a place where we found one another, and so I share this with you, my readers.

To look back on the moments of the day—the jobs half done, those that cause me pause and savor in celebration, the victories, the losses—above all the cost.

My gaze is redirected from the past to your presence and your body that’s so close now in the room.

Your body is such a delight; it holds so much pleasure, so much joy, so much that enables me to discover my own body.

With you next to me, me inside of you, your body wrapped around me, there is no longer any need for words.

I can feel you speak beneath me. Your breasts are pressed against my chest and yet I can’t hear your heart—I’m left to feel it. I can feel you moving beneath me, and I wonder if you feel what I do. To be able to exchange our skin, our feelings, our insights—that would be the holiest communion of all.

I feel your whole body quiver, imploring mine and bidding it release the seeds stored in the cask beneath my stem.

They’re gone—I could not keep them if I wished. The sensation of release, the feeling that something has passed from me into you, is sweet.

But even sweeter is the fullness I discover at the very moment I realize it’s gone. I’m empty. Revitalized in a relief that has cost us the very thing we prize the most, ourselves.

Having given self away—nothing held back—each of us gets our life back wrapped up in a strange peace which passes all human understanding.

Before I sleep, I touch you one last time—perhaps to assure me that you’re still there—perhaps to make certain I’m still here.

*

Judy loved to plan. Half the fun of a trip was in the planning. I brought something a bit different to our life together. I like to take occasional detours, zigzags, side trips, and trips to unplanned destinations.

When it came to what lies on the other side of the grave, Judy was not satisfied with simple explanations. She wanted details, a room reservation, a list of the amenities, and some assurance that we could be together in a safe and comfortable place, always with ice that I would gather immediately upon arrival. She talked about resurrection frequently.

The words from West Side Story were always comforting: “There’s a place for us, a time and place for us. Hold my hand and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there. Somehow. Someday. Somewhere.”

Well, I can no longer take her hand or take her wherever she is right now. I will follow her into the columbarium someday, there to rest beside her, in a place where anticipation seeks fulfillment.

Judy had what we pray for in our baptismal service, “an inquiring and discerning heart.” I loved her pragmatic search for the truth. It spiced a faith that seeks only, “the trivial round, the common task” for meaning, yet longs for more after death.

*

I promised Judy that I would accompany her the whole way, right up to the furnace where she was cremated. And what happened as we waited for the cremation to begin was so typical of our lives. The interruptions so often became the agenda.

The funeral director whispered in my ear that one of his employees had just received the news that he had neck cancer. What was there to do with that information became my question as I waited for the cremation to begin?

I did what I should have done, what Judy would have wanted me to do. I walked over to the man and put my hands on his neck and told him that the woman about to be cremated was an oncology nurse, and if she were able to rise up out of the container that held her, would put her hands on his neck and tell him to keep on keeping on with his life for as long as possible.

*

Ashes are in the news, as well as in my personal life. In Sunday’s New York Times, I notice in Frank Bruni’s column, “What War Means,” his a quote from David Finkel’s book about the Iraq war, “Thank You For Your Service.” Finkle writes about Amanda Doster, whose husband was killed in Iraq. Her friends, he writes, “ began to lose patience with her inability to stop being so relentlessly heartbroken.” Bruni writes that she packs the wooden box that contains her husband’s ashes into the car, and “buckles him in, as if it’s not too late to protect him.”

*

For many years, Judy has cross-stitched Christmas ornaments, one for each member of our family. As soon as they were mailed, she would go seeking new designs for next year’s Christmas. This year I noticed that she was hurrying that process along. I watched her spend more and more time on those ornaments. It now makes me wonder if she had a premonition of her own impending death, one she didn’t even share with me.

As I write those words, I don’t think she did. Instead, I believe she was, as always, aware that life is short and that time is precious. She heard me say more than once that we are all doing time. She agreed. Even more important, she made the most of the time allotted her.

*

There was a competitive side to Judy, not seen by everyone. I saw it when we played tennis together. The kids saw it when they played cards with her. An excellent card player, she spent hours playing a game called Spite and Malice with two of our daughters. Never content to lose, Judy kept a running scorecard. Going through a drawer after she died, we found the results of the last card game she played with Katherine. It showed Katherine winning on points but written beside the numbers was the word close.

*

On one of the days Judy was in the hospital, I was scheduled to offer comments at a rally at the State Capitol. The rally was organized to send a clear message to the West Virginia Attorney General. He is acting out an agenda being conducted all across the nation, an attack on a woman’s legal right to her choice about abortion without harassment from government.

I told Judy I would not go. I would stay with her. Having trouble breathing, she found the energy and the breath to tell me that I had to go to the rally, and that I had to speak up for what we both had worked hard on over our years together.

The tension between living in one’s family and also being present in the larger community for issues that affect other people is a remarkably difficult and complicated task. Judy and I have lived in that tension for so many issues. Balancing private and public life is a real challenge.

I leave my family to go to Iraq on a peace mission. The Klan threatens me, and my family, because of my support of school textbooks. I can’t attend one of our children’s events because I am in New York for a board meeting with people doing social justice ministry. And on the other side of the equation, I spend time with my family and am unable to be present for a community activity that addresses an important community issue.

Living with Judy, I can only say that she understood, with mystical insight, those tensions, and gave me the support other women may not have been able to give. Our relationship was undergirded by common respect for each other, and a sense that our lives had to be both inner-directed and outer-directed. We also had the faith that our children would grow in the right direction if they lived in the shadow of our commitment, even though it might mean sacrifice.

*

People ask me how I am now that Judy is no longer by my side and in my life. I can only say that I am living between grief and gratitude—agonizing grief over Judy’s death, and magnificently overwhelming gratitude for the 59 years I had her in my life. As for what tomorrow will bring, I can only say that I will know what will come of it when I get there.

I do know this, that daughter Katherine e-mailed me a poem entitled “Heavy” while I was writing this tribute to Judy. Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets and her words I now share with you go right to the heart of grief.

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had his hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it–
books, bricks, grief–
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled–
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

*

Sleep these days is a bit disjoined, like a television movie interrupted by advertisements. There are no advertisements, only sudden awakenings from dreams that defy analysis. One dream, however, was crystal clear and has opened me up to a plethora of interpretations.

In the dream, Judy and I are doing all kinds of wonderful things, and then I ask her a question. “Judy, this is great but how do we go home and talk with people who have been to your funeral?”

I leave you, my readers, to ponder the inner workings of that dream. And I will end this tribute to Judy by saying how grateful I am to those of you who have been in contact with me over this recent nightmare and death of my beloved. And thank you for taking time to read what I have written. This issue of Notes has served me well, and I hope it has served you well in facing whatever grief and gratitude you may face in your lives.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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