Last month I went to visit a friend. I finally got to meet her husband, and we had a nice, long chat. I hugged her children’s necks and laughed with her friends. I told her every wonderful thing I love about her and thanked her for being such a well of encouragement and inspiration. It was amazing, and I almost missed it. I almost didn’t go.
My friend’s name was Tammy Derr, and she was dying—lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, trying to navigate her way from this world into the next. I got the distinct impression that it’s harder than it looks. But Tammy was a badass, and she could handle anything.
Several years ago she opened a children’s bookstore in East Nashville. Now, Fairytales is no ordinary bookstore. Yes, there were books, but there were also toys and crafts, and a big ol’ area to play with them all. And the very best thing? There was an area in the back with couches and coffee and good-smelling candles, and it was there for mamas and papas to sit down and relax. Imagine. A place actually designed for children and families to enjoy.
From the time Fairytales opened it became our go-to shop for birthday and Christmas gifts. In fact, at any neighborhood party, you could bank on seventy-five percent of the gifts arriving in the signature white bag with colorful tissue paper and a fairy stamp. So I saw Tammy a lot. She was hard to miss. She had bright-red hair and a giant grin, and she was always at the store. Still, we weren’t actually friends. In the 300 times I came into the shop, I never introduced myself; I smiled and “thank you-ed” and tried to stay invisible. I’m a little intimidated by red-haired badasses who open businesses and become community linchpins.
It wasn’t until I started a blog that Tammy and I became friends. I have no idea how she found out about it, but one day she began leaving comments, and the next thing I knew we were talking a couple times a week. I felt like I’d won the lottery, like I’d just been picked first for dodgeball. Here this incredible woman was offering to be my friend. I’d like to say it’s because I’m special, but the truth is, Tammy did that for everyone. With Tammy, everyone was in. That was part of her magic. That, and an infectious sense of optimism.
Tammy was sick for a long time. She successfully beat cancer once only to have it return. Still, she continued to raise her three amazing daughters, run her store, and treat every setback as only another obstacle to beat down. In the midst of it all, she kept loving on others and drawing larger and larger circles, pulling more people in. When my husband lost his job a couple months ago, Tammy showed up at my front door with a large bag of wrapped gifts for my kids—books and toys from her shop. Thumbprint bruises under her eyes gave away how hard the fight was proving to be, but, still, she glowed. Her bright light couldn’t help but shine.
When Tammy slipped into unconsciousness, I got the word that she was failing and had said she was ready to go. As much as I wanted to say goodbye, I also didn’t want to intrude. I imagined her surrounded by a small circle of family and best friends. I’d heard that her husband was welcoming visitors, but I figured that was meant for other people. You know, people who really belonged. People who had passed some kind of friend litmus test. Maybe people who’d delivered her babies, or who had badass red hair like hers, or who had solved world hunger or something. Worthy people.
I teetered between resignation and hysteria all that night. I paced the kitchen for half the next morning. She was still there. I could still tell her how important she’d been to me during this last year, though she might not hear me. But I felt hamstrung by insecurity and unworthiness. Death is a sacred thing. I didn’t want to taint it.
Even so, I was haunted by a need to show up for her as she had shown up for me.
And then it occurred to me: Tammy had no idea that we’d be friends when she reached out that first time. She had no way to know for sure that I wouldn’t laugh her off. No way to know when she opened her store that it would be received with love and loyalty. She just stepped out with her whole heart, hoping. She just showed up. That realization felt like a holy lesson. So I sent a text to a stranger (her husband) to make sure it was not inconvenient, dragged my blubbering and grateful butt into that ICU room, and had one of the most meaningful experiences of my entire life.
I have no idea if Tammy heard any of the things I said to her. Perhaps she can tell me someday when I see her on the other side. But this I know for sure: that waiting room was filled with people. Most I knew; some I did not. And every single one of them belonged there. Everyone was in because Tammy had drawn them in. That is Tammy’s legacy. The legacy of belonging, the legacy of community.
Tammy died the next day. I’m heartbroken for her children. I’m heartbroken for her husband. I’m heartbroken for all of us. But I’m OK with it. Sometimes, if you’ve really been wholehearted, you are going to have your whole heart broken. And if there is one thing that Tammy personified, it is wholeheartedness.
Tammy was an incredible friend, an unparalleled community builder. It was her superpower. We are all going to miss her very much, but we will be OK. Her family will be OK. Scratch that: her family will be more than OK. We will all make sure of it. After all, Tammy spent her life building up the world’s best life love-insurance policy.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Jen Wallwork Dominguez. All rights reserved. Jen Wallwork Dominguez is an erstwhile songwriter and very surprised mother of five. She’s lived in Nashville for eleven years with her theatre-directing husband and an ever-growing cast of children and pets, and she writes about motherhood, money, and life in the arts on her blog Life in the Circus..