A true story, written by me, Robin Shope
Many people will walk in and out of your life. But only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.
Sitting on the flowered print couch, I paged through the Kissees' family album: there was nine-year-old Tammy, ten-year-old Tammy, eleven-year-old Tammy. Then I looked across the room at twelve-year-old Tammy playing checkers with her father. Her long blond hair was gone; the radiation had left only a wisp of fuzz on her head. Her fair complexion was now a chalky gray. The skeleton-like limbs made her appear weak and breakable.
Tammy caught a side glimpse of me staring, and she figured out pretty quickly that I had to be comparing her to the robust girl sitting astride the black horse in the picture. She smiled at me as if to say, "It's okay. I'll be that girl again someday."
My four-year-old daughter Kimberly leaned over Tammy's shoulder to watch her next move on the game board. "I think you should jump the black checker with the red one, Tammy." Tammy laughed, touching her dark curls with envy. "I am the black checker."
We met the Kissee family a year earlier when they began attending our small country church, soon after Tammy had been diagnosed with liver cancer. They joined the congregation, and we all began to pray daily for a healing miracle.
There was something so ethereal about Tammy. Kimberly couldn't resist her and became her shadow. Often Tammy felt weary from treatment, but she somehow managed to add strength to her patience in dealing with this admiring fan. Tammy had two older brothers, so she treated Kimberly as a welcomed younger sister. With their heads together, one nearly bald and the other thick with lustrous curls, they paged through the children's Bible.
One day, as I sewed, Kimberly said, "I need a diamond dress to wear for special occasions, like to parties and weddings and funerals." I flinched at her last word. Tammy laughed and seemed to understand something I could not grasp.
"Why funerals?" I could not meet Tammy's eyes.
"Because when people die they go home to heaven. I really need a dress for that celebration!"
Monday morning, Kimberly and I sorted through stacks and rows of fabric in the basement of an old Ben Franklin store.
"Here it is!" she exclaimed, holding up some purple cloth with a colorful jelly bean print on it. "Diamonds!"
"Honey, those are jelly beans."
"No, they are diamonds, beautiful colored diamonds."
I looked at the material for a long time, trying to see what Kimberly saw, but finally gave up. I asked for two yards to be cut, picked out matching thread and paid my money. All week I struggled with making my daughter's diamond dress. To make it fancier, I sewed on a lace collar and dotted it with rhinestones. Kimberly was happy with the result; she saw diamonds, I saw jelly beans.
Christmas was festive at church with a wonderful program and platters of carefully prepared food. Tammy admitted she felt awkward around girls her own age, as they didn't quite know how to act toward the girl who looked so different from them. So she remained by her little four-year-old friend and was a wonderful help in serving the food.
I thought I detected a little color crawling back into Tammy's wan cheeks. Surely she would recover and be just fine. I said another silent prayer for the hundredth, the thousandth, the millionth time.
I watched Tammy out of the corner of my eye all evening. She checked plates and cups, making sure everyone had enough to eat and drink, and served more when needed. She seated the elderly in the most comfortable chairs. I saw her push back the constant fatigue she experienced in order to help turn the pages for the pianist's music. At last, she sat with the children gathered about her feet, leading them in Christmas songs, listening intently to their stories. She was a young girl who was not self-absorbed in makeup and boyfriends. She was a young girl absorbed in helping others.
Two days after Christmas, we received a call from Tammy's parents. She had been rushed to the hospital. Walking into her room, I noticed how small she looked among the bed sheets. Her mother rubbed her forehead and smiled into the blue eyes that were heavy with sleep. My husband and I stood by her bed, along with her parents and brothers. Although we had prayed for healing, God performed His own miracle and just before midnight took Tammy home to live with Him in heaven.
The members of the church dreaded the funeral of one so young. We seem to understand and accept better the death of someone elderly who has lived a long and full life. This young life slipping away from us, however, made our own mortality seem more brittle. And there were the nagging questions: Had we failed Tammy in not believing hard enough, in not praying long enough?
I held my four-year-old daughter's hand as we walked up to the old oak casket. Tammy appeared as if she had gotten ready for church and then simply laid down for a quick rest among her favorite toys. I squeezed Kimberly's hand tighter. If she got too close to the casket, would death snatch her too? Sensing my fears, Mr. Kissee picked Kimberly up into his arms so she could clearly see Tammy's face.
"She is at peace now. See, no more pain on her face," he told her.
Kimberly looked into the pain-filled father's eyes and then nodded seriously, turning her attention back to her friend.
"Thanks for helping me be quiet in church," my daughter whispered to her. "See, I wore my diamond dress for you today. You knew how important it was. I am so happy that you can see heaven. Save me a seat next to you."
During the service, Tammy's parents sat close together holding hands, their grieving sons on either side. The pastor spoke, "This is not the end but the beginning for Tammy. Let her beginning be a new beginning for us as well. Let's finish what she has started, and may it be a work in progress."
It was true. Tammy left us with so much. She set her own needs aside to help others. She cheerfully illustrated to my impressionable daughter, to children yet to be shaped, and to adults set in their ways, how to be of service to others when pain and tiredness are your greatest enemies.
That night I tucked my own little daughter into her bed, thinking that Tammy would never be tucked into hers again. Kim looked at me with concern. Her tiny finger brushed away one of my tears.
"Mommy, when I close my eyes I can see Tammy. She has her long blond hair back and wears a beautiful dress with stones all over it. I think her diamond dress is even prettier than mine," Kimberly whispered while pointing to her jelly-bean dress hanging in the closet.
I closed my eyes too. Yes, I can imagine Tammy with her long hair and pink, glowing complexion. I think she is probably wearing her own diamond dress as she gallops through the streets of heaven.