From what I hear, Nichole’s funeral was beautiful: lots of family and half her home church travelled from Wisconsin to Iowa to see her lying still. She’d requested songs of praise to be sung and ‘I’ll Fly Away’ finished the service. Folks spoke of her testimony of faith and her certainty that even if she had not been healed, Jesus was still our Great Physician and the lover of her soul. Her parents wept as her brother spoke; her husband of just past one year was dazed and oddly silent. After not that many months of battling a cancer that should’ve been discovered earlier – if she hadn’t been chaste; if we didn’t have such a suspicion of doctors; if she hadn’t been poor – Nichole was dead at 38. Together, our church mourned and rejoiced. They sang, ‘When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away. Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away.’ So far away from home, I sat and cried alone.
I wanted to return, but I would’ve missed the funeral anyway. The distance was too great. And I was worried: when my grandmother died, it was requested that I not attend as my presence would be a distraction. The oceans – both literal and figurative – between here and home, who I was then and who I am now, both infuriate and shield me. Not that Australia has insulated me entirely from death: my local friends and family have had their share of grief as well. But here, the dead are dead and the living bury them; there are tears and tea and then it’s done. At home – with my people, at least – death is a time of sorrow but also of rejoicing. Funerals are occasions for folks to affirm their faith and testify to the joy they have in Christ. Death is feared but approached with calm resignation, and loss is meant to be tempered by the certainty we have in both resurrection and heaven.
I haven’t been home in over a year; it’ll probably be past two by the time I finally go. I’ve promised my family this Christmas, but whenever I say the words or think of the trip, my chest tightens and I feel the blood pulsing in my ears. I’m afraid to go home. Wisconsin’s snow and ice aren’t stopping me, nor is spending money I don’t have on the same gruelling Melbourne-to-Wisconsin trip I’ve taken so often in my decade-plus as an expatriate. And it’s not the reprobation I feel whenever I visit my former church. It’s something else entirely. She isn’t dead if I never go home.
I don’t remember the first time I met Nichole. There isn’t a time in my childhood I can recall that she wasn’t my neighbour and friend. Her family lived next to mine – ‘next’ being a relative term in rural Wisconsin where farms spread far apart even friendly neighbours. My family’s land was homesteaded in the 1800s; although we no longer kept a herd of dairy cows, the fields were leased to those that did, and my uncle kept up Grandma’s barn just in case someone would someday fire up the milkers. Nichole’s family were almost our enemies: they had come to manage a turkey farm. Folks that could not hold onto their land through farming or leasing agreements had sold out to the industrial turkey producer that somehow now owned our town. The cornfields and pastures had been converted into factory farms: long silver sheds full of white turkeys, clucking all day and night, pecking and huddling together. The sides of the dirt roads that led from the packaging plant in town to the farms in the country were littered with yellow-white feathers, turkey shit, and the occasional whole, dead bird.
Nichole’s family was there to farm these turkeys. Her parents didn’t have a farm of their own, but they weren’t there to take ours. I must’ve been six or seven or thereabouts when they moved from another tiny town to my tiny town of Barron. My older sister – then about eight years old – was always very dutiful in sharing our faith, and she immediately asked the new girl, nine-year-old Nichole, if her family had a church. They did, but they were like us: Pentecostals with an old-fashioned, fundamentalist bent. That meant that even though we believed we weren’t under the law, we kept it nonetheless. We spoke in tongues and struggled to keep ourselves clean of sin. For reasons I was never told, her family eventually moved from their tiny church to my tiny church of the Foursquare Gospel.
Nichole became not only my neighbour but my sister in Christ. Our families were together almost every day. We’d start the week with Sunday morning service, including congregational singing and a sermon from my other uncle. Sunday school was for memorising Bible verses. Sometimes we’d spend Sunday afternoons at the local nursing homes, followed by nights full of praise and worship in the sanctuary. Wednesday nights changed as we grew: in elementary school we earned sashes and pins for recitation, evangelism and good works; in middle school and high school, our youth group undertook missionary activities targeting nominal Christians, fellow students, unsuspecting folks in Chicago, the unsaved in Nicaragua and Guatemala and, always, the pre-born. We proudly had Bible study on Thursdays at high school. Fridays and Saturdays were filled with family events, sleepaway camps and youth rallies across the state and nation.
Nichole was a constant presence in my life at church and at school. After school, we’d leave behind the yellow school bus full of town kids. Nichole and I, along with her brother and my brother and sister, would walk the many miles home instead of riding. The boys would often stride ahead, busy investigating the piles of dirty feathers or examining roadkill raccoon or skunk on the road. Nichole, my sister and I would go slow, not rushing to get home to homework and chores. We’d share about our walk with the Lord and we’d plan for our futures: husbands, missionary ministries and babies – always babies. Nichole had a mahogany hope chest full of embroidered towels and dainty lacework. She’d memorised the virtues of a Proverbs 31 woman: faith, marriage, mothering, health, service, finances, industry, homemaking, time and beauty. Nichole was subsumed in preparing to be a good wife; I was not. I was not very interested in being a girl at all.
But by my freshman year of high school – when I was fourteen – things had changed, practically overnight. I got contacts, breasts, a spot on the cheerleading squad, and a football player as a boyfriend. Still a devout Christian, I was dedicated to evangelism. Fridays in autumn, our youth group arranged a safe and virtuous after-football party. While Nichole would leave the bleachers early to set up the church, I’d try to convince my fellow cheerleaders that pop and pizza in the fellowship hall was cooler than beer and boys in the gravel pit. Sometimes we were successful, sometimes we weren’t. We were often mocked for our faith, but I seemed to more easily straddle the divide between church and school than many of our youth group. Nichole was friendly and always well-liked, but I had started to approach the realm of ‘the popular kids’. Sometimes I even missed Bible study to hang out with the jocks at their lockers. Instead of attending a church banquet with my sister, Nichole and her brother, I went to prom with my boyfriend. Dancing awkwardly in a modest dress, I wouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol. That night, I felt beautiful; I felt happy.
Rumours regarding my virtue started somewhere and grew until my youth group pastor felt compelled to confront me. I was insulted but also strangely honoured: people thought that I could move so far away from my faith that I would cast aside my virginity for a linesman. I started speaking some of the questions I’d always had weighing on my heart: why weren’t women allowed to serve communion? Why would scientists deliberately misdate fossils? If others lived out there in the world – seeking happiness instead of holiness – why couldn’t I? Even through international missions trips and anti-abortion rallies, through Bible college and being slain in the spirit, I asked and I wondered. I doubted. And as much as I loved the Lord, I somehow loved myself more. I eventually left the church. Nichole never did.
But we stayed in touch through it all. Nichole went to Bible college too, but unlike me she dedicated her life to full-time ministry, teaching and preaching. I met and rapidly married an Australian man travelling in the States; I knew him weeks at our engagement, months at our marriage. I immigrated to Australia soon after. Even though I moved so far from my home, Nichole still sent me cards and letters. Although she continued to share her faith, she never sent messages of condemnation, only love.
Once when I was visiting Wisconsin, in a tearful conversation over cups of hot water and lemon, Nichole asked me for forgiveness. A decade earlier, with mixed motivations of genuine concern and girlish jealousy, she’d gone to our youth pastor and repeated the accusations against my purity. She had carried this betrayal for years and was humbly asking if she could lay down the burden. I held my friend and wept for the love she had for me and the difficult way she was still living her life. Another decade later – when my Australian husband and I divorced and I was revealed as beyond backslidden, actually outside our faith now – Nichole still remained my friend. She prayed for me when I met someone new, and I hoped love would eventually come to her.
And it did. Late in her life, at 37, Nichole finally married. She hadn’t known him for long – weeks at their engagement, months at their marriage – but they both felt a certainty in their spirits. After a short while, her husband told her something was wrong; he’d been married before and he knew more of women and womanly things than Nichole did herself. When the request went out on the prayer chain, my mother and sister reported Nichole’s illness to me: cervical cancer. They were concentrating their prayers on the retention of her fertility – Nichole wanted so badly to be a mother. But they were also praying that God would spare her life.
After months of chemotherapy, spiritual devotion, dietary adjustment and intensive prayer for healing, Nichole was preparing for surgery to remove the mass that threatened her life. That is the last time I saw Nichole – it’s the last time I went home. My new partner and I flew around the world to see my family and to see my friend. We drove down from Wisconsin on the snow-covered roads to the famous covered bridges of Iowa. Nichole’s husband was strangely agitated when he met us at the door and rushed us into the warmth of their home. She sat on their couch, skinny and weak, her blond hair cropped close to her scalp. Her blue eyes leapt up when she saw me even though she could not. I went to the couch and we held each other and wept. Nichole was glad, embraced me and welcomed me home. She told me I’d been away too long.
We went to a restaurant and ate together, reminiscing about our girlhoods and watching our men cautiously speak to each other. Her husband sulked, unhappy that all attention was not focused on him and his struggling children’s ministry. When his pouting turned to barely contained anger, Nichole deftly placed a shaking hand on his arm and whispered a few words; I heard her say ‘gracious’. He calmed and she smiled. As we left the restaurant, I noticed Nichole had bruises on the elbow her husband used to steer her. I couldn’t say anything; when my contribution to her life consisted of but hours per year, what could I do?
By then, anyway, we had arrived at her parents’ home and they too welcomed me with open arms. I was relieved and surprised: after my divorce, her father had not spoken to me the last time I had returned home. He glanced awkwardly at me throughout the evening. But when it came time to pray as a family, her father touched my hand.
Her brother would not see me. They called and asked him several times, but he chose to stay home with his wife and the children I have never met. (This estrangement is something that happens; I chose that when I chose to walk away from my faith. I have little anger towards him, more sadness. My sister tells me I imagine these slights, but they are too numerous to ignore.) After a few hours of chatting at her parents’ house, Nichole was tired and needed to rest. We returned to her home to say goodbye. She spoke of my meeting her children someday and of her meeting mine. She spoke of her great faith in Jesus and asked if she could pray for me. As we held hands to pray, I told her that I loved her and would see her again soon. My partner and I returned to Wisconsin and then to Australia. Two months later, despite all the medicine and all the prayer, Nichole died. I missed her funeral, but I sent a bouquet of white roses and red gerbera daisies – they matched her wedding bouquet. I’d also missed her wedding – of course – but the pictures my sister took had made me feel like I’d been there. And I feel as if I was there at her funeral, too; I know exactly what they said and what they sang. I know exactly how they feel, what they are telling themselves to try to make Nichole’s death bearable.
But she did not die for anything great, not in childbirth or as a missionary smuggling Bibles into China. She was not tortured or killed for her faith. She didn’t die for anything we’d been prepared for; her death did not accomplish anything. Yes, she was a beautiful example of sacrifice and joy, longsuffering, and love, always love. People close to her believe her life was sacrificed for Christ, as an example to others, as a tool of salvation. This is where I part company with my family, my church and my former faith. They believe she wasn’t healed for a reason – known perhaps only to God, but glorious nonetheless. I know Nichole died because the cancer was discovered too late. While they cried at her funeral, I know they also rejoiced. I have nothing to console me, however; there is only sorrow here. This is when I deeply miss my family and my home. This is when I profoundly miss my faith.
If I never go home, she isn’t dead. If I never get off the plane, she is still alive. Often, my sister sends notes of condolence, encouragement and faith to Nichole’s mother, father, brother and husband. But the cards I’ve purchased will stay on my desk, blank and safe, with clean insides unmarred by my messy handwriting and grief. Instead, I choose to live in a dreamscape.
Nichole is standing in her kitchen in Iowa, arranging a jam jar of sunflowers. She’s got a low, big belly that says someday soon she’ll have a baby girl to match the little boy balanced on her hip. Her husband is a pastor, a strong man of God, faithful and true; he adores her above all others. Her home is lovely, decorated with handicrafts that speak of faith and heritage, and her brilliant eyes and smile welcome any visitors. When I knock on the door and she opens it, she says to me, again, like the last time, like always, ‘I’m so glad you’re home, Amy. Don’t stay away for so long.