My friend Denise Villani went Home to Jesus a few days ago, after battling cancer. It was her second time around with the fatal disease, but the first time God healed her body with a bone marrow transplant. This time he healed her by transplanting her.
She and I weren't what you'd call close friends for very long, but what I remember is that God brought her onto my path in life's journey when it was rocky and dry, when I had begun to lose hope that God would bless me with another baby. She was that "older woman" that Titus speaks of, one who had wisdom from walking with God longer than I had.
I don't even remember exactly how we met. Besides being in the same church, I don't recall the details. All I know is that I was wanting an older woman in my life on a regular basis who would
pray a lot, share her life, be full of scripture, and have a good sense of humor. I just don't survive long around people who take themselves too seriously or are overly self-conscious or perfectionistic in a way that makes them dull. But when people take God seriously while laughing at themselves, they are utterly winsome to me. Denise was such a person.
My memories take to me two places with Denise. One was the track at Bel Air High School, and the other was my living room floor. At least once a week in the early spring and summer of 2001, she and I would meet at the track to walk while Paul ran and Ben, Sarah, and Stephen played around in the midfield or did their own thing within sight. We were both trying to lose weight (a theme of my life since age 28). Both high achievers, we'd set goals. "Okay, we'll do 8 laps today. Ready?" But no matter how hard we tried to keep a mental record of our laps, we would talk right through the quarter miles. We figured we'd quit when Paul quit and summoned me to the car.
At the time, Denise's two sons, Mike and Gabe, were in high school and oh how she loved them. She so enjoyed them and that gave me hope that teenagers could be lovable. Though she was a single mom and had accompanying hardships, I never once heard her badmouth her ex-husband. Never. Her lack of bitterness was real, not a show for a fellow believer. She had quite obviously forgiven him and refused to let negative feelings rule her. You can't fake that when you're being truthful in every other way.
While we walked, we talked and we prayed. Prayed for our children, our church, our nation, ourselves. I especially remember the fervor with which she prayed for me to conceive. It was as if she'd were the child's own grandmother. Yet, in all her praying and understanding ways, she made sure to ask me about my relationship with God in the midst. Was I going to praise Him regardless of the answer to my prayers or was God only God when He acted according to my wants and wishes?
As I said, Denise joined me in a leg of my spiritual path when it was dry and rocky. I was in the valley of the shadow of death--the deaths of two babies overshadowed all my good impressions of God for awhile, and Satan was accusing me that it was all my fault and that God couldn't be trusted. Depression was hitting hard. Misery loves company, but seldom vice versa. Few are the people who spend hours listening to the perpetual moans of another's spirit, let alone offer to rinse and repeat as necessary. My husband had grown weary of my condition. My children couldn't understand. My dearest friend in Kansas empathized and I talked her ear off, crying, but she was...in Kansas. I needed someone right here. God brought Denise for an intense season. Looking back it seems so selfish; was I doing anything to ease Denise's burdens? I had a heart for single moms, but never did more than pray and listen. Maybe that's what she needed from me?
Denise came over one evening near the end of May and sat on the living room floor. I offered her the comfy chair to sit in, but she preferred to lean against it instead. It was during our conversation that she introduced me to a little book that ministered to me more than any book besides the Bible could have. It's called Beside Still Waters by Charles Spurgeon. She told me that Spurgeon himself had battled severe depression and yet knew how to counsel his own soul in such a way as to bring God glory eventually. No formulas, no twelve-step programs, but by meditating on God's character and Word. To make more of Him and less of me was exactly the counsel I needed. I read the book over and over. My spirit was changing and I was starting to say things like, "Yes, Lord, even if You never bless with a baby again, still I will bless you."
We walked and walked most of the summer. I was slimming down and firming up little by little. She was feeling more vibrant, enjoyed the increased stamina and the lower numbers on the scale. I wasn't looking forward to summer ending. Our walking prayer times had become precious. About a month later, though, at the track, I told her that I'd have to take some time off. I wouldn't be losing weight, I could practically predict it. In fact, it could be a challenge to keep food down. She laughed out loud and hugged me. "You're pregnant!" We danced around. What joy! Seven months later on a day that celebrates love, God placed His answer to my prayers in my arms. We named him Joel which means "The Lord is God."
Denise and I never shared our lives so personally or regularly again, but mine was the richer for that season. What started out as a dark winter in my soul became a golden summer when Denise infused it with hope. That's what made Denise such a wonderful traveling companion. It's what makes any believer in Jesus Christ a terrific "walking partner" in this life. No matter how many times you go around the same track, a good friend won't keep record of it, but instead will hold one of your hands while reminding you of the big, big God Who is holding your other one.