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by David Pettit
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. Psalm 23:1-3
I was always on my toes around Dody. She had that look. Posture stretched up, head slightly tilted, deep breath held in… She seemed to have that look when she had something to say. Dody often had something to say. She had things to say because she cared deeply. She was confident. She had found her voice, and worked hard at asserting that voice. Dody grew up wanting to go to law school in an era when many, her father included, expected her to find a man and get married. She didn’t go to law school, but she did go to college and became a teacher.
Dody loved sports. When she was in ninth grade, her father decided it was time to stop playing sports and become a lady. I think we can all imagine how that went over. She continued on. She beamed with pride when her own girls took up sports. Despite working full time she figured out how to get three different girls to multiple sports at different times and places throughout the entire year. And when Janet would go out and play football with the neighbor boys and throw the football the longest, Dody would stand at the door with a fist of satisfaction. She took great pride in instituting Title IX in the Littleton school district. When she talked about it to me it had a similar feel to talking about Janet throwing the football longer than all the boys. She waved that fist of satisfaction.
Dody did not accept the roles prescribed for women. She was the oldest among her two brothers and took on the role of the eldest proudly and capably. She became the protector and provider early on. When her father was off with the army and mother inundated, she taught Peter how to read and prepared him for school. She was a fierce protector and fan of her brothers her whole life. What she practiced on her brothers growing up she put into action in raising her own daughters. She taught them to be their own individuals. She made it clear that they were not going to college to get married.
Dody made her way in the world, claiming her own voice. But such achievement did not come easy. Finding one’s way, swimming upstream is a perilous journey. She had her storms and struggles. She had a marriage that resulted in divorce. She shared openly of her years in AA. The particulars she held close. But she shared enough, was honest enough to say that the journey was not easy. She persevered.
She was both avant-garde and traditional at the same time. Her own traditional preferences would be challenged by her own daughter’s coming out. Her child did not fit the traditional mold, and Dody struggled to accept it. But she did. She was willing to change, and her fierce love and loyalty won out. Late in her father’s life, his love would win out as well, acknowledging that he was wrong in trying to get Dody to get married and act ladylike. He was grateful she persisted.
And though she took exception to her dad’s wanting her to be a lady, the irony is that Dody was very much the lady. She was put together, dressed impeccably, earrings in, makeup and hair done. She managed to both keep up appearances, while still being honest. If Dody cared deeply about something she could not help but speak. But the words just didn’t slip out, they boiled up from her core. You could see it coming. Her posture would shift, her face get intense, her eyes, her deep breath, and it would often be prefaced by “Well!” I learned in the time I knew Dody that to get Dody’s intense honesty was a type of compliment.
And if such honesty and intensity was a compliment, then God and Dody had a pretty good relationship, though a lively one at that. But what else would you expect when you put two such strong personalities together? She prayed every day, she would tell me. And she would often grapple with God. She was fiercely grateful to God, and would be moved beyond words sometimes by worship, by the music, the words, and the liturgy. And yet, she was also fiercely determined and independent, and true to her own voice.
So when the cancer was discovered around a year ago, she didn’t want me to know; wasn’t ready for the minister to know. But eventually she invited me in on a harrowing Sunday afternoon in December when she saw a light. We prayed together the 23rd Psalm. And when we got to the valley of the shadow of death tears welled forth. It was around then I think she bestowed on me some type of membership to her inner circle. She made me her voice to the congregation. It was a role that I was not entirely comfortable with. But I knew there was something deeply significant to Dody’s journey that she would invite a minister so close to her experience, to her unadorned self, resigned as she was to months of hospital gowns and bed-hair.
It was nearly every week these last six months that I visited with Dody. We would pray. She would express herself, the words starting down in her core and working their way up, struggling more and more to make it out. But she would do it, resorting to pad and pen as time went on. Our visits grew longer if only due to the labor of the medium. She wrote one day, slowly shaping the words, trying to maintain her penmanship, that she liked me because she could always be honest. She was always honest, even when it became extremely difficult to maintain her presentation, the presentation she had always paired with that honesty. She loved her church family and her friends; she just didn’t know how to be seen; she was still coming to terms with the loss of power, with the loss of the ability to present herself. It was getting harder to get those words out that still bubbled up in her core.
In the Hebrew Bible there is a word that is used regularly to express the self: nephesh. It gets translated in different ways, including: life, self, breath, and most often soul. But at its most concrete level the nephesh is the throat. The throat is the seat of longing, of thirst, of breath, of praise, of lament, of self-expression, of vulnerability. I think of who Dody was throughout her journey and I think of her navigating her life and her relationship with God through the nephesh, through her throat, words boiling up to expression. As the cancer attacked her throat she persisted, not giving up, like the psalmist who cries out in Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord.” “How long must I suffer in my nephesh?”
Dody is at rest now. Her struggle over. And that prayer we prayed many times is finally answered, the prayer in Psalm 23 – that the Lord would lead her beside the refreshing waters, that the Lord would restore her nephesh – that seat of longing, of desire, of hope, of praise and lament, of vulnerable self-expression offered up to a God who hears, who receives our honesty, and who blesses people who do it their own way, under the shelter of God’s endless grace.
David Pettit is a minister of the Reformed Church in America, currently serving as pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado and pursuing doctoral studies in Hebrew Bible at the University of Denver.