0 In Grief

    One Last Letter: The Importance of Goodbye

    A year ago today, one of my childhood best friends took her last breath. She fought like hell to stay, but the ugly disease of cancer that had chased her intermittently but repeatedly for most of her adult life finally caught her.

    I met her when we were kids at a Ronnie McDowell concert. Her name was Ashley, too. Our moms became friends, and we followed suit. We lived five and a half hours apart so at first, we only saw each other in person when we happened to be at the same Ronnie shows. Then our moms made special trips for us to spend time together, always concluding with a teary goodbye. In middle school, (pre-email) we bridged the distance by becoming snail mail pen pals. I still have a box of letters she sent me through the years. As time went on, we shifted to communicating on AOL, and eventually kept up with each other via social media.

    Ashley and Ashley – 1995
    Ashley, Ronnie, and Ashley – 1997

    Writing to one another was vital to our friendship, so when it came time for our final goodbye, I pulled out my pen once more. I had traveled ten and a half hours from Nashville to Richmond to see my BFF one last time. True to form, when I asked my mama if she’d meet me there as well, she didn’t hesitate for a moment. She made yet another trip from PA to VA to watch me say another teary goodbye to my dear friend.

    Time For Goodbye

    We visited with Ashley and her family two evenings in a row. We talked, reminisced, laughed, and enjoyed one another’s company–same as always. Our time together was so natural and easy I could almost forget why we were there. But the night before we had to leave, I sat on the hotel bed with my journal across my lap, and wrote her one last letter.

    The next morning, we packed up and stopped by Ashley’s house for one more visit. I could never express the gratitude I feel, not only for having the opportunity to spend some of her final days together, but for the opportunity to read these words directly to her. To know that she understood what she meant to me. And to find some semblance of closure in the brutal beauty of goodbye.

    One Last Letter

    Dear Ashley, my long-lost sister, best friend forever,

    I have put this off as long as I possibly could and though I still don’t want to acknowledge this reality, I know it would be worse to live with regret. So here goes one last letter…

    You have meant more to me than you know for the better part of 30 years. I know the miles kept us from sharing the little details of our lives over the past couple decades, but as we wrote in our early letters you were “always in my heart,” and I never stopped seeing you as a cherished friend.

    It’s safe to say there would be no “Ashley and Ashley” without Ronnie and Ronnie [Jr.], but also without our moms. They were dedicated Ronnie fans, but they were also dedicated to keeping our friendship alive, driving us HOURS just to see each other even when there wasn’t a concert involved. (Though goodness knows that made it more fun when there was.) They were friends first, and after the several-hundred-dollar long-distance phone bills our moms racked up, when you and I became friends we wrote letters–for a much more affordable $0.32 per stamp.

    Each day after school I volunteered to get the mail from the post office, eagerly thumbing past bills and taxes to see if there was a letter from my BFF. On the best days, there was. Though it was never addressed to my name. It was always made out to some creative and playful term of endearment: “Half My Heart,” “Ash-O-Lee,” “Long Lost Sister,” “My Best Bud.” we would catch each other up on all of the most important details of teenage life like what boys we had crushes on, what outfits we wanted to wear to school, where we went shopping, and how many days until we could see each other again.

    For several summers in a row, our moms drove us halfway between Newmanstown, PA and Richmond, VA, when you would come stay with me for a few days. Then back to meet up so I could come stay with you for a few days, and finally halfway one more time to go our separate ways.

    Ashley, you set the standard for me in several ways. The beauty standard. There was no one more beautiful than you. Your stunning eyes and lashes. Your gorgeous smile. Your model physique. You set the bar for how I wished I looked.

    The cool standard. I always thought you were so effortlessly cool. Your sense of style. Your easy laugh. But best of all, the way you were always cool but never a “mean girl.”

    The motherhood standard. I had a moment I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a mom, and as I pictured whether I had what it takes to be a good mom, you were the bar I measured my vision against. I needed to see moms who loved being moms. I saw plenty of people complaining about motherhood, scaring me out of the prospect. But when I saw how you loved being Levi’s mama, I reconsidered. When I got pregnant, I even put a picture of you holding Levi and beaming a joyful smile on my vision board–a happy motherhood to aspire to. I reached out to you for advice and took your recommendations to heart. Now six years later, you finally got to meet my darling daughter. And when you tell her, “You have the best mama,” you should know that you inspired me to be the kind of mother I am.

    As I have seen your health updates over the past few months, I have spent a lot of that time scared of this moment–desperately hoping and praying for a better outcome. I checked in with Ben a few days ago and he asked if I lived near Richmond. I read between the lines and knew I had to make the trip. There was no question, no hesitation. I needed to be here. And I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that once again–even through this horrific cancer journey–you’re setting the same standards.

    Despite your body failing you, your eyes and your smile are still as beautiful as ever, lighting up the room as you always have. The way you have taken on countless curveballs this disease has thrown you leaves me in awe. I know you must be in pain and great discomfort, and yet you remain the epitome of cool. Your grace is remarkable. And the fight you have put up to live each new day as Levi and Ava’s mama is a powerful display of your dedicated motherhood. Even stuck on this couch, you are mothering them–keeping their routines, praying with them, guiding them, loving them. They are so lucky to have a mama who loves them this well. There is not one iota of fairness in the notion that you don’t get to take care of them well into old age. But I know your heart holds enough love for a lifetime for each of them, and I hope they will feel that and carry your love with them in their hearts for all their days.

    I know I will carry our friendship in my heart forever. Every time I sing along to a Ronnie song, take a road trip with my girl, drive her to meet up with a friend (whether across town or across the country), send a letter snail mail, smell Rapture from Victoria’s Secret, take too many pictures (no such thing), or reminisce on my teenage years, a part of you will live on in me. Thank you for being my friend.

    I love you, I love you, I love you,


    Five days after I pulled away from her house, Ashley passed away. And one year later, she still lives on in my heart, in my memories, and in the love for her that I will forever carry with me. I think of her daily, but today especially, I will actively remember her out loud. I will listen to my favorite Ronnie records, re-read some of her letters, and thumb through our old pictures. I will smile, I will grieve, and I will remain profoundly and eternally grateful for the gift of goodbye.