Yesterday we lost a dear, old friend. Just like that, she left this earth. A sudden, stunning exit.
I met Julie Loyd Benner when I was 16 years old, standing in front of the Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I liked her immediately because she was straightforward and came with no pretenses. She was who she was. She was smart, brilliant. A computer wizard and a self-described geek with an eye for detail and artistry. She was an enthusiastic people person, but when I met her that day in 1982, she was unsure of herself in this. She worried that she would overstep her bounds with people; laugh too loudly, speak too intensely, say too much, or say the wrong thing. We were alike in this. It was years later when we had the conversation where she told me she had learned that having a gentle and quiet spirit had nothing to do with how loud you were. And she was musical, a worshipper. And that day when I was 16 she came over and introduced herself to me specifically to talk about worshipful things. Another dear friend of mine had played her this little ditty of a tune I had written, and she came to tell me it inspired her, that she heard God’s Spirit in it and wanted to encourage me to write more. At the time, I really appreciated her words but was too insecure to believe her. I find it ironic that she told me the same thing recently about the writing she’d read in this blog, and again, I was hard-pressed to believe her. I guess some battles are fought over a lifetime. I think Julie understood that.
A few years later, Julie and I found ourselves in the same town, the same church, the same circles. She was my sister’s roommate and would visit me in at my dorm in college. I remember coming home to my room and finding her written notes of encouragement on the whiteboard on my door. “Hey Toni, I saw your pink and green neon shirt with matching sunglasses on Sunday and thought it was a great look for you..” What can I say, it was the 80’s. Her townhouse became something of the home in town for the single church ladies. I spent a lot of time there, alternating between having fun party times and serious Bible studies and faith discussions. Later, we were teammates and partners on a missions trip to Trinidad. I recall being amazed by her ability to strike up a conversation wherever she went. She could make people feel comfortable just by smiling at them. Was interested in anything you had to say, especially if you had something to teach her. She would ask you a hundred questions, and cock her head to one side, listening intently to your explanation. She might even take notes. She never seemed to tire of listening and learning from people. Even in a foreign country, she shined like that. My brother took to walking around with her and going up to people on the street saying “Have you ever heard a laugh like this?” and every single time he said it, it still struck her funny and she would laugh on cue. Her amazing laugh, a tremendous, resounding sound reminiscent of so many clarinets and so many wind chimes heaving in rhythm . I remember sitting at the dinner table at some home in Trinidad while the people served us this truly yucky stuff–I forget what it was called–but it looked like slimy seaweed. She chatted it up and ate the stuff, valiantly. It was all I could do to swallow, much less speak. Wow, did I admire her grace then!
Then came the day when we were walking around the Polo Field in Rothsville and she was telling me about this man she met. How she was sure he was “the one.” And he was. It was so easy to see how Gary and Julie were meant for each other. Two truly delightful, joyful, vigorous souls. Together they could make you practically bust a gut laughing. But they could also turn around and share deep things of faith with tremendous intensity. Julie was a person of profound feeling and emotion. And whatever she was ruminating was right on her face, heart on her sleeve, just out there with it. On a perfect spring day, I sang in their wedding, the most music-filled ceremony I have ever, ever, ever attended in my life. I still remember the song I sang, “Father God, and I always think of her when it comes up on my iPod. I’m probably the only person on earth with that song as a permanent fixture on shuffle.
When Orlando came into my life, we became “couple friends” and did so many things together. Restaurants and festivals and concerts and movies. Julie and Gary were foodies with refined palates. Orlando and I were, and still are, much less discriminating. I can still hear the uproarious noise we made when we saw “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” at the Allen Theater. But my favorite memory was a trip the four of us took to Newport, Rhode Island, to see the mansions. Such a dichotomy, we were. Orlando and I went through the museums looking at the treasures, learning bits about the Vanderbilts, commenting on the china patterns and the furniture. Gary and Julie rented the tour headsets. I still have a picture in my mind of Julie examining an exhibit, listening to every possible piece of information on that thing and inspecting every single artifact. It literally took her hours longer to tour those homes than it took us, not that we cared. We had a grand time.
It wasn’t too long after that when our twins joined our family. I’ve never seen two people more excited to hear of a pregnancy as Gary and Julie were for us. Gary, being a twin himself, had and still has, a special place in his heart for our boys. Eventually Orlando and I were called to a different church and our times with Gary and Julie became infrequent. We reconnected on Facebook several years ago now, but other than running into them occasionally, we didn’t get to see them as much as we wanted to. But even through a thin medium like Facebook, Julie’s precious heart still shone through. Encouraging comments, kind words, fun pictures and posts. Orlando and Gary just ran into each other this weekend and we were going to finally make a date. Time just ran out on us. At least for now it did.
Julie became sick this weekend and left us yesterday for the perfection of heaven. And her departure makes me sadder than sad for Gary and for all those saints who loved her deeply. But I have been able, in this mournful day, to see a glimmer of joy. Just a glint. A flash. A voice in the wind. I see her laughing and dancing and rejoicing. I see her listening intently, with her head cocked to one side–finally, as my sister would say, getting the answers to all the questions she has asked after so many years. All of this with Jesus, the One whose presence she had longed for so intensely through her days on this earth. Getting to see Him face to face, no longer through a glass, darkly. Her joy is complete. Her race finished. Her “Well done, good and faithful servant” given and received.
And in the shadow of that, I hear her laughing.
We love you, Julie. See you soon.