Farewell to a Friend

By:  Staci Stallings

I love beginnings.  Maybe that’s why I write romance.  Beginnings are so very hopeful.  They hold so much promise, and often so much joy.

I’m not so big on endings.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I love it when a book comes together just so.

But life endings are much, much harder for me.  They always have been.

It is hard for me to relegate things, especially wonderful things, to the space of only existing in my memory.  In short, it is hard for me to say good-bye.

Today I come to say good-bye for now to a friend I never saw coming but one who changed my life for the better in so many ways I cannot count them all.

It has been almost 2 weeks since I found out about the death of my dear friend, Dennis Bates.  It has been nearly three since the Lord saw fit to take him home.

I’m sure Heaven has not been the same since.  I know I haven’t.

Dennis, as those of you know who met him through the blog know, was one-of-a-kind.  He was a lawyer by trade and probably by temperament as well.  He could argue you under the table, and he always had the last word because it usually left you speechless.  For me, he was a unique challenge–one part curmudgeon, one part teddy bear.

We first met after I had entered a contest (something I never do, but something God suddenly said He wanted me to do).  I did not do well in the contest, and many of the judges’ comments I received were frustrating and at least to me, nonsensical.  So I wrote to a writer’s group of mine.  Dennis wrote back, agreeing that writing is 10% literal and 90% word art.  He argued (and I agreed) that saying Shakespeare could not get published today is not a knock on Shakespeare but on the transient nature of what we as authors are encouraged to write to get published today.  After all, Shakespeare has been around for hundreds of years.  How many of even the best books today will be around in ten?

As we conversed, an unlikely friendship was born.

“Unlikely” because we were about as different as night and day.  We were different religions, different politically, different genders, different ages, different outlooks and perspectives.  We even had different views on how to get well when we were sick.  We had different sports teams and different styles of travel. There was not one thing we agreed on–save the incredible, wonderful love of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Everything else was pretty much up for grabs.

We even had different views of romance.  Dennis had this thing about wanting to write about what happens AFTER two people get together.  I was much more into the getting together phase.  But somehow our divergent philosophies of life meshed, and not only did we become friends, but we became writing partners.

After Dennis’s death, I struggled to explain even to myself the depths to which this change shook my life.  I mean I’d only met Dennis once for three days.  We had talked once on the phone during a conference call with 15 other people listening in. Other than that, we connected only through writing.  So the depth of the connection on the surface was a little bizarre.

But I finally came up with this analogy.  Dennis and I were like skating partners.  Now really good skating partners must be good at their craft as individuals.  One really strong and one weak will not work very well.  Further, the trust level between partners must be extremely high as if it is not, they will crash and both get hurt.  Finally as the trust builds and they work together, learning strengths and weaknesses, learning new skills, they begin to challenge the other and stretch not just as individuals, but as a team, becoming eventually something that neither could be alone.

In writing, trust is paramount.  When you write, you put you on the paper–your dreams, your hopes, your loves, yourself.  First drafts are particularly tender as are pieces that are “just for you” kind of pieces (not written for the public to ever see, but so you can get the story that scratching and aching in your soul out so you can go on to other projects).  I’m sure some writers never find that someone they can share these pieces with, and so they sit in diaries and on computer discs gathering virtual dust.

I think for the two of us it was having someone to share these types of pieces with that solidified our friendship into something more than just friends.  We became partners in publishing and in writing.  Dennis was never afraid to take a writing risk.  He would write and write and then smash whatever he’d written to bits and put the pieces back together just to see what new thing he could come up with.

And he pushed me to expand and write and try things I never would have given myself permission to write.  I remember one such book.  I’d been working on it in my head for quite awhile.  In fact, I’d told Dennis about it and how I was so stuck at the ending that I couldn’t even start it.  So he did something totally bizarre.  He told me to write the scene I was stuck on.  So I wrote part of it and sent it to him–so I could convince him it was hopeless.  However, instead of writing back to give me advice, he wrote a scene for MY book as if it was from the hero’s point of view.  I thought that was weird, but I took the bait and wrote the next part of the scene from the heroine’s point of view.  He wrote back.  I wrote back.

It’s funny now, looking back on that, because the central theme of those scenes could be encapsulated into the two words Dennis taught me:  Trust me.  In the scenes, the heroine was terrified of trusting again because she had been so hurt.  Dennis was just the guy to write the hero–a good guy with a heart  for those who seriously needed someone solid and who would never hurt a wounded soul.  He helped me have the courage to write that book.  And I think now it was one I was destined to write… for me.  So I would learn to let go and really trust.

My writing changed some after that.  I became freer with letting go and letting the words come instead of judging them and holding back.

Now Dennis would probably argue (when did he not?) that letting go was always my forte much more than his.  The thing is, letting go was never so much an innate quality of mine until Dennis came along.  He just never saw me BEFORE he came along!  🙂  In fact, his favorite words for me were “high maintenance.”  Never, ever before Dennis did I ever once consider myself high maintenance, but after he was gone, I could see where he got that.  You see, with Dennis, I could be REAL–no putting a good face on something… when I hurt, with Dennis, I really hurt.  When I was frustrated, I just let my frustration out.  When I was angry or unsure or scared…  Well…

One of my favorite Dennis stories was when I went to Iowa to visit him.  I already had the plane tickets and travel plans had all been made.  He emailed to say that the drive to his house from the airport would be short, and he would ride with me so I wouldn’t get lost even though it was “just over the river.”  Now I don’t like water unless it’s in a drinking glass, and I sure don’t like “rivers.”  So I wrote to ask, “Just how big is this ‘river’ we’re talking about here?”  “Oh, it’s fine.  It’s just the Mississippi.”

Only Dennis could get me to DRIVE ACROSS THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER!  It’s quite the metaphor for how daring he helped me learn to be.

Now, when you know that no matter what the other person is going to catch you–even when you do an impossible triple flip in the air with all the world watching–you learn a trust that you never knew existed.

For me, that has translated into trusting in what God is giving me and trusting God to catch me because I’ve seen that that kind of friendship is possible.

I could write forever about Dennis and probably never run out of words.  I may write more as the days between the end of that chapter and here stack up.

For now, I simply want to say:  I miss you, my friend.  You will be in my heart forever.  Thanks for the lessons–the fun ones, the hard ones.  Thanks for teaching me I could jump and not be afraid.

Thanks for being my friend.  You will never be forgotten.

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One Response to Farewell to a Friend

  1. Peg Phifer says:

    Ah, Staci . . .

    A beautiful tribute. Thank you. I didn’t know Dennis as you did, but in the (2?) years of fellowship with him through the Grace Marketing e-loop, I grew to love him. As you said, part curmudgeon, part teddy bear.

    I miss him, too.

    Peg

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