Last Wednesday I woke to an email informing me that my beautiful, talented friend Terri S. Shrum passed away after a battle with cancer. She’d been diagnosed just weeks after she’d decided to pick up and move to Key West from New Orleans to devote herself to the craft of writing. I’d been reading the updates and watching her progress and had known it was a matter of time. But still, there’s a cold shock to the finality of death.
Terri and I had met in Alta, Utah at Writers@Work and recognized one another immediately–our volley of laughter and vulnerable stories began at the first lunch we had at Alta Lodge and continued throughout our friendship. We were only in the same place one other time, but we stayed in touch and sent each other little stupid packages of junk that made us laugh. Terri connected everyone, that was her thing. I made friends through Terri that have been some of the most influential people in the landscape of my heart. That’s how Terri was–her tribe was continually expanding, she collected and treasured people and pushed them together.
No one in my daily life knows Terri personally, so it has been a weird sort of grief–kind of isolated (and easy to deny). I wish I’d seen more of her, and writing it here, it’s hard to explain the kind of confidence Terri’s friendship gave me. I’d gone to Utah to do some really serious heavy lifting writing. The kind of writing I knew I needed to do, but was terrified would break me. I did it, in a room with Terri and Bryan (another amazing gift of that Utah trip) and Steve (all in the picture above) and several other incredible writers. I met Kate Gale at the same conference and that was the start of my relationship with Red Hen, which led to the book I’m so proud to have completed and heaved into the world. I’d have never submitted the manuscript without Terri’s push. But more than that. I don’t know how to say it all.
On Sunday morning, I got a message request on Facebook from a man named Michael. I recognized his name,because Terri was always trying to connect us. Here’s what Michael posted after our meeting Sunday evening:
Our mutual friend Terri has been trying to get Seema and me together for a while now, and, well, life kept happening and we never got around to it. Terri slipped from this realm on Wednesday (I can see her gorgeous smile and hear her saying, “Those are really beautiful words to say I died.”), and I finally messaged Seema this morning to suggest we raise a glass in her honor. Her immediate response was yes, please, tonight. Terri had an ear for language and a heart for friends, and she was right: we basically pinky swore to be friends for life upon sitting down.
Terri was beautiful, bawdy, full — an embodiment of the perfect, wry turn of phrase and the resulting laughter. The timing is cruel because the world needs more of that right now, not less. Terri was with us as we talked about her, but also in how we connected, belly laughed, and barely had breath to catch each other up on our lives — having just met, but recognizing that we’d found another “one of us.”
What a gift.
What a gift, indeed. I’m so grateful for Michael reaching out to a stranger. Because he was brave, I could stop running and just sit in the grief for an evening. And I’m proud of myself for taking that leap. Because it would have been easier to keep ignoring it. And of course, there was more laughter than grief when we got together. We were chosen and connected by Terri for a reason.
On Wednesday morning, just hours after getting the news of Terri’s death (well before I was ready to talk about it) I had a conversation with a very dear friend about dear friends, about his feeling a shortage of them. But that’s a temporary problem. It’s just a question of reaching back out when you’re ready–there are so many friends to be made, each of them capable of renewing your understanding of yourself, and your faith in yourself.
Terri won the Writers@Work non-fiction prize the year we met for a stunning, short essay, “Bird Dog.” Her sentences, her craft, her sparse details, her fucking pitch-perfect unsentimental delivery. She doesn’t tell you how to feel about any of it, she just looks back through a long telescope and makes you feel it. Here’s the opening of Bird Dog. You can read the whole thing here.
In the fall of the year I turned eight, my father used me as his dog. It was dove-hunting season, and I suppose it’s what a hunter does when he finds himself with a dearth of good bird dogs and a surplus of daughters.
We loaded into his truck while it was still dark, the engine running rough in the gravel drive. I didn’t have a jacket warm enough for the bite of the morning, so he wrapped me in one of my mother’s coats, belted with rope, the sleeves left long to warm my hands. I was the eldest of his children, so my father called me Sister when I was on his good side. He called me Sister on this morning, and told me we were going to have fun. I believed him.
We drove out past the paved roads, and parked in a field where there were other men with their dogs. They greeted my father, illuminated by haloes of headlights, all of them with rifles and speaking in rough morning voices. While they talked, I tried to play with the dogs, but they were hunting dogs, not pets, and they jumped and scratched and often knocked me over altogether. Soon, Dad made me stop playing with them, because, he said, we were making too much noise.
He made a blind from downed corn stalks and brush on the edge of the field. I watched him gather the dry stalks and stuff larger openings with weeds. When he was satisfied with the structure, he let me go inside. I could peek out and see a pond. It felt like a play-house, a place where elves would live. Sitting on the ground inside, he took a can of shoe polish from his pack and rubbed some under his eyes. He rubbed it on me, too, and told me I looked like a real hunter, and that I had to stay quiet. The polish tickled on my skin, but I didn’t say anything. Quiet, from my dad, meant quiet.
So go read the whole essay. And then sit down and write a story that starts, “In the Fall of the year I turned ______…” Just tell it, with the details you remember. It doesn’t have to be long or flowery, it just has to be specific. That’s all. 20 minutes. For Terri. For who you were. For friendship.
Here’s to more laughter than tears, whatever hand life deals you.