Well, its Dec 1 again and the birthday of both Woody Allen and my old friend Marian Besst. For many years The Orlando Sentinel would inform me of Allen’s b-day and other famous folks born on that date, and I would think, “Oh yeah, and Marian too.” Last Dec 1, I sent Marian an email wishing her a happy birthday and suggested we meet for lunch again soon.
The following day I received a phone call from her son Billy. His voice was filled with emotion and I knew it wasn’t good news. He told me that his mother had died on Thanksgiving Day. She was just a few days shy of turning 89.
I was shocked. We’d last met for lunch about six months prior and she looked good. She was trim, and her mind was as sharp as ever. She still had a sparkle in her bright blue eyes and her wicked sense of humor was intact. She still walked daily for exercise. I thought she’d aged about as gracefully as a person could.
She had lost her husband Dave seven years prior and I knew that she missed him terribly. I thought they were an exceptionally close couple. Still, she pulled herself together and kept on trucking. She had three surviving children, and an older sister and brother-in-law with whom she was close. Like she and Dave, they were both highly educated and fellow atheists. Her brother-in-law Carl taught political science at some Ivy League school and I think her sister taught French.
My sadness at her passing was that she didn’t know the Lord. Otherwise, she’d had a pretty good life. However, like most lives, it had not been one without sadness. She had lost her youngest daughter Lesley at age 29 from a brain aneurysm, and then a year or two later her younger sister also from a brain aneurysm. But she and Dave still had each other. And they had enough money to travel and to live well.
Dave had retired after 20 years as one of Lockheed-Martin’s top engineers. After Martin he established a highly successful nursery business. He called Martin “the bomb factory” and it was clear that he enjoyed growing decorative indoor palms better than pioneering technology that would eventually kill people. Dave knew about killing. Dave had been scarred by war himself. He walked with a limp and wore a heavy brace on one leg. In the waning days of WWII his tank had been blown up by the Germans. But like folks of that generation you didn’t complain or brag—you pulled yourself together, went to work, and stepped out into life as best you could—even with a brace and the nightmares that always come with surviving combat.
Dave and Marian met in a VA hospital in Cleveland a year or two after the war. She was a young nurse with three children escaping an abusive marriage. Dave was recuperating from his injuries. I suspect it was love at first sight. Though she never said that it was; she was more comfortable with sarcasm and irony than mush. She always signed her cards and emails “Fondly”—whereas I wrote “Love.” Dave and Marian insisted that their children call them Dave and Marian instead of Mom and Dad. That struck me as odd, but I guess that’s how atheists are.
I met Marian in 1974, when she came to work at Seminole Community Mental Health Center. The Center had only about a dozen employees then, and we all worked closely in trying to manage the chronic and crisis clients of an underfunded organization in a rapidly growing county. Marian and I became close friends in just a matter of weeks. We had some things in common. We were both from Ohio. We both smoked heavily and shared the same dry slightly off-kilter sense of humor. We met for lunch almost every day. She was a psych nurse and out in the field making home visits, but at lunch time we almost always managed to take an hour and meet. Lunch was our time of venting and decompressing.
Eventually the Center grew to over 100 employees compliments of a federal staffing grant. In the much expanded staff Marian and I found kindred souls to share lunch with—we became a daily foursome with Floyd, an outreach worker, and Karen, a clinical social worker. I suppose within the center we were regarded as a clique. But eventually Karen, and then Floyd, left the center and we gradually lost touch. But Marian and I stayed fairly close even after I left in 1987.
However, here had been some cooling in our friendship after I became a Christian. Marian and Dave could not understand how a thinking person could believe in the religion of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell. Fallen Bible-thumpers was the entirety of Christianity in their narrow view. I didn’t preach to them but I think they could see a change in me, and we didn’t share quite as much rapport as before.
Dave’s greenhouses were pretty much wiped out by the tornadoes that swept thru the Orlando area in February, 1998, and of course the insurance company wasn’t really fair in paying for the damages. Then he had some serious health issues—bypass surgery and ongoing problems with the bone infection in his leg that had never fully healed in 50 years. He retired completely and they sold the nursery business and their long-time residence in Maitland. They moved to a condo on Lake Howell. About every six months I met them for lunch as a couple, but sometimes just Marian and I got together. She confessed that Dave wasn’t quite the same since the bypass surgery. He was getting forgetful and she worried about Alzheimer’s.
Dave had always impressed me as one of the four or five brightest people I’d ever known. He was a type of Renaissance man, being gifted in many areas. In addition to being an electrical engineer he was a botanist and collected rare palms, bromeliads and orchids. He taught himself to speak passable Spanish. Every year or two he and several other plant aficionados would fly to Mexico or Central America and collect seeds of rare plants. He read Scientific American and National Geographic cover to cover in addition to reading on other widely ranging topics. Intellectually there wasn’t much he couldn’t master and so given his impressive intellect it was disquieting to think of him deteriorating mentally.
And then in 2007, Dave died. And not long after Marian’s sister and brother-in-law died. Her two sons both lived in Idaho, and there were long time issues in her relationship with her one daughter who lived locally, and so I knew Marian was lonely. I felt bad that we only got together two or three times a year. Once I took her to hear a symphony orchestra at my church, Northland. She’d read a newspaper article about my pastor and seemed intrigued. It amazed her that a community of Bible-thumpers had a bright, liberal pastor and would sponsor great cultural experiences like the symphony. I thought I saw a flicker of interest—I knew that she and Dave had sometimes gone to a Unitarian “church” on Sundays and so I thought there was some hunger in her to give life a transcendent meaning and purpose.
I suggested she come to a service with me some time and I also suggested a book on finding faith by Anne Lamott that I felt she would relate to. However, she was obviously wary and didn’t pick up on either option. I didn’t push. I prayed for her frequently and I thought perhaps there was something about the changes in me over the nearly 40-years we’d been friends that would spark an interest in talking about my relationship with the Lord.
I wish I could say that Marian found Jesus in the last few months of her life—but I don’t think that was the case. It seems some people invest themselves in a belief system so completely that they are unable to change—it becomes just too paradigm bending to allow that to happen. I believe in the Calvinist doctrine of election, and though it sometimes doesn’t seem fair that good people like Marian and Dave weren’t picked, I trust the Lord’s good plan. I know they touched many lives in positive ways. They were generous and supported many charities. They reached out to me, had me over for dinner many times, and always encouraged me when I was down. My life was enriched by their friendship. Rest in peace Marian and Dave. You are missed.