I Want To See Jesus

Libby had very definitive plans for her memorial service and those plans extended beyond her desire to have some funny stories told about our life together; she wanted her best friend Helen Hawkins to sing, “……..if Miss Helen thinks she can make it through the song without crying”.  In addition, Libby wanted me to ask our friend Doug Richesin to sing as well,  “That way,” Libby continued, “If Miss Helen doesn’t make it through her song, Doug will still be able to provide some music.”

In the days leading up to Libby’s Memorial service I talked to Doug and he said, “Barry, when I heard the news about Libby, I thought of the perfect song and I hoped you would call and ask me to sing. You see I believe that as soon as Libby got to heaven she greeted her friends and family, then said, ‘This is all great, but I want to see Jesus’, so I would like to sing  I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy.”

I told Doug ” I do love that song, but I’m just not sure it is appropriate for a funeral.”  Doug reminded me that Libby didn’t want a funeral or “funeral songs”, but he give me a couple of other options to consider as I thought about his original recommendation.  “While you are thinking about it,” he said, “listen to the words again, then let me know.”

The reason I hesitated to have Doug sing that particular song was because both the song and Doug’s voice are both so powerful I was afraid of the awkward moment at the end of the song when those in attendance would very likely feel the need to applaud, but like me, they had never been to a funeral where people applauded……….. for any reason.

I took Doug’s advice and began searching for his recording of the song but after looking in all of the obvious places I was about to give up, then I remembered that Libby kept some CD’s in the console of her car which had not been driven since she went into the hospital three months earlier.

I searched Libby’s car without any luck and then as a last resort I turned on the car’s ignition to eject whatever CD was still in the player.  Although some may find it hard to believe, Libby often listened to her “getting happy” gospel music at full volume, often rattling the windows, so it wasn’t complete surprise when music blasted from the speakers as I turned the key.  The surprise for me was that the song was “I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy” as Doug’s voice was belting it out in full volume from the car’s CD.

I am typically skeptical when someone says to me that some particular event was , ” a sign from God” because too many people use the term flippantly and many people bend the facts to fit their own personal agenda, but as I sat in Libby’s car on that March afternoon listening to that song repeatedly (still at full volume) I was confident which song I wanted for Libby’s Memorial Service.

In the end, I should not have worried about people clapping for a performance; oh, there was a lot of clapping and even some shouting, but there was no awkward moment as every one in attendance that day saw heaven through Libby’s eyes and the applause was for a life well lived not merely a song well sung.



An ambulance ride on New Years Day landed Libby in Erlanger Hospital, but her stay lasted much longer than any of us expected. It took some time but the doctors were able to control the nausea, however they could not stop the crushing headaches which caused Libby to spend a lot of time with a damp rag draped over her eyes in an attempt to block out all light and stimuli.

The oscillation between good news and bad news increased in frequency and amplitude beginning that first day of 2014.  One of Libby’s doctors told us that the new experimental drug that she had recently started was likely the reason for her headache and nausea, “Therefore,” he said with medical confidence, “As soon as the side effects from the drug wear off, this little girl will be going home… probably tomorrow”; fantastic news that I relayed to friends and family as soon as the doctor left the room.

Before that good news got three “likes” on Facebook things changed. Helen, Jerod and I were all in the hospital room as Libby rested beneath her rag in an attempt to fight off yet another headache.  A nurse was in the room taking vitals when Libby began jerking violently, her eyes fluttered and rolled back in her head and then her body went limp. The nurse fumbled nervously for the call button and reported a code blue.

I felt useless as the room quickly filled with medical staff coming from every direction, a doctor began barking orders to the Rapid Response Team while we shrunk into a corner unable to see Libby. I remember thinking to myself, “Surely it’s not going to end like this, I haven’t even said goodbye!”

Following the initial flurry of activity, the team seemed to be doing very little to actually help Libby until one of the nurses asked, “Mrs. Gilley can you hear me? Mrs. Gilley do you know where you are?” Silence.  Seconds later she asked again, “Mrs. Gilley can you hear me?  Do you know where you are?” Then a very small, sweet voice from within the circle of white coats and blue scrubs said,  ” I know that I’m in my hospital room…but I don’t think I have met any of you.”  After some nervous laughter from the medical team Libby, a little stronger now, continued, “Why are all of you in my room?  Did I do something wrong?”

Over the next few days the seizures increased until Libby was having as many as five a day and the Rapid Response Team responded so many times that they were soon on a first name basis with us all.  Then as the seizures became almost routine we stopped calling the team or even the nurse and I eventually learned to handled the seizures myself.

At the time I could not have imagined anything worse than watching Libby have a seizure and pass out but then toward the end of the week Libby seized while her mom and sister were visiting and although I had done my best to prepare them both, it was difficult to look in her mother’s eyes while trying to coax her daughter back to consciousness.

Later that night Libby’s sister, her mom and I made the decision to call in all of the family in on the next day to see Libby, for what we all believed would be the last time.

A Moment Frozen in Time


“Hey, baby…(long pause)…where are you?”  It was Libby’s voice on the other end of our cell phone conversation on a fall morning in 2008; now, nearly six years later, every word and every awkward pause of the conversation is frozen in my mind.

I’m certainly not alone here, we all have them, those indelible moments from our past when it seemed as if time stood still, those events in our memories which are separated from the ordinary days by the preface, “I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard about ________________.  For me, the big three were the Kennedy assassination, the space shuttle disaster and the twin tower attacks on 9/11; or at least they were before I received that call from Libby.

September 2, 2008 was a very ordinary Tuesday morning as I left my office on a short two-day sales trip with planned stops in Athens, Maryville and Sevierville, TN,; along the way I would be seeing some of my existing bank customers and calling on some new ones.  As I exited off of Interstate 75  toward Athens I was thinking about the fact that, for me at least, selling was more like getting paid to visit with friends than actual work.

Libby called my cell phone that morning and there was a strange timbre in her voice that I will always remember as she said, “Hey baby…………where are you?”  An odd question, I thought, since I had told her where I was going just a few hours ago while packing my bag.  As I began telling her again where I was going it seemed as though she wasn’t listening this time either because she said, “Oh… OK…. well that’s nice”.  After just a moment of silence, it was evident that her mind was somewhere else when she added, “Oh yea, that’s right, didn’t you tell me that already?”

Libby normally went with me on these trips but she wanted to work on her children’s program at church and besides she had scheduled her mammogram for the first thing that morning.  Libby always dreaded her mammograms which seemed to become more painful every year because of the increasing number of fibrous cysts that she developed in her breasts, in addition, the cysts made it more difficult for the radiologists to read the results, causing more than one cancer scare in the past.

As our phone conversation continued, my stomach was suddenly in knots and I still can’t fully explain what I was feeling, but the strange tone of Libby’s voice made me uncharacteristically pull off of the road so I could concentrate on the conversation, that’s when I asked, “What’s wrong Libby?”

After a brief moment of silence, Libby began, “I’m sure its nothing, I probably shouldn’t have bothered you with this but…” .  Libby then went on to explain that a new radiologists had read the mammogram and even though she explained her history of fibrous cysts he wanted her to see a surgeon for a sonogram as soon as possible, in fact, they had set up an appointment for the following day at 4:00 PM. Then in typical Libby fashion she told me, “Barry, you go ahead and keep your appointments, I’ll get Miss Helen to go with me because I am sure its just the cysts like every time before”, but I could tell from her shaky voice that she had not convinced herself of that fact.

At about the same time that Libby was saying, “Barry, you go ahead and keep your appointments…” I had already turned toward home, accelerating up the I-75 South on-ramp while Libby continued to fill me in on exactly what the doctor had said.

When it comes to the complicated science of modern medicine, most of us want instant answers and instant cures, so we often become frustrated with medical professionals when they seem rushed and even disinterested during a routine office visit but then later when you are waiting on test results, they appear to be slow and methodical. Having been on both ends of the spectrum, I can tell you that in most cases they move as fast as they need to, besides too much attention from a doctor is usually not a good thing, such as when they set up your appointment at the end of the day so that,  “…the doctor will have more time to talk to you.”, or when they personally call to arrange for additional testing and consultations setting up appointments one after the other.

Our next set of appointments came the next day (one after another) as we met the radiologist, ultrasound technician and then by 4:00 PM on Wednesday afternoon we were sitting in a surgeon’s office (his last appointment of the day) reviewing all of Libby’s charts and test results.  As we both prepared for the worst, Dr. Burns looked up from the charts and shocked us both, “Mrs. Gilley, I agree with you, the lump appears to be one of many fibrous cysts, I have seen a lot of these and I am confident that yours is not cancerous, I suggest you have another mammogram in 6 months and lets just watch it.  You are free to get dressed and leave and I would like to see you again in February.

Wasting no time in leaving, Libby and I were giddy with excitement as we went out through the deserted waiting area littered with 2-year-old magazines.  We knew that we had just dodged a bullet and our emotions were trying to recover some equilibrium after our 24 hour roller coaster ride.

Our biggest decision now was whether we should split the 8 ounce or the 11 ounce Renegade Sirloin from the Longhorn Steakhouse to celebrate. The sides would be a loaded baked potato and Caesar salad, but now Libby was holding out for the smaller 8 ounce steak so she could more easily justify the Chocolate Stampede for desert as she joked, “I have no intention splitting that with anyone!”

Holding hands like two school kids, Libby and I were in the hallway outside of the doctor’s office and I was reaching for the “down” button to call the elevator just as Dr. Burns opened his office door and joined us in the hallway. I just assumed he was heading to his car as well, but then he said, almost as an afterthought, “You know Mrs. Gilley, just to be on the safe side, step back into my office with me for just one more quick test before you leave, since you are already here”.

I am sure readers of this blog never hear voices in their head (or at least none that they admit to) but the voices in my head were screaming when Dr. Burns asked us to go back into his office, “……Push the elevator button…..He has no jurisdiction in the hallway………..He’s not the boss o’ you“.

Before either one of us fully realized what was happening, Libby was once again holding my hand, but this time with a death grip as Dr. Burns performed a biopsy with little warning and no anesthesia.  I was sick to my stomach with sympathy pains as I kept wiping away Libby’s tears with my free hand saying, “I’m so sorry Baby, I wish I could make it stop”, a statement that I would find myself repeating many times over during the next 5 years.

“Every Day Is A Holiday And Every Meal Is A Banquet”


The quote in the title of this blog was used by my dad to describe Libby Willis shortly after meeting her when he said to me, “I love her enthusiam and positive attitude, because with Libby everyday is holiday and every meal is a banquet.”.  My dad also reminds me often that after making the above comment he said to me, “If you don’t marry that girl, it will be the biggest mistake of your life.”

That enthusiasm and love of life was one of the first things that attracted me to the young, bubbly, Libby when we both were still teenagers.  Throughout her life Libby could seemingly find good in everyone she met, so much so, that our son Jerod once told his mom that he thought she could probably find something good to say about Adolf Hitler, to which Libby said, “I’m sure he had some good traits but he was a man who made some very bad decisions, but God loved him so much that he sent his son to die for him as well as each one of us”.  I rest my case.

As much fun as Libby had living life and looking for the good in others, at her core she was an introvert, she was never comfortable being the center of attention, preferring to do most of the work and not get any of the credit.  But if Libby saw a project at the church that needed completing or if she saw a child in need of help, she was very bold and seem to possess endless energy to complete projects and care for children.

On many occasions over the years I begrudgingly met Libby in the front yard with a head lamp and a shovel in my hand after she phoned me from the car asking if I could get a hole ready in the yard so the we could plant something just as soon as she got home.  The story was nearly the same every time; Libby would explain with her hands waving in the air and using short bursts of sentences, ” I was just driving down the road… you know after I dropped Helen off…we had been buying stuff for the church dinner next Sunday…don’t forget to set up the tables… and I passed this house with the most gorgeous _________ ” (tree, flower or bush, you can fill in the blank here) “that I have ever seen, so I stopped and asked the little man where they bought such a gorgeous ________ ” (tree, flower or bush ) “and , well, we got to talking… and he was such a nice little man… he and his wife have been married nearly 40 years and they have 3 children and 4 grandchildren… I taught his son in the 3rd grade… now he was a rounder…always having stay in from recess…  and anyway, I kept talking to the nice little man …then before I left… I told him how pretty the  _________ (tree, flower or bush ) was and then…he just dug it up and gave it to me!”

Whew, sometimes it could be more exhausting to try and follow the animated explanation of how Libby wound up with the tree, flower or bush than actually digging a hole and planting it.

People were drawn to the open, honest and caring attitude that Libby possessed, in addition, Libby had this naive belief that everyone else in this world was as trusting and giving as she was and in spite of that innocence, or more likely, because of it, people would do things for her that most of us would never even think to ask. The one story that illustrates that personality trait better than most happened when my youngest brother Rodney was a freshman at the University of Georgia and our family had gone to Athens on a Fall Saturday to watch a football game.

Throughout the game we all watched in awe as a talented freshman running back named Herschel dominated the day; everyone, that is, except for Libby who was enamored with Uga the Georgia Bulldog mascot on the sideline in front us, After the game, we all went down on the field to see a friend of Rodney’s who was on the team (and possibly meet this Walker kid) but as we started down the long rows of bleachers onto the field Libby said, “You all go ahead, I’m going to go pet the dog”.  I said, “Libby, don’t be silly, they are not going to let you pet the dog, they will not let you near that dog”.  “I will just ask”, she said as she walked away.

Later after visiting with Rodney and his friends (but not Hershel) we were ready to start back home but we couldn’t find Libby.  Bear in mind this was BC (Before Cellphones) so my mom, my dad and Rodney spread out as we walked the field searching for Libby. By now most of the fans had cleared the stands and only a few remained scattered about the field, that was, except for a crowd of people standing close together at the “G” in the center of the field, which is exactly where I found Libby sitting cross-legged on the ground surrounded by children with the Georgia mascot UGA III lying in her lap, his leash in her left hand.

As I approached the group, I could hear Libby’s “teacher voice” telling some children, “No, James is next in line to pet Uga so you will need to wait your turn” then adding, “OK Jenny, don’t pet him too hard he’s had a long day and he’s getting tired.”  It was truly one of those “Only Libby” moments that we would see repeated thousands of times more in her life a she seemed to always surprise her family and friends with light-hearted moments

Libby could have literally and figuratively rubbed my nose it that day in Athens by giving me a knowing look with the subtle raising of her eyebrows or by simply saying, “See I told you so” but those thoughts never entered her mind as she sat beaming from ear to ear, simply enjoying her afternoon of college football, surrounded by kids saying, “Hey lady, can we pet your dog?”

She did, however have one thing to say to me when she saw me looking down at her over the top of the children’s heads, she said, “Oh hi honey, will you check to see if you can get me a towel, Uga is slobbering all over my legs!”.  I said,” Yes Miss Libby” just before I shuffled off in my search.

The Wedding

It was the summer of 1979 and my new mustard yellow Sony Walkman wasn’t much larger than the Doobie Brothers cassette tape it played. Three Mile Island was a hot topic in the newspapers, an upstart cable network company called The Entertainment and Sports Network was about to start broadcasting sports 24 hours a day, Ford Pintos seemed to be blowing up everywhere, and every red-blooded American boy had a Farrah Fawcett poster in his room (until they got married and their wife made them get rid of it).  But, if not for Google Search, I would not have been able to recall any of those memorable events that summer because they were all background clutter compared to our wedding in June of 1979.  OK, if am being honest here, I will admit that I was able to remember that poster.

Libby was the first of the Willis girls to get married and this wedding was going to be a big deal, but at that time, I had no idea what it meant to Libby or the others who would help with the planning and to the many who would witness the ceremony that day.  I was clueless about the amount of preparation involved leading up to the wedding day and only later did I realize what it meant to Libby to have her mom and sisters work so closely with her on those preparations.  I don’t think I am the least bit out of line when I say to you that no matter how stressful the time was before the ceremony and no matter how tired she must have been when the wedding day finally arrived, Libby was stunningly gorgeous on her wedding day and by far the most beautiful bride ever (hey, it is my blog, after all ).


Libby’s family of five sisters viewed weddings completely different than did my family with it’s four boys, and like my brothers (and most other guys I knew) I did everything I could to avoid weddings, mainly because they could ruin a good day of hiking or fishing since they normally happened right in the middle of an otherwise, perfectly good Saturday, not to mention that you would have to stop what you were doing, take a shower and get dressed up right in the middle of the day.  It was hard for my male brain to understand why people planned weddings during the day, it seemed to me that if you planned a wedding for either 8:00 in the morning or 9:00 in the evening then it would allow all of your potential guest the time to enjoy their Saturday and yet, still attend the wedding.

My job during the weekend of the wedding was to make sure I was at the rehearsal on Friday night before the wedding and then, on Saturday, get my tux, my car and me, to the wedding on time.  Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to leave the reader with the impression that all I did was show up, because there was a whole lot more to my part in this wedding than that; I had to say “yes ma’am” often during the rehearsal when I was told what to do by Libby, her mom, her sisters or any other female with the authority to do so, which, in effect, was every female over the age of twelve.  In addition to saying “yes mam” at the rehearsal, ,I had to say “I do” and “I will” at several different times the next day during the ceremony itself, no easy task since the two phrases were not interchangeable (something I learned the hard way during rehearsal).  So the groom (me in this case) had to listen intently to the preacher’s questions and be prepared to give the appropriate response at the appropriate time during the ceremony.

Libby and I had built our friendship on planning events together throughout high school but I learned that I was a lost ball in high weeds when it came to wedding planning, so very quickly I took my place in the matrimonial pecking order.  After all, this was Libby’s day and I came to realize that everyone came to see her, not me.

Now, if Libby were looking over my shoulder as I typed this, which she often did, she would say something like, “Now Barry you shouldn’t write that, the wedding was not about me, it was about the vows we made before God in front of our friends and family”, but lets face facts here, this was Libby’s day.

On Saturday June 9th 1979, right in the middle of an otherwise perfectly good Saturday, Libby and I were married in front of several hundred people packed into the pews of Flintstone Baptist Church .  Among those witnesses in attendance were friends and family from both the Willis and Gilley families, our respective churches, Flintstone Baptist Church and Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene, Olan Mills Studios, Red Food Store, Chattanooga Valley High School and Mercer University.  Libby had so many friends and family in the wedding party that I told her if the number of bridesmaids grew any more I would be forced to go out and make new friends in order to have an equal number of guys on my side of the church just to balance out the number of girls in the bride’s entourage.  There was, however, one obvious omission from Libby’s bridesmaids lineup, Helen Buckner (soon to be Helen Hawkins) was not among the ladies in blue (see A First Date for that explanation).


There was a tremendous amount of preparation that went on during the months, weeks and days before the wedding and I was, of course, oblivious to most of it. With a very limited budget to decorate, plan for and accommodate the 400 or so guests, the Willis family and their friends either made or borrowed nearly everything for the wedding to decorate the church in what had to be the social event of 1979 in Flintstone, GA.


Libby was calm, confident and radiant in her long flowing white lace dress as her dad prepared to walk his girl down the center isle of the church.  For the moment, I too was calm and confident as I stood in a small room behind the organ waiting to enter the church, but then, my pastor mentioned to me that he saw a funny thing happen to a groom once during a wedding when someone painted the words “Help Me” on the bottom of his shoes to be seen by everyone as he knelt for the prayer during the ceremony.  I nervously laughed about the poor guy’s misfortune, but then, out of curiosity, I looked at the bottom of my black shoes and saw the words, “Help Me”.  Suddenly, the musicians began playing the song which was my queue to make my entrance but I was sitting on the steps to the choir loft nervously pulling the white athletic tape off of the bottom of my rented shoes.  I was late walking in (so I already messed up on one of the things I was supposed to do) and my once calm mind was reeling with thoughts of, “I wonder what else they did…”  I eyed my groomsmen as I walked by to see which one was responsible, only to conclude that they all looked guilty.  Libby told me later that my hands were shaking as I held hers during the vows, but I said everything I was supposed to say when I was supposed to say it.


Although my role was limited during the wedding preparation I distinctly remember a conversation Libby and I had about a current trend in weddings to change a lot of the traditional vows, modifying or even eliminating parts that many viewed as “too restrictive” or “rigid”.  Libby and I both wanted the traditional language in the vows and ironically, during our discussion of those vows she laughed and said, “Barry, you had better be sure about this ” til death do us part”  thing because I plan on living a very a long time”.


I only had a couple of things to do during the wedding, one of which I messed up, but for more than a year I had been planning a month long honeymoon, promising Libby that it would be unlike any other, and I planned to keep that promise.

The Way We Were

Libby and I had several long talks following our “cow date” to clear up some misunderstandings and repair the damage to our fledgling relationship.  Although that initial meeting between Helen and Libby got off to a very rocky start, years later the two would become inseparable friends, in fact, when our boys were young they were heartbroken to learn that Miss Helen was not even related to them and worse than that, Helen and Kelly’s children were not their cousins.

Despite the pitfalls of that first date, Libby and I went out several more times that summer but it seemed, in my mind at least, that just days after we began dating during the summer of 1977, the fall semester began at Mercer University and she left for Macon.

Libby needed to maintain a high GPA in order to continue to receive her academic scholarship, so her school work really needed to take precedence over our relationship, at least for the present time.  The coming of Fall not only meant Libby would be back at college, it also meant that school and sports pictures would be taking up a lot more of my time here at home.

My job was still new and challenging as I was busy learning about portraits, lighting, processing, printing and selling. Early in my career, my job with Olan Millls was to fill in for someone within the company’s network of photographers as they went on vacation, or help if they had overbooked and didn’t have enough of their own people to cover the number of sittings that had been scheduled.

I really enjoyed the variety and travel which was always a part of the job, but since Libby and I started dating just months earlier, my job was suddenly less glamorous and I began thinking seriously about my future.  Soon my perspective changed completely and I started to view my job more as a way to support a family (a means to an end) instead of an end in itself;  pretty heady stuff for a self-centered 20-year-old boy who, just months before, thought he had everything he needed.

During the weekends that I didn’t have to work in the winter of ’77-’78, I would drive to Macon on Friday evening and bring Libby back home for the weekend, then, take her back to Macon Sunday afternoon following church.  One such weekend became a watershed moment in our relationship and the memory of what happened during those three days left an indelible impression in my mind.

I had driven the 3 or 4 hours to pick up Libby on a Friday evening (it was always 4 hours or more going through Atlanta on Friday afternoon) and then we made the return trip home, delivering her to her parent’s house about midnight.  We had spent the day on Saturday splitting time between her parent’s house and my parent’s house, but Saturday nights were always reserved for a date which normally involved our favorite Caecilian pizza from Caesar’s Pizza (no resemblance, whatsoever, to the modern, Pizza Caesar’s).

Cesar's Pizza close shot wo ring copy

After church on Sunday, we always had a “lite” Sunday dinner with Libby’s parents which would normally consist of roast beef with onions, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, fried okra, brown ‘n serve dinner rolls and several deserts.  Sunday dinner at the Willis house was an event not to be missed, which could have been the main reason why the Rev. Jimmie Willis’s sermons at Flintstone Baptist Church rarely, if ever, went past noon.  After dinner, as the rest of the family began looking for their favorite napping spot, Libby and I would leave for Macon.

During this particular drive south, Libby and I were discussing some of our favorite music and movies and how we were both suckers for love-story movies, sappy love songs and ballads, a fact not lost on our friends in high school who often made fun of the songs we discussed, especially since some of our friend’s musical taste leaned more toward The Rolling Stones than James Taylor.   But now, out of earshot of our classmates, we freely discussed Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel and one of our all time favorite songs by The Righteous Brothers, Unchained Melody.

Those frequent 4 hour trips between Chattanooga Valley and Macon turned out to be very effective pre-marital counseling for us and we would often spend that time discussing our beliefs, our families, our goals and our future.  That’s not to imply that all of those conversations were serious, but that time alone without any distractions helped us better understand one another’s past and how that history shaped our views.

Libby came from a family with five girls who spent a lot their free time cooking, studying and gathering around a large table for elaborate meals, often on fine china.  I, however, came from a family with four boys who spent a lot of our free time damning up creeks, building forts, blowing up damns, hunting, blowing up forts, fishing and eating bologna sandwiches that had been in our blue jeans pocket during a hike.  The differences in how were each raised made for interesting conversations during many of our “interstate counseling sessions”.

Arriving in Macon on this particular cold, rainy Sunday evening, we exited I-75 onto Mercer University Boulevard and at the end of the exit ramp we saw an advertisement for a movie entitled The Way We Were.  This movie, which starred Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand could be a trifecta, a love story, a sappy love song and a date!  But this was even better than a trifecta because the movie had been out long enough that it was now showing at the dollar theatre, could this possibly be a “quadfecta”?

We decided dinner and a movie would be the perfect end to a great weekend.  There was very little discussion during the short drive from the exit ramp to the girl’s dorm where I proceeded to unload piles of Libby’s freshly laundered clothes courtesy of her mom’s washer and dryer.  While I carried the clean clothes from the car into the dorm lobby (which was as far as boys were allowed to go) Libby went to her room to get ready for our impromptu date. When my laundry duty was complete,  I went back to my car instead of staying in the commons area where the dorm mother kept giving me suspicious looks.

It is still a mystery to me how Libby could always seem to look so good during those long hours in the car, but then she could go inside her dorm room for 15 minutes and still cause me to do a double-take as she came back out.  She looked amazing, with fresh makeup, more curl in her hair, a bounce in her step and that “look”.  The “look” happened often when Libby would self consciously drop her head down and give an embarrassed smile anytime she was complimented or if she thought someone was admiring her and, right now, I was in the process of doing both.

Glancing up at my reflection in the rear view mirror, I quickly realized that I would not be able to do anything to make myself presentable, so I jumped out of the car and ran to the passenger side of the car to open Libby’s door, bowing deeply, trying to dazzle her with my chivalry.  Libby laughed self-consciously at my actions as she accepted my hand to help her into her seat, then I closed her door and hurried to my side of the car to make the short drive to our favorite steak place in Macon.

There was rarely any discussion about where we would eat, only what we would eat, because Libby didn’t ever want to try a different steak restaurant after she found a good one, because that is where we ate steak, always.  The same held true for pizza (Pizza Caesar’s), sandwiches (Lotts Sandwich Shop) and most other foods.   When Libby found something she liked, she stuck with it, which annoyed me because I wanted to try new places in the hopes of finding an even better place (the same principle would apply to the TV remote years later).  Eventually in our relationship, I began to realize that if she really liked me, this “flaw” in her character would turn out to be a good thing for me.

After finishing our meal, we quickly drove to the local multiplex theater just as the previews were ending and the feature was starting.  Just for the record, I’m not sure if either one of us ever considered the fact that dinner and a movie that didn’t start until 9:30 on a Sunday night would make it hard for both us to get up on Monday morning (harder for me than for her) but we were young and in love.

We both enjoyed the movie and we started discussing our favorite parts on the drive back to her dorm.  Libby was convinced that Barbara Streisand was a rare beauty and although I may have used the rare in my description, “beauty” did follow in my assessment of her looks.

The title song The Way We Were became one of those songs that, when we heard it played, would instantly transport us both back to that rainy night in Macon;  back to the image of Libby running out of her dorm toward my car, to the feel of sticky shoes on the theater floor, to the smell of popcorn, and back to our ongoing argument over Streisand’s nose.

What made the night special wasn’t the movie, or the songs, it was that indescribable feeling that we both experienced as the night came to an end.  It was during this date that we both realized that this relationship was about to change both of our lives forever.  As the date was drawing to a close, Libby began telling me what a good time that she had and what a fantastic day it had been, but then, unexpectedly, she started to cry.  I must admit, I was following along in the conversation really well (for a guy) until the crying started, but now I was confused.   Between sniffles and sobs Libby said she was sad because she didn’t want the weekend to end, besides: it would be so long before we saw each other, she was homesick, we were too far apart and she wasn’t even sure that she wanted to keep going to college.  Although the feelings were mutual, I didn’t express it like she did, nor did I feel the need to use tears.

Reality soon set in and we both knew that we had responsibilities and obligations, but it was getting harder and harder to bridge the 200 mile gap between Chattanooga Valley and Macon because of my work and her school, that distance, added to her tears, made me want to move to Macon and find a job.  We sat in the commons area of her dorm until the University’s midnight curfew put an end to our date and I reluctantly decided I needed to get home and get some sleep before going to work on Monday or I wouldn’t have a job at all.

I was working with another photographer at the time and we had discussed the next week’s assignment and my plans to be gone for the weekend, but at that time, our destination for the following week was still undecided, and he promised to call my house and leave a message when he found out our assignment.  After our dinner and a movie on Sunday night in Macon, I finally arrived home just after 3:15 AM where I found the note that my dad had left next to the phone on my mom’s china cabinet, it read simply,” Long drive / pack for three-week trip / meet @ Waffle House Ringgold 4 AM.”

I was really going to be cutting this one close, so with no time change clothes, must less sleep, I hurriedly packed some clothes, loaded my photographic equipment into my car and drove to Ringgold.  When I arrived at the restaurant I recognized my fellow photographer through the smoky cigarette haze of the waffle house dining room; he looked up at me and said, ” You look horrible, rough weekend?  Grab something to-go or we ‘ll be late.”  I said “No!  Great weekend” and then I added sarcastically, “Thanks for the compliment”.  I quickly ordered a biscuit and orange juice, then I headed out the door toward my car, just as he was getting into his van he shouted across the hood of my car,  “Follow me, we are going to be shooting senior portraits”.

Our destination didn’t really matter to me, but if we were going to Dallas or Houston again, we would be flying not driving, unless we were leaving from the Atlanta airport, in which case, we would normally leave on Sunday evening.

So now, I was curious.  As he was closing the door to his van I yelled “Hey man, where are we going so early on a Monday morning?”  Poking his head out the window of his van as he shouted back, “Macon, Georgia………….. y’ever been there?”

A First Date

Libby and I would meet, date, marry and raise a family in the small community of Chattanooga Valley tucked into the mountains of Northwest Georgia.  During the 60’s and 70’s most everyone in our valley knew one another or at least they knew one another’s families, often attending church and school together, or at the very least, catching up on things during the annual Chattanooga Valley Kiwanis Club Bar B Q, a summer tradition held in giant circus tents on the front lawn of the elementary school.  Although not native to the area, Libby would call the Valley home for the rest of her life after her family moved here from LaGrange, GA when her dad, Jimmie Willis, accepted the call to pastor Flintstone Baptist Church in that summer of 1971.

Even though I was slow to pick up on Libby’s ulterior motives when she brought back that ratty old jersey after collecting dust in her closet for several years,  I did eventually “get a clue” and I asked her out for our first date.   Now, I had put a lot of thought into this and decided that the “cool” factor of driving my sporty blue ’72 Chevrolet Camaro was outweighed by the fact that it had bucket seats and a center console.  I never really dated a lot in high school, it seems like I was always busy shooting pictures for the school annual, planning events and going out with a bunch of people (what our kids now call group dating).  I did, however, know enough to realize that when going on a date with just one person it was generally expected that your date would eventually sit next to you in the seat.   I wasn’t sure if Libby would decide to sit next to me on our first date or not, but at least in my mom’s ’74 Chrysler I could fold up the arm rests and make the front seat one very long bench seat, just in case she decided to slide over.

I had made reservations at a new restaurant on Brainerd Road called the Sailmaker where each table had a different movie or TV show theme and the wait staff dressed up in character.  I left my parent’s house in plenty of time even after spending most of the day washing my mom’s car and vacuuming out the interior.  Throughout high school I never really had a “girlfriend” but I did have several “girl” “friends”, but now, I had just asked Libby Willis out on a date and we didn’t have an upcoming Physics test to talk about, so it goes without saying that I was nervous and anxious about this date.

I arrived at Libby’s house a little early, fidgeting nervously as I watched Libby come down the stairs while her younger sisters, her mom, and I all looked on.  Libby’s head dropped forward-looking down at the floor, genuinely  embarrassed by all of the attention, but her sisters and her mom were all smiles, rotating their heads almost in unison back and forth, as if in a tennis match, looking at Libby and then back at me to gauge my reaction.  I could tell by the wry smiles and glances between each of them that I had been the focus of the conversation just a few minutes earlier.  But now, with the “presentation” completed and with her younger sisters holding their hands over their mouths to suppress giggles, we were finally headed out the door on our date.

Dressed up for date copy

Libby and I had been friends ever since her family first moved to Chattanooga Valley six years earlier, and during all of time we were able to talk about any number of current events, plan school functions, laugh and study together for hours at a time, but now that I was about to go out on a date with her, and I silently wondered what we would talk about during dinner.  It had been less than 48 hours since Libby had shown up at my house using some flimsy excuse and my whole world was turned upside down, because now, things were different.

Looking back on it now, it’s interesting to me that when we started dating, friends from school would ask, “Hey, I heard you and Libby Willis are dating now, how’s that going?”  I would answer, trying to explain the change that I felt as I was falling in love, “It’s going good, but things are different now”.  The real irony is that I often used that statement during the time when our relationship was just getting started, and now 37 years later people will say to me, “I heard that Libby died, I am so sorry.   How are you doing?”  I normally respond, “I’m doing okay, but things are different now”.  The term, “things are different now” became the bookends of our life together marking both, the beginning of our relationship when I was falling in love, and again now as our relationship has ended and I adjust to a life without her.

As we left the Flintstone Baptist Church parsonage on our date, Libby slid just a little closer to me in the seat about the time we passed the Ace Hardware (quite possibly because we were now out of sight of her sisters, who were all looking out the window).  My worries about having nothing to talk about were short-lived as we stopped within a mile of her parent’s house because of a wreck in the “S” curve between the two bridges on Happy Valley Road.  We sat discussing the option of turning around and going through Chattanooga toward Brainerd, when I looked up and noticed that I knew the person that had just wrecked.  I turned to Libby and said, “That’s Helen Buckner, a friend of mine.  I need to go see if she is okay.”

While Libby waited in the car, I went to see if I could help and as I walked toward the wreck I noticed Helen was very animated and understandably upset having just wrecked her 1973 white Dodge Challenger .  As I walked toward the accident, Helen saw me coming and, recognizing a friendly face in the chaos, ran and put her arms around my neck and began to cry while trying to explain what had happened in between sobs and sniffles.  I was trying to understand her muffled explanation while at the same time reconciling the things she was telling me with the things happening around me, but since I couldn’t see another car I was having trouble understanding how this wreck had happened.  That’s about the time I saw the “victim” lying next to Helen’s car, a black and white, 1600 pound Holstein and according to Helen, “That heifer stepped right out in the road when I rounded the curve, and that’s when I hit her.”  The damage to Helen’s Challenger was significant, but as it turned out, the cow got the worst end of the deal.  As I was absorbing everything, Helen went on to tell me how that this was the second time she had wrecked a car by hitting a cow, which explains her apprehension in calling her dad to tell him she hit a cow and wrecked her car, again.  Soon though, Helen’s dad arrived on the scene about the same time as the farmer who owned the cow (actually steaks and hamburger now).  So with things getting back to normal and one lane of traffic open,  I told Helen that I really needed to get back to my date and she thanked me again for stopping to help, hugging my neck once more before leaving.

Pleased at myself for my good Samaritan deed, I climbed back into the car to continue our date, but now Libby seemed cold and distant and I was clueless as to why (the first of many times).  I thought if I used my reasoning skills I should be able to figure this out, so I asked, “Is there anything wrong?”  Libby said, “No, nothing”.

My first instinct was to take her word for it and just drop the subject, but her body language was telling me that things had changed since I had left the car a few minutes earlier.  Libby had moved to the other side of the car where she was looking out of the window, staring at nothing in particular and all conversation had stopped.  As we drove toward our destination I was still wondering what had happened and against my better judgment I asked nervously, “I know you said nothing was wrong earlier, but it seems like you are upset, am I missing something?  Did I do something wrong?.”  That’s when she turned completely in her seat to face me, her  head was tilted back and her arms were folded across her chest (I couldn’t help but think to myself at this point that the bucket seats may have been the better option).

“Who was that girl?” she finally asked.   Now, at last, I was starting to understand the problem.   I said haltingly, “Who…Oh you mean that girl….. Helen?    She’s nobody……She means nothing to me… We’re just friends.”  (Now, looking back, that was probably not the best way to phrase my response).  Libby had leveled a look at me (repeated often over the next 37 years) which let me know I had made a mistake and I had better figure out what I had done, fix it and not ever do it again.  The only problem was,  I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, in fact, in my mind I was showing sympathy for someone in distress and Libby should have been able to see that I was compassionate and considerate, or at the very least, chivalrous.

That night was our first of many lessons in relationships and communication and it took us both a while figure it out our responses, because we would continue to misunderstand, apologize and forgive from that day on, never mastering those lessons completely.  Today,with the advantage of hind site, I have often thought that if I knew on that first date, what I know now, I would have responded differently to Libby’s question,”Who was that girl?” I would have taken Libby Willis (Gilley) by the hand and walked with her over to Helen Buckner (Hawkins) and said, “Libby, I want to introduce you to Helen; she will be your best friend for life.”