Ten years ago today, my 20-year-old Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway, was killed by a drunk driver. Mary Allison and her mother, Deborah and her brother, Carter, were part of the early group of seekers who became St. Peter Orthodox Church in Jackson, Mississippi, back in March of 1987. My husband and I were part of that group from 1970 until we moved to Memphis in 1988.
Mary Allison often visited my parents’ store, Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports, where her mother took my aerobics classes in the 1980s. Here she is, in the center of a group of children who gathered in my dad’s office in the back of the store. Yeah, some of ya’ll might recognize those other kids, who are now all in their 30s! Clockwise from bottom, left: Jordan Henderson, Jonathan Cushman, “Papaw” (Bill Johnson), Joanna Meadows, David Algood, Ben Skirtech, and of course, Mary Allison in the center. This picture holds bittersweet memories for me, because my father died in July of 1998, just two months before Mary Allison. And their graves are only a few feet apart, up on a hill at Natchez Trace Memorial Park in Madison, Mississippi. I like to stop there on some of my trips to visit my mother and sit on the bench under the tree that overlooks the hilly cemetery. In February of 2006 we buried my brother, Mike, in a third grave near Mary Allison and Papaw. I’ve cried lots of tears sitting on that bench over the years.
But back to Mary Allison… she graduated from my alma mater, Murrah High School, in 1996. Here we are at her house, just before her graduation that May.
She had already begun to spiral into some dark holes, and continued to struggle with substances and behaviors that she hoped would numb the pain of some really difficult things in her life. But in December of 1997, she made the brave decision to face the pain and turn away from the things that were bringing her down. Part of that decision meant moving away from Jackson, so we offered for her to live with us in Memphis. She moved in with us in January of 1998 and began working, with plans to enter college after establishing Tennessee residency.
Those early months with us were a joy for us, but difficult for Mary. I’m sure she’d say there were joys for her, too. Our two younger kids were still living at home. Jason was 16 and Beth was 15. One of my favorite memories of the three of them together was on the some evenings when it neared bedtime (for my husband and me, the teenagers stayed up later than us by then) Mary Allison would grab Jason and Beth by the hands and find my husband and say, “Can we have a blessing?” The Orthodox tradition is for the father (or either parent) to give the children a blessing before bed, making the sign of the cross over them with the blessing. At the end of the blessing Mary would pull them into a group hug. I often fought back tears watching this scene play out night after night. I think Mary Allison reminded us all of things we took for granted at that time. Or maybe of things we still struggled with ourselves.
On September 18, 1998, Mary Allison was driving to Indianola, Mississippi, to visit her mother and grandmother. It was both of their birthdays. She had gone to prayers at St. John Church that morning, then on a picnic with two friends before leaving our house for the drive to Indianola. She was bubbly and happy, having found the peace she had been searching for during those eight months in Memphis.
I got a phone call from her mother early that evening. “Mary Allison has gone to heaven,” was how she began, through her tears. She related what had happened. The highway patrol had called to say that Mary Allison had been hit, head-on, by a drunk driver on the way to Indianola. Evidently, a pickup truck in front of Mary saw the van coming at it and swerved off the road to avoid being hit. Mary didn’t have time to react, and took the full force of the vehicle coming at her. The coroner said she died instantly.
I packed up some clothes for her burial, along with a few of her icons and other personal things from her room in our home and headed down to Jackson the next morning, to help Deborah prepare her daughter for burial. Like the myrrhbearing women, we combed her hair, applied a modest amount of makeup, and attended to a few other details that were difficult but healing for both of us.
Tiny Saint Peter Church in Madison was full to overflowing, with some people watching on a video screen in the fellowship hall during the service. There was a steady stream of people, especially young people, during the all night vigil the evening before. Some brought photographs, pieces of jewelry, even hand-written notes to place in the coffin as they said goodbye to Mary Allison, and thanked her for what she had meant in their lives.
See, Mary Allison had been telling everyone that people can change. That wounds can heal. A couple of entries from her journal, which her mother found and shared later, are indicative of the journey she was on:
January 11, 1998… “I have turned away from all the craziness and begun to seek God. When I say ‘seek God’ I mean allow God to be present in my life, because it doesn’t take much seeking to find what has always been there.”
February 23, 1998… “Today I am a person who has made many mistakes. Today I am a person who is forgiven. Today I am a person who is repenting. I never would have thought it could be so satisfying.”
Our oldest son, Jonathan, was a pall bearer, and Father Basil participated with the other priests and deacons in the funeral and burial.
This Sunday we’ll pray memorial prayers for her at St. John, and I’ll make kolliva, the boiled wheat with raisins, nuts, and honey, for everyone to share afterwards. (One recipe is here .) The wheat represents resurrected life; the nuts (or any seeds) the faith of the grain of mustard seed from the parable Jesus taught; and the honey to sweeten the suffering, because death no longer has power over us. Prayers for the dead are traditional for Eastern Orthodox Christians.
One of the verses from the Akathist Prayer or the Repose of the Departed speaks these healing words:
All who have been taken by the grave in the brightness of youth, who have been pierced on earth with the thorny crown of suffering, all who never saw earthly happiness, do Thou recompense, O Lord, through the compassion of Thine infinite love…. O Lord, receive into the mansions of Paradise youths and maidens who have departed, and vouchsafe them rejoicing at the supper of Thy Son; O Lord, soften the grief of parents over the loss of children; O Lord give rest to all who have no family, those who are alone, who have no one to pray for them, that their sins may vanish in the rays of Thine all-forgiveness.
O Lord of unutterable love, remember Thy servants who have fallen asleep.
Mary took Mary of Egypt as her patron saint (as I did), and so I’ll close with an intercession to this model of repentance and love for God: