My friend Lillian Champion died today. It’s difficult to be sad, given Lillian’s joyous reunion with her adoring husband Hubert, who died in 2007, and her daughter, Marjorie, who was killed during the 9-11 attack at the Pentagon. So it isn’t so much sadness I feel as just downright loneliness. The storytellers in my life are dying off. My circle of friends is whittling down.
Without question 2017 is going down in my ledger as a harsh year. Yes, there have been good moments – niece Jessica got engaged today to a fella who loves her almost as much as we do – but for the most part, 2017 has been a year of taking. A year of suffering for far too many of my people and even those far-away folks whose names I don’t know.
Lillian and I last spoke a couple of months ago. I tried to go by and visit with her whenever I was back in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia. We never ran out of things to talk about. Lillian Champion had a sharp mind. For many years she worked as a journalist in Pine Mountain. A community she most often referred to as “Chipley”. A published author, Ms. Lillian (as she was called by most everybody) documented the town’s history through a number of feature articles on personalities in the colorful town. You can still buy her book Pine Mountain Reviews: Stories by the Plumber’s Daughter on Amazon.
I first met Ms. Lillian after an article I wrote was showcased in the Columbus-Ledger. I don’t recall exactly what the article was but Lillian sent me an email about the article and shared her own story of the death of her daughter. I made arrangements to go meet Lillian and her husband Hubert on my next trip to Georgia. Our shared landscape of loss formed the background for our friendship. Our work as journalists and storytellers propelled that friendship forward.
It’s an odd thing when you become fully cognizant that every conversation you are having with someone, every moment you spend with them will soon be a cherished memory. I always felt that with Ms. Lillian – that there was never enough time, never enough opportunity for swapping stories. She knew so much about so many. I just wanted to sit with her and glean as much insight about life as she had to offer.
Of course, it probably would require an eternity, given all she knew about her neighbors in that mountain community, given all she knew about Pine Mountain itself. When Mama was sick and dying, I took a weekend to fly back to Georgia to surprise Ms. Lillian for her birthday. Her family was putting on a big shindig. We had a grand time. It seemed like the whole town came out to celebrate the Plumber’s daughter. To be well-loved is a gift that cannot be bought. Ms. Lillian was “Beloved” by all who knew her. She was loved, deep and wide, which is about the best thing any person can hope for come their dying day.
Ms. Lillian was beloved.
I wrote about her numerous times over the years. Here’s a story that I wrote shortly after Hubert died:
The photographer, pushed her long hair off her forehead and placed several contact sheets on the table between us. “I love this couple,” she said, and pointed to an image. “See how he is looking up at her.”
The afternoon light from the expansive windows at Clyde’s Restaurant in Portland, Oregon was fading fast. I held the photos up higher, over a candle, and studied the image of Hubert Champion. His head was turned over his shoulder so that his eyes were fixed on Lillian, his wife. He had a sweet smile, that of a schoolboy’s first undying crush.
“Look at the shot of their hands,” she said. “I love that.” Lillian’s slender fingers clung to the roughness of Hubert’s broad hand. A silk wrap caught in weathered branches. He bore a spattering of age spots, dark as coffee droplets, shimmering under her translucent grasp.But it was that look – one of sheer adoration — that captured me.
“Wholly devoted,” I said. “It’s obvious that they are still so in love with each other.” Which is why Lillian’s recent phone call from the couple’s Georgia home was devastating.
“Hubert’s gone,” she said.
“Ohh, Lillian,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
There was a bad spell, not long after that photo shoot, Hubert got to where he wanted to be in the recliner or in the bed. The cancer was getting the best of him. He never regained his strength after that last round of blood transfusions. Shortly after Hubert’s 94th birthday in early August, the doctor suggested the family move Hubert from the hospital to a nursing home. Lillian refused. When you’ve slept next to someone for 65-and-a-half years, it’s hard to imagine a night without them.
So the physician suggested a hospice facility instead. A lovely place, Lillian said. Well-designed, and the staff incredibly caring. “They took care of the both of us.” They brought in meals so Lillian could stay by Hubert’s side.
Right where she has been ever since the couple first started dating back in the day when she was recruited to play the piano at Bethany Baptist Church at what was then Chipley, Georgia. Hubert was the Sunday School Superintendent. He was 27. She was 19. “Hubert never looked his age, even then,” Lillian said, laughing, recalling the time her brother asked if she was sure Hubert was out of high school.
When Hubert mentioned that maybe they ought to get married, seeing what good friends they had become and all, Lillian was a bit miffed. Hubert was by nature a jovial person. That’s one of the things that attracted her to him, but marriage was a serious matter. She told Hubert to go home and pray about it for a month and then they’d see.
“A whole month?” Hubert protested.
“Yes,” Lillian said. “A whole month.”
Hubert knew going in how strong-headed Lillian could be. She would not even discuss the possibility of marriage until that month was up. Then, she insisted he do the proper thing and ask her father for permission. Hubert was more than happy to oblige.
They married on Dec. 21, 1941, two weeks after Pearl Harbor.Lillian worried that she ought to postpone it, wait to see if Hubert would get drafted. But like his father before him, Hubert was a dairy farmer. There would be no one to run the dairy. He was given an exemption.
Being a dairy farmer isn’t that much different than being a soldier. You have to get up before dawn, yank out a few dozen chores by the time the rooster crows, tend to crap all day long, all the while someone is chawing directly in your ear, only to fall into bed exhausted, and do it all over again the next day.
It seemed such a blessing when electric milking pumps finally came to the mountain. That is till the day when Hubert, unaware of the early morning storm, had a dozen or so of his best milkers hooked up. When lightening struck the line, all of his cows collapsed. Fell to their knees and keeled over – all in the same breath. Hubert gasped. He thought he’d lost his cream-and-butter. He liked to have cried from sheer relief when one of his heifers let out a bellow. It wasn’t long before those Lazarus cows were all back on their feet, still milking.
The dairy has been gone for sometime now but the pecan trees that Hubert and Lillian planted decades ago remain. Rooted in the same love and devotion that held this couple steady even after their beloved and only daughter, Marjorie Champion Salamone, was killed during the Pentagon attack on 9-11.
Ninety-four sounds old, but when you’re the one doing the dying there’s so much unfinished living yet to do. Hubert sorely wanted to be at the Pentagon for the dedication of the memorial, to see Marjorie’s name etched in something besides a headstone. He told Lillian he hoped he’d live to be a 100.
Six years, six weeks, six days, or six minutes — grief does not abide by a stop watch. Her son, Richard, does his darndest to ease his mother’s empty hours, but memory is Lillian’s daily companion now.
She was sitting beside her husband in those last minutes.
“Hubert was snoring. Then he stopped. I waited for him to start again, but he never did.” He lay motionless, his head turned over his shoulder. Even in death, Hubert was staring wide-eyed at the woman everyone, anyone, could see was the love of his life.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the forthcoming book CHRISTIAN BEND: A Novel (MUPress). She is currently at work on her ninth book.