The calendar is a mystifying tyrant, often conveying the passage of time with mathematics that defy the heart’s reality.  This week She commands me to note that this Friday marks six years since my younger sister Jane died after a long battle with breast cancer.  Six years?  Calendar, are you sure?  I can still hear Jane’s voice as if she dropped by yesterday afternoon.  Just the other day, I had the strangest instinct to call her on the phone.

Sitting on the porch during a welcome break in the summer heat, awash in the soothing fervor of the cicadas, I think for the umpteenth time about where to find grace in the aftermath of devastating loss.  Those thoughts ramble, unauthorized but determined, to a story I heard a few weeks ago.  If you hang out in Nashville longer than about 15 minutes, you are bound to encounter such tales. After 25 years here, I’ve heard this one more than once, but I love it still.  It explains the origin of a classic country song.

High on a hill south of town at a benefit concert I attended with friends, outside under a June evening’s sapphire sky, songwriter Kent Blazy recalled his first meeting with a young and eager singer from Oklahoma who was getting nowhere pitching a song.  The young man came to him for help, saying, “I’ve got this idea for a song that’s been rejected eight or nine times already.”  Blazy indicated with a roll of the eyes he was not encouraged by this news, but he asked what the song was about.  “It’s about telling people you love them before they die,” came the reply.

Well, no wonder, Blazy thought. That’s such a downer; who wants to hear a song about that? Yet something moved him to sit down with this beginner, and they worked out a new iteration that was recorded by the young Oklahoman and released 30 years ago this summer. If Tomorrow Never Comes became the first No. 1 single for the legendary Garth Brooks.

Loving the underdog element of this story and a longtime fan of the beautiful tune, I listened closely again as Blazy performed it.  And I noticed something I hadn’t before. While the lyrics were ultimately crafted to imply a romantic viewpoint, perhaps to get past the label’s bean counters, the core of the original idea remains, clear as a bell in the second stanza.  The refrain we longtime fans can sing from memory goes like this:

“If tomorrow never comes

Will she know how much I loved her

Did I try in every way, to show her every day

That she’s my only one

And if my time on earth were through

And she must face this world without me

Is the love I gave her in the past

Gonna be enough to last,

If tomorrow never comes.”

Then the second stanza moves on to the very personal heartbreak that provided that original, long-ago inspiration for Brooks:

“Cause I’ve lost loved ones in my life

Who never knew how much I loved them

Now I live with the regret

That my true feelings for them never were revealed

So, I made a promise to myself

To say each day how much she means to me

And avoid that circumstance

Where there’s no second chance to tell her how I feel.

And if tomorrow never comes….”

In this verse I hear a tiny glimmer that illuminates gratitude about the circumstances of my sister’s passing.  I had lots of chances to tell her I loved her, many opportunities to show her, especially in her final weeks and months, and some divine guiding hand led me to take many of those.  It is not something for which one can claim credit, but simply be grateful, that the universe conspired to make those things possible.  And knowing this was so does not diminish the deepest sense of loss. It simply migrates it to a form that includes, in the wide spectrum of emotion that is grief, a small grain of peace.

That peace joins with special prayers for those who lose loved ones without warning, robbing them of those vital final chances to say what needs to be said.  And that heartbreak, of course, is what makes the promise Brooks made to himself so deeply important—because none of us can know when tomorrow never comes.

If credit is due to anyone for the inspiration to tell Jane so often in her final months that I loved her, it probably belongs to my father.  His habit of freely expressing his love to his wife and children, not necessarily a routine thing for men of his generation, is likely his greatest legacy. It was a pattern he continued until the final hours of his life, which ended just five months after his youngest daughter left us.  As complicated and challenging a man as he was, I am reminded that of all the standards he and Jane set for living a good life, none may be more important than that one. It’s my job now to pass it along.

“…So, tell that someone that you love

Just what you’re thinking of

If tomorrow never comes.”





It feels like a tragedy, oddly enriched by the flavors of summer:  The man who picks out my cantaloupes is leaving me.

Oh, no, it’s nothing like that.  Were I in a life partnership with that most appealing of all men—he who cooks—such abandonment would spark a different kind of grief.  Ours is a relationship of a different sort. He’s been more like a culinary life consultant, an openly friendly expert available to anyone who chooses to ramble through the doors.  He has been a steadier presence than men who have come and gone from my personal sphere, playing roles of a different sort, in the decades I have known him.  His name is Eric, and I can’t honestly recall if he ever knew mine; the standard, familiar, “Hey, Girl,” was always fine with me.

For as long as I have lived in the area, Eric has cheerfully helped select the fresh need of the day, as years’, then decades, worth of meals, large and small, were offered at my table. On any given Saturday, he might select a melon that will be perfect tomorrow (or whatever day it is needed), or dispense news on anticipated arrival of the local strawberry crop.  He might even advise against grapefruit from certain locations that might not meet the personal high bar.

In his role as a manager of our beloved neighborhood produce market, The Produce Place, Eric advised on the good, the unusual, and the possibly acceptable with candor that became a bedrock of my culinary life.  How devotedly do we love the purveyor who doesn’t just advise what to select, but what to avoid? With a slight cock of the head, a slight, twinkle-eyed grimace, the kindly warning wave of the hand, he might guide me away.  So many years of listening to my questions patiently, knowing what I was after, yielded honesty of the most treasured sort.  “Ummmm, nah, those might be better with shipments in the next couple of weeks,” he might observe. “I’m not sure these we have today are as sweet yet as you might like.”

Suddenly, today, his 25 years as a valued partner of the edible, an entire quarter century of Saturdays when he smiled that, “Hey, girl,” came to an end. Perusing the red-gold hues of the miniature heirloom tomatoes, my hand extended to snare a carton, I heard him tell another customer that today was his last day at the market.  He carried his small grandson through the aisles, dispensing goodbye hugs to regulars like me.  But, but…where are you going, I stammered, unable to conceive that some cardboard-peach-purveying-grocery-behemoth had stolen him out from under us.  I should have known better.

“My wife and I are going to be house parents at a home for disadvantaged boys in Alabama,” he explained, probably for the hundredth time of the morning, before 10 a.m.  “We are so excited. But leaving is hard.  We both loved our jobs, but we’ve been married 25 years, and everyday we’d get up in the morning and go separate directions for nine or 10 hours.  As much as anything, we are excited about working together.”  Even in my instantly sharp sting of loss, this answer does not surprise me. Lucky boys, lucky woman, I think.  And lucky us customers, to have received the gift of this man’s generous kindness, served up alongside bins of local sweet corn, homegrown snap beans, crowder peas, and rosy clingstone peaches.

Thank you for all your help all these years, I mumbled inadequately, as he encircled my shoulders with his strong left arm.  “No, thank you for supporting us all this time,” he answered, hugging firmly.

Unlike another woman in the fruit aisle, I held back tears until I got to the car. There they leaked insistently and ran unabated down my cheeks and neck as I rolled to the next stop on the routine weekend errands. I kept my sunglasses on as I went inside, mopping my cheeks with the heel of a hand.

The store will go on without me, he had consoled, before I left. You know the other guys here, they’ll be around.  He is right, almost certainly.  The owner has expertly evolved in his niche as the years have passed, capitalizing on rising demand for locally grown and organic fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and dairy, and superior prepared foods.  Eric will be gone, but I will be back, relying not just on the one person, but the neighborhood institution and what it represents.

Maybe I’ve reached the age where so many long-time relationships fall away for one reason or the other, and the tally adds up. But tomorrow when I slice into the ruby-red watermelon for my visiting nephew and his family, I know I will think of Eric, surprised still by the pain of loss.  The dripping fruit, loved like the relentless sun and steamy breezes of summer, will remind me again of the surprisingly rich importance of the relationships of everyday life. Even those that may seem narrow in scope may demonstrate a trust and connection more valued than we realize, leaving us to wish we appreciated them more before they were gone.