Our friendship began with my grudging, dutiful invitation to breakfast. It was in 2009. I’d heard that four German girls were touring Ireland and visiting our church Sunday morning, and I knew the right thing would be to ask them to my house for breakfast on Monday. I felt I was too busy, and I didn’t feel like hosting strangers, but it felt like the right thing to do.
God and Ella gave me far more than I deserved at that simple, pretty, dutiful breakfast. I don’t remember remember what food I made that morning—I’m sure it involved folded napkins and coffee—but I remember it only took a few minutes to discover the four ladies were delightful, fun, and gracious. Especially Ella, who was four years younger than me. She and I recognized each other as kindred spirits, and when it was time for them to leave, I didn’t want them to go. Esther was one of the four friends, and now she lives in Canada and I help edit her children’s books, but it was Ella who picked up the friendship right away.
Ella had bought my book, found my email address in it, and started emailing me in the next year. She was an English teacher in a Christian school in Germany, loved young people, loved life and travelling, and loved Jesus. She prayed about everything, and she pursued me and my interests more than I pursued her. I often felt like I was riding on the wave of her exuberance and love and enthusiasm, and it was delightful because usually in a friendship I feel I’m the one with the most words and energy.
I moved to Poland in 2015, and now we were closer neighbors. We brainstormed of ways and places we could spend time together. We emailed epistles to each other, moaning and dramatizing and dreaming and sharing delight about life, our English students, and our different worlds. She sent me Lindt chocolate frogs in hopes that one would turn into a Prince Charming.
We exchanged countless emails and gmail chats, howling around, laughing or groaning or complaining. During one chat in a dark, depressed November week, she suggested I join her in Ukraine for a youth mission conference the next week. “I’ll translate for you! You can meet nice people and see a different part of the world!” I bought tickets the next day, she arranged a ride for me from the Kiev airport, and we were set!
At the missionary conference, Ella forgot to translate most of the time, but we met lovely people and I had a great time in a camp where youth were lectured for hours on the importance of being missionaries. I still have the lesson plan that an English teacher gave me there. Ella explained Ukrainian/Russian Baptist culture, how I can’t pay for hospitality but can give gifts, how the women work so hard and age early, what’s appropriate between single men and women, and what’s expected of an American. Late at night, Ella and I laughed until we cried over my faux pas.
Ella always talked about how much work she had as a teacher to grade papers, prepare lessons, and plan trips for her students whom she loved fiercely. She was equally loyal to her friends for whom she was always planning or hosting bridal showers or special birthday parties, and she would be out of breath about everything she needed to do, plus see after sick family members. She lived at an insane pace, but she was happy that way.
We wanted to go to Russia together. (She’d been born in Kazakstan.) She had family in Moscow whom she frequently visited, and we could take the train. She said it was too dangerous for just us two to go alone, and she had a guy cousin who could accompany us. I checked into tickets but I couldn’t afford the visa. I’m sad I never got to go with her. I was fascinated with her Russian Baptist take on the world, especially her deep distrust of Russian government. She talked about when they visited Kazakstan: “And we all got sick because, you know, the government poisoned the water.”
Ella travelled more than anyone I know. Every year, she led student groups to Pensacola, FL and New York City, plus multiple European cities. When I moved to PA in 2015, we discovered I lived two hours from Ella’s sister Liza and her family in Pittsburgh. Several summers, Ella visited and we’d spend a day together, talking as fast as we could about the art teacher she was in love with at her school, and our broken and stubborn hopes and dreams for romance and what were we going to do with our lives. We always laughed a lot because she was so dramatic and enthusiastic about everything. She gushed and gushed about her English classes and how fun it was to teach The Great Gatsby and she persuaded me try to reading it again. In a magical day with her and her nieces and nephews, I felt like I’d been in Europe again and it was so refreshing.
Summer of 2018
Ella had no space in her hectic life for social media because she prioritized her people in real time and presence. I don’t know how our long-distance friendship survived so well. When we got smart phones, we graduated to voice messages and stopped emailing. We loved the immediacy of voice and video. Again, she was always the one who pursued me, asked how I’m doing, sent me meaningful music videos, and always said she was praying for me.
Then finally, finally, in 2020, after a long on-again, off-again relationship that stretched over the last years, she and the art teacher, Niels, got engaged! She asked me to be her bridesmaid. But of course with the year it was, I couldn’t consider going. During our stay-at-home season, she video called me out of the blue. “I’m trying on my wedding dress in the dress shop, and the sign says to turn off your phone, but I just HAD to call you so you could see this!”
After their wedding, she’d update me on their house renovation, and how long and hard the process was. Then she got a tumor behind her ear, and was in a wreck and needed weeks of therapy. Her life was unravelling, and she’d message to ask for prayer and ask how she could pray for me. She got very sick with covid and suffered from long covid. It was a dark, hard season for her and I felt helpless to help her.
In April 2022, after a long time of covid keeping me from travelling to Europe, I started planning a June trip that would include Ella and Cologne, Germany—her home and her husband whom I’d not met. I also wanted to go to Poland, but I didn’t know if the war in Ukraine would make it unsafe to go. “Oh yes, Poland is so dangerous,” she laughed. “You need to plan to stay in Germany with us the whole time, and not go further east! My brain is exploding with so many ideas for what we could do!”
“We’ll go up to the North Sea where Neils’ family and their church is having a conference, and my in-laws want you to stay with them.” They’re from a closed Brethren group that doesn’t celebrate holidays, but they had a conference over Ascension day, and I was so excited to get in on it. They carefully planned our lodging: Ella and I would share the guest room and Niels insisted he was happy to sleep on the couch. From the North Sea, Niels would go home but Ella and I would train to Berlin for a weekend, where she’d show me her favorite places. She booked a hotel and made our schedule work with her school schedule.
Then: “Would you like to go to Mallorca when you’re here? I have Christian friends there and it’s so beautiful!” That’s why I loved Ella. With her, everything was possible and beautiful and wonderful. She’s one of the few friends who has more superlatives and adjectives than I do. But we couldn’t fit Mallorca into our week’s plan.
On May 20, she voice messaged: “Have you bought your ticket to Warsaw from Berlin? I just got out of the clinic. I have cancer, but we don’t know what kind. It has metastasized. You’re still welcome to come but I don’t know if we can go to Berlin.” She cancelled our Berlin booking, and we decided we’d roll with whatever happens when I got there.
She met with her oncologist June 2, the day I arrived in Cologne. Ella had arranged for a niece to meet me at the train and take me to her family until Ella could come. I loved being immersed in Russian German culture again. They are very special people, so comfortable and hospitable. One niece told me how much Ella raves about The Great Gatsby to her too. I determined again to try to read it. Ella’s diagnosis was grim: she has weeks or months left, and no recommended treatment. We had bread and cheese and tea around the table and talked about heaven and the uncertain summer ahead.
Ella felt fine and wanted to show me her beloved Cologne that evening. She was an enthusiastic tour guide with back stories and experiences at every street corner. She didn’t feel like eating anything but we walked around the old streets at sunset and it was wonderful and we were happy. For just a bit, everything was right with the world and nothing was falling apart.
We stayed with her parents for the night, just outside the city. Ella’s their youngest daughter. She was gracious and happy, but distracted, and we prayed she could sleep well. Her parents had no English, but her dad would greet me with a hearty, sober “Boker tov!” that delighted me. I could understand most of their German: “The table is set for you. We welcome you because you’re God’s child.” Her mom cried to me, saying parents shouldn’t have to bury their children. When I stood in their kitchen and listened in on their Russian conversation, I felt like I’d stepped into a painting.
We weren’t sure how to reconfigure my trip plans since she needed to be with her family now, not sightseeing with me for the next week. Ella matter-of-factly said she’ll buy me a ticket for Ireland. Of course I refused her generous offer, but I was able to get a ticket to fly home to my family in Ireland the next day, which seemed so novel.
For two nights and a full day, Ella and I talked fast, laughed, walked, prayed, sang. She drove us via the scenic route to her house in Gummersbach 40 minutes away. Old German towns are like walking in another world, and she loved sharing the wonder with me. She gave me a tour of their house, and I finally met Niels! We were very in the moment all day, but with some valid distractions. We decided that one of two wonderful things will happen:
- She’ll get better and I’ll come back to Germany and we’ll visit the North Sea and Berlin another time.
- We’ll find each other in heaven and go exploring there.
Niels served us wonderful donor kebabs, Coke, tea, and baklava for our last meal in the sun in their back garden. We laughed a lot. There was so much goodness and sweetness and humor around us and we were here for all of it. I felt that Niels was suffering the most because he was going to lose the most. Ella knew that she had nothing to lose in death, but he knew he was going to be a widower, but wasn’t yet, and it was a terrible place to be. We were in a very thin space, where earth and heaven mingled in startling, sacred ways.
We prayed at the top of the steps and they took me to the train. The ticket machine refused our money, so Ella cajoled the conductor to let me pay on the train. “She’s from America and doesn’t have a ticket. You’ll help her, won’t you?” We hugged quickly and said “See you in a better place!” and the train took me away. Later, the conductor refused to let me pay for the ticket he printed for me.
They waved me off.
At the airport the next morning, the check-in agent informed me that my flight to Dublin was cancelled. I messaged my family to pray for an alternative itinerary then burst into tears. I hadn’t cried while I was with Ella but the whirlwind of change and joy and sorrow made me fragile. When an unhelpful agent finally got a delayed alternative for me, I tried to drown my sorrows with a wonderful coffee and croissant and cried some more.
I had hours to wait for my flight, so I breezed through a duty free shop and this perfume caught my eye. There was just one box left, and it wasn’t expensive, and I liked the fresh but musky scent. Best of all, the name was “Celebrate NOW” and I knew I needed this and would wear it in honor of Ella. I love wearing it!
Over the summer, Ella kept telling me that they’re seeing miracles every day, and the doctors can’t believe she’s not in bed. She sent me a picture of all the hair that fell out one day onto the shower mat, and I cried but she was brave. They got a friend to take their pictures before she lost all her hair. I was in awe again of how Ella’s face exuded joy and vivacity. She glowed at normal times, but in these pictures, she was incandescent.
In the last month, she couldn’t message anymore. Up until then, she’d ask briefly for prayer, and ask how I was. Esther, our mutual friend, put me on the German chat group for updates. I understood very little of the voice messages but I’d swipe the texts, copy it into Google Translate, and follow what was happening. Ella’s friends cared for her, sang, bundled her up and opened the windows when she couldn’t breathe, prayed, laughed, cried. Esther shipped her big harp from Canada, flew to Germany with her baby, and played for Ella for hours. One day this week someone organized a 24-hour prayer chain sign-up sheet and in less than two hours, over 100 people had signed up.
Ella had loved prodigiously, fiercely, shiningly all her 44 years, and everyone wanted to give something back to her. This week her pain was off the charts, her face was gray, and they couldn’t warm her feet. We prayed for her and Niels’ faith to stay strong, and that she could go quickly. This morning she got to go home to Jesus and we are so sad and so glad.