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Simple Life

Where Does the Light Go?

Reflections on a beloved friend’s passing — and growing older

By Jim Dodson

In an early time, according to the late Irish bard and spiritual thinker John O’Donohue, Medieval mystics loved to pose the beguiling question: Where does the light go when the candle is blown out?

I couldn’t help but think of this conundrum one recent Saturday morning as I sat in a pew of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta, having taken a redeye flight from Los Angeles in order to attend a dear friend’s funeral service.

Celetta Randolph Jones — Randy  as she was affectionately known by hundreds, if not thousands of people — was one of my oldest and closest friends. She walked into my life in 1977 at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution two days after I arrived at the oldest Sunday magazine in the nation. Editor Andy Sparks believed we needed to meet because we were both single, students of American history and Randy knew the city like the back of her most elegant hand.

I’d just turned 24, a wide-eyed bumpkin from North Carolina. Randy was almost 30, the sophisticated media officer of The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. I think perhaps Editor Sparks believed sparks might fly between us, which they did. Just not the kind he envisioned.

We discovered instead a friendship for the ages. During my nearly seven years in Atlanta, Randy became my frequent dinner companion during which no subject was out of bounds — God, politics, my literary ambitions and her string of colorful boyfriends who could never keep up with her. 

By the time my career carried me off to New England, Randy had started her own public relations firm and was quickly becoming a megastar representing the likes of Coca-Cola, British Airways and dozens of other A-list regional and international clients. Despite the distance, our friendship only deepened and grew. When my daughter, Maggie, was born in 1989, Randy, who never married, was delighted to become my daughter’s godmother. She came to New England and North Carolina many times for holidays and family occasions, and I never failed to stay with her whenever I passed through Atlanta. She truly was one of the great lights — and gifts — of my life.

It was lovely to learn from the words of remembrance from her adoring brothers, Harry and Powell Jones, that “Aunt Randy” actually had a dozen or more godchildren she faithfully lavished attention and wisdom upon over the decades, even after a freakish illness destroyed her immune system and forced her to sell her thriving company. She moved to a high rise apartment in Atlanta’s Four Seasons Hotel where she became a tireless fundraiser for Emory University Hospital, The Woodruff Arts Center, her church and many other charities. According to brother Harry, everyone in the building, from the hotel doorman to her neighbor, Charles Barkley, considered Randy their best friend. Her generosity to friends and strangers alike knew no bounds.

I saw Randy a month or so before she passed away. She was frail but mentally vibrant and connected to people as ever, wanting to hear about my latest book project and her goddaughter’s life in L.A. We sat together for almost two hours. When I got up to go and bent to kiss her cheek, she remarked, with her wonderful, sultry, deep Georgia accent, “We have traveled pretty far together, haven’t we?”

“And we’re not done,” I replied. “You helped light the way.”

She patted my hand. “Don’t worry. That light will never go out.”

I think she knew we would never see each other again in this world. But had no doubt whatsoever about the next.

So where does the light go when the flame is blown out?  I’ll leave that debate to the Medieval mystics and take my friend Randy at her word that the light will never go out.

The passing of one you love, however, inevitably calls up thoughts of your own brief mortality.

This month, with not a lot of fanfare, I reach my Biblically proscribed threescore years and ten, a phrase popularized by Psalm 90, which was read at Randy’s service. Seventy was considered a ripe old life in ancient times.

Fortunately, I have two best buddies — Patrick and Joe — who are also reaching 70 around the same time I am: Joe in January, Patrick in March. At our regular luncheons of the Stuffed Potato Philosophy & Adventure Club, we often talk about how pleased we are to be “older” dudes who are still working at jobs we love and appreciating life more than ever. True, body parts don’t work as fluidly as they once did, but it’s amazing what we never worry about anymore, including death, taxes, career ups and downs, and the inevitability of growing older. This spring, Patrick and I plan to celebrate 58 years of playing golf together in America and Britain by setting off for a final roving match across Ireland, Scotland and England for perpetual bragging rights. Our legs may grow weary, but, I assure you, not our spirits.

A recent study shows that we are not alone, revealing that the vast majority of older Americans are as happy — and busy — as they have ever been in American society. As anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite recently pointed out in her outstanding TED Talk, older people tend to become more optimistic as they age, worry far less than younger folks, and really only have two things to be concerned about — that someday the people you love will die, and that parts of your body will eventually quit working. Fear of death doesn’t even make the list. Remaining open to new adventures and connected to people turns out to be a path for a long and meaningful life. Applewhite calls it the U-Curve of Happiness.

Was it simply the hand of sweet synchronicity that I happened to hear her inspiring TED Talk on the radio during the long drive home to North Carolina following Randy’s memorial service, or maybe something only a mystic could explain?

I’ll probably never know. But in the meantime, I’ll happily follow the flame wherever it leads next.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.