Sandy Mershon grew up in a large Catholic family, one of eight children, all brought up in the faith of the Church. She took vows to become a nun with the Sisters of Saint Joseph when she was 18, and with the help of the order she became a high school teacher devoting her life to helping children learn and enjoy history. Finally, conflict within her order, church politics, and doubts about church teachings caused her to leave the order and the Catholic Church. She met John, a professor of geography at Georgia State University who attended a Unitarian church, and they were married one day on their lunch hour by a justice of the peace. Sandy and John came to our Quaker meeting looking for a spiritual home that they could share and became dedicated members involved in the life of the community.
Unlike many Quakers, Sandy was good at giving orders and did not hesitate to let me and other Friends know what she thought was needed. I grew to love her plain speaking and directness, and never doubted her caring honesty. Her first order for me came one day as we sat talking about her struggles with treatment for breast cancer. She asked me about my recovery from the loss of my husband four years earlier and about Bill, a Friend I’d begun dating. I told her about the love and joy I’d found with Bill. Sandy looked at me sternly and said, "Mary Ann, you should marry that man." When I laughed she said, "I’m serious," and let me know this was an order to obey. And I did.
About a year later, the meeting needed a new clerk and I was asked. I declined the offer because I did not have a clear sense of being called by God to this work. At the close of one business meeting where I was acting as presiding clerk, Sandy came up to me looking like Uncle Sam on the Army recruiting poster, pointed her finger at me and said, "Mary Ann, you have to be clerk." I saluted, said, "Yes, sir," and laughed. And she responded with "I’m serious, and I’ll help you." After more prayer and discernment, I decided that Sandy was a messenger, my angel, and her order was as close to a direct call from God as I was likely to get.
Soon after Sandy’s second order to me, she began losing her battle with cancer as it spread throughout her system. During her last two years, I was part of a group of Friends who helped her husband care for her. As options for treatment were exhausted, Sandy gradually accepted and planned for her death. She studied with Buddhist monks to learn detachment and how to make a good death. One Sunday, I sat with her at home during our meeting for worship a few blocks away.
She was failing, but aware of the day and the time of worship. She opened her eyes long enough to give me a stern look and her final order. She said, "Mary Ann, you have to tell them to let me go."
With tears, I took her hand and said, "Okay," but didn’t move. That brought another brief stern look and the order: "Now." I went to meeting and delivered her message through my tears with a trembling voice. I realized how hard it was for me to tell other Friends to let go because I was not ready to let her go, and she knew.
Sandy’s life and death taught me many lessons, some of which I’m still trying to learn. Her clear orders, forceful plain speaking, and firm integrity always came to me as a message of tough love from a wise teacher. She loved and struggled in a place close to God and reminded me that God sends us messages through others. Too often I’m not listening nor ready to hear, and Sandy’s orders always made me pay attention. In her last request—"tell them to let me go"—I realized how strong her love was for our Friends community and how our support during her battle with cancer held her tightly. We needed to hold her with open, caring arms, knowing that we would lose her presence with us. I miss her orders but sometimes have a sense of her spirit still offering direction for this journey.