About a week ago, I was absent-mindedly surfing around late one night and got to thinking about my friend Rebecca. We were great friends when we were both living in DC but then we’d both moved on to other places and other things. I’d kept in touch with her sporadically but our paths hadn’t crossed in quite a while.
The last place I’d known her to be wasn’t really all that far away from me and I was thinking that I should get in touch and see if she had time to meet up some weekend afternoon this fall. When I didn’t find her listed among the faculty members of the university I figured she might be on leave or maybe she had taken a position at a different school and did a search for her name.
The search results puzzled me for a second. It was her, but why was it written in the past tense? I clicked into one, then another, and felt the blood rush from my head. These were obituaries. I did another search. Same results. How was this possible?
I must have read those tributes to her a dozen times each, looking for some indication that this wasn’t real. I couldn’t believe it. I was just going to see if she wanted to meet for coffee and now I was reading that she died in July from pancreatic cancer. She was three years younger than me. I swore it hadn’t been that long since I’d last done a search for her and seen her faculty profile and thought, wow, great for her! I’ll have to send her a note and catch up!
Only I never did send that note. I thought about it but then got busy, as you do, with work, the kids, etc. She’d pursued her PhD and followed her passion and was teaching at a great university. My life, married with two kids, living in a small town, seemed so ordinary compared to what I imagined hers was like. I easily talked myself out of contacting her because I thought, she’ll be busy, she has her academic friends and probably won’t have time.
When I read the obituaries, they all told about her contributions in her field and how talented she was and what a gifted teacher and how much students loved her classes. They were wonderful, beautiful portraits of my friend, and while I certainly recognized her qualities and traits, they all more or less began from the point when our paths diverged.
I’ve spent the days since learning of her death thinking about her and how much I admired her perseverance and passion. There are only a handful of people in my life about whom I can say they did what they always set out to do and Rebecca was one of those people.
I met Rebecca back in the early 90s when she came to DC after graduating college and had an internship at the museum where I worked. The internships were all unpaid so usually our interns either had some scholarship to support themselves or parents who funded their way. But Rebecca was supporting herself so she had taken a job working at the gift shop in the National Air and Space Museum. Have you ever been there? Let me tell you, it takes real dedication to your ideals to spend eight hours a day selling freeze-dried ice cream pouches and pens with the space shuttle floating back and forth to teeming hordes of kids and worn-out parents, so that you can have the opportunity to spend your off days cataloging slides with me in a photographic archive two floors underground.
Rebecca had a great laugh and a beautiful smile. I was always impressed with how well put together she looked. Even though she was just as cash-strapped as I was (more so maybe) she looked much more professional and stylish then I ever will (the picture is proof of this). She was the best whisperer I have ever met. You could be sitting three feet away from her and have no clue that she was carrying on a phone conversation but if you were the person on the other end of the phone, you had no trouble understanding her. Once she moved on to another opportunity at the National Gallery of Art, I didn’t see her as often but we got together outside of work frequently. We had orphans’ Thanksgivings together and we’d meet up for lunch or go grab drinks in the evening. We hung around together often enough that eventually my roommate and one of her roommates started dating.
I remember when she took her first trip to Italy and how excited she was to finally see things she’d only been able to read about. I remember how excited she was for me when I quit my job to go to Europe. A lot of people thought it was a foolish idea but she understood why I felt I had to do it. I went to visit her when she moved on to graduate school at Williams and was struck again by her dedication to her goals. Williams seemed so remote to me but she saw great opportunities and took advantage of everything the program had to offer. But mostly I’ve been thinking about what a great friend she was. I think about her warmth and her support and trust. Once the miles and the months separated us and I saw her less often, we were always able to pick right back up where we left off when we would get together or talk on the phone.
There is never enough time in life for all of the things we want to do. I am so deeply saddened that Rebecca is gone already and that I squandered the chance to see her more often. But as sad as I feel, thinking about her leaves me with a smile on my face. My only consolation, in reading those obituaries, is to know that she really did live her life in color, vibrant color, and that she shared that passion with so many other people. That is how I am going to remember her and I will try to honor her by carrying her spirit of fun and warmth with me and sharing that with others.