In mid-July—two months before Hurricane Sandy ripped from trees most of the brightly colored leaves that hadn’t already fallen—the world lost another vibrant presence: Washington Post columnist Bill Raspberry. I was already feeling pensive; I hadn’t stopped pondering a poignant gathering a few weeks earlier at which my cousins Mike and Joyce Batipps commemorated the too-short life of their son Gregory, 20 years after he died in a car crash.
Summer—with its bright days and wafting breezes—is no time for melancholy. Yet August found me still oddly somber, even before I learned that my lovely friend Debra Levy was battling a brutal, out-of-the-blue illness. Weeks later, she died.
Now it’s Thanksgiving weekend. And while I’m thankful for more than I can express, I’ve resented the Black Friday TV ads and early morning darkness that prove summer is as inexplicably gone as my loved ones. Because I’m still remembering…
My coworker Raspberry was past 50 when he first held me spellbound; Gregory was only three. Mounted on a tricycle, he was a curly-haired blur tearing down the hallway of the Manhattan apartment he shared with his proud-to-bursting parents. I was still in my teens during that first visit to Mike’s and Joyce’s sunlit apartment. Yet I was transfixed by this beautiful child’s mix of fearlessness and adorableness, thinking, “This is the kind of little boy I’d like to have someday.”
Raspberry was an established Washington Post columnist by the time I met him in 1993, but there was something charmingly boyish about his manner, something mischievous about the mind that moved as swiftly as Greg’s legs on his three-wheeler. Every time I spoke with Bill, he seemed totally engaged—eyes gleaming, body alert as he questioned and teased me. I wondered: How could one of the nation’s most respected journalists project the enthusiasm of a five-year-old?
I didn’t know Debra well; I met her a few years ago at Rancho La Puerta, the gorgeous Baja California spa to which I’ve escaped to rejuvenate. Spying a 50-ish woman smiling as she walked arm-in-arm with a younger woman clearly her daughter, I found myself smiling, too. There was no faking the warmth radiating from their linked arms and delighted laughter. Introducing myself, I told Debra and her daughter Shira how unusual it was to see an adult mother-daughter pair so loving. When I learned they lived in Silver Spring, we promised to keep in touch. And we did.
Now Autumn has me pondering these people whose loss has left so many bereft. And I’m wondering: Is my reluctance to embrace the shriveled flowers and denuded trees that herald summer’s demise a reaction to the shedding that’s inevitable in our lives? For all its beauty, Fall always comes too soon, insinuating itself when I’m still enraptured by summer’s carefree greenness. It sneaks in when I’m still clinging to the sense of freedom I know I’ll miss when my sundresses and shorts are replaced by wool and down, and icy sidewalks threaten my footing.
Death came too soon for my friends as well. Bill was 76, Debra 59, and Greg only 20, a bright, handsome University of Virginia student who already was fulfilling his childhood promise. Even a comparatively long, full life like Raspberry’s—with its fame, awards and blessing of seeing his children thrive in adulthood—seems too short to those inspired enough by his enthusiasm to have craved decades more of it.
But life goes on. So does the shedding. Just as I was adjusting to Fall’s inevitability, I learned of another passing: Sandra Leek, a childhood friend with whom I’d shared countless giggling phone calls as a preteen. Not again, I thought. Early this year, I’d joined former classmates in praying for Sandra after heart problems put her in a coma. When she miraculously emerged from it in the Spring, I’d sent my best wishes for her continued recovery, learning that she’d become an influential lawyer, advocate and head of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission under two governors.
Now she’s gone, too. It sounds odd to say I’ll miss a woman I hadn’t laid eyes on in decades. But is it any stranger than realizing I’d gotten so busy with memoir-writing and -promoting that I hadn’t talked to Bill for months before he died, or than noting that like everyone who knew Greg, I would forever miss the fine man he seemed sure to become?
Last month at Debra Levy’s memorial service, I was struck by all I’d missed knowing about my departed friend: her trips to 70 countries, her adoration of the yoga that so inspires me, her essentialness to Debra Levy Eldercare Associates, which has for three decades enriched local seniors’ lives. I was unexpectedly roused from my reverie by the reading of an original “prose poem” by Debra’s colleague Susy Elder Murphy:
We enumerate in precise detail our aches and pains, hurts and woes, elevating our misery by its elegant description and careful dissection in mournful, worshiping tones. Middle age. But can we count with the same exactitude the blessings we receive, the number of bones which remain unbroken? Choose to measure the weight of each contented breath against all those unhappy sighs; see not what’s empty but what is full.
Tears streaming, I felt full—of admiration for Murphy’s eloquence, of gratitude for having known these remarkable people at all. And of the realization that it would be wise to slow down, if only to miss less of the miraculous people who are still a valued part of our all-too-precious lives.