My friend Jessica Nathanson’s memorial service is being held today, in Minneapolis, at the college where she taught Women’s Studies and ran the Women’s Resource Center. I wish I could be there. It might help me realize that she is gone. It might give me a chance to tell her family how much she will stay with others of us, even distant friends like me.
Jessica and I were fairly close in college, but only irregularly in touch since then. The last time I saw her in person may have been her wedding, over 15 years ago, and I have never met her son, just admired the photos. A few years ago she got breast cancer, and treated it, we thought successfully. It came roaring back, and swept her away on April 5.
What I am remembering about Jess right now: hanging out in our first-year dorm, where we were hallmates. Visiting her in Schenectady in the middle of the long, difficult summer after that year, when I was a counselor at a camp for kids with learning disabilities, and she and her parents rescued me for a weekend at their home. Observing her explorations of paganism and evangelical Christianity with bemusement, but empathy–after all, I was feeling my way towards my adult identity too. Singing with her often during our junior and senior years, Jess on the guitar and teaching me folk songs and others I’d never heard. (When I logged onto my blog this morning, I saw a trackback called “Drops of water turn a mill, singly none,” and remembered with a pang that it was Jess who introduced me to that beautiful anthem. Several years afterwards, I became a UU, found that it was in my new religion’s new hymnal, and felt that I’d come home.) Reconnecting with her when she was a new mom and I was painfully childless, lifted just the same by her joy in her baby boy. Discovering what she had made of her curiosity, sharp intelligence and honesty: a career as a scholarly but down-to-earth feminist, politically sharp and vocal, with a passionate insistence on making room in her and other white feminists’ awareness for the experiences of women of color. Reading her blog, which was courageous and well-written, funny and scrupulously fair.
She was 42, and her son is about 10, and what is hitting me hardest about her death is the thought of his enduring this grief. My daughter’s birth made me feel very strongly that my dying was not an option. The world turns and catches us in the turning, though, without regard to such concerns. I hope Jess and her family reached whatever peace it is possible to reach with the knowledge that she was dying, leaving them, leaving her life far too soon. When we were sitting on her dorm room bed singing those songs, thinking our lives were just beginning, hers had reached its halfway point. I’m glad that she filled those next 21 years with such good work, with so much love.
Jess once wrote vividly about the tenuousness of life and how strange it is to be on the edge of a sorrow, able to go about one’s life while others not far away are enduring inescapable grief. I am feeling that strange mix of loss, fear, guilt, and temporary relief now. As one day, others will feel it upon my death, and perhaps read this and think, “And now she is gone and I remain, until death’s sweep comes closer and brushes me.”
I’m in New Orleans this week, at the other end of a long river from Jessica’s home and the chapel where others will remember her aloud in a few hours. I’ll be looking north this morning, giving thanks for her life, and thinking about what her family, her friends, and the world have lost.