Archive | January, 2015

In Memoriam

19 Jan


About two months ago—just before Thanksgiving—one of my closest and dearest colleagues died after a lengthy battle with cancer.   For a number of reasons I have not written about her untimely demise on my blog—until now of course.  First, there was my own medical condition and my new PET scan to discuss, which came up shortly after her passing.  Lazily, or selfishly, I figured that since the original purpose of this blog was to share my ongoing health saga with all of you, that topic took precedence over sharing my feelings on the loss of this extraordinary woman.  Perhaps of greater importance, though, until now I wasn’t quite sure what to say about her passing.  I have found so little comfort in my own encounters with loss, and while my religious tradition’s communal response to death provides a wonderful network of support, I find very little in Judaism that directly addresses how individuals can or should process the loss of loved ones. At the very least, those kinds of prophetic and rabbinic insights seem inaccessible to an interested, though undereducated, layperson.  Ultimately, the single most insightful commentary I have heard on loss in the past few months comes not from a rabbi or other sage, but instead from a recent viewing of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  In that musical’s finale, Sondheim reminds us that “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.”  That’s it.  No mystical or holistic reasons for loss, no majestic communion with the Almighty, no useful instructions on how to cope with the passing of a loved one, just a factual assertion that loss exists.

And yet I cannot shake the phrase from my head.  Day after day I sing the passage to myself, partly because of the beauty of Sondheim’s melody, of course, but also because I am beginning to believe there is great wisdom in this simple assertion—sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.  And while this may seem cold, though it is certainly not meant to be, I have come to see that any statement about a person’s passing is inescapably banal. Death is the one act we will all undertake someday.  To be sure, it can be a terrible and frightening thing to consider (it sure messes with my head), but it is also one of the most common events among living things, something we share with every being on the planet.  Plants die. Earthworms die. Dogs, lions, great blue whales…they die. And humans…we die, too.  What matters more, I think, is how we lived, and what that life has meant to those who surround us (I know, trite…but invariably true).  And so while I was first inclined to write about the great nobility and strength my friend demonstrated in her battle with cancer (and believe me, she was incredibly brave), I have come to see that any fitting tribute should recognize what a glorious and blessed coincidence it was that I should meet her in the first place and how, together, we did some really wonderful and meaningful things—actions and projects that have and will continue to have a positive influence on countless young people in Los Angeles and beyond.

While this may seem somewhat Pollyannaish, I can honestly say that it was a miracle my friend and I ever met—one of those everyday miracles we take for granted too often.  Had each of us followed the career paths we had envisioned for ourselves in our young adulthood, there was really no reason my friend and I should ever have met.  She came from a line of successful advertising executives and made a career for herself in that field.   I began my professional life (such as it was) as a singer and actor and had the kind of middling success that enables one to continue to perform for a little bit of money and still less recognition.  Had she continued in advertising, and had I achieved greater success on stage and screen, we never would have met.  But that’s not where life took us.  One day while working on the original ad campaign for the McRib (that’s right…McRib…I shit you not) my friend met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband.  It was love at first sight, he has told me, and apparently she must have felt the same way because the group dinner where they first realized their feelings for each other was arranged by my friend as a way to spend more time with her future husband (something she confessed to later in life).  After a year of long-distance romance—her in Chicago and him in LA—my friend moved to Los Angeles and within a few years was married.  I wound up in Los Angeles in the fall of 1990. My future wife and I came to the city after spending several years working in regional theater in the South.  She found work almost immediately as a scenic artist, and within a few months I had a long-running gig at Universal Studios.

So we were both in LA. Still, our career paths (those of my friend and I) were different and divergent. But parenthood changes everything.  As my friend’s children grew, she took an interest in arts education and developed an extremely successful arts program in her children’s school district. And fatherhood altered my career path, as well.  Over a few years I weaned myself off of show business and studied history, planning to teach the subject in high school.  After a series of twists and turns we both wound up at the Autry National Center, though initially at different times and in different departments  In 2009, though, when I was offered my current position, my soon to be colleague was already one of the most valued employees in our department, and I was about to be her boss.  Kismet!

And yet, as with all great buddy films, we really did not like each other at first.  My colleague was extremely driven, often to the point of being defensive and inflexible, and I, as I so often can be, was very full of myself and what I knew (or thought I knew) about how to run my department.  But within a few weeks, after I had observed her in action, I came to realize that I was fortunate enough to be partnered with a force of nature, an extraordinary educator, a caring and formidable mother, and over time a good, good friend.  As one coworker recently observed, no one who met this person could ever forget her.  She was a small, compact woman bursting with energy.  She had a missionary zeal for creating engaging and educational experiences for students of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. We both believed in the power of education to transform.  We both believed that children rise to the level of content and the expectations placed in front of them.  We both believed in the power of second chances, and we both believed that talented teachers were excited to find new ways to approach tried and true subjects.

My friend took a nascent partnership with eighth grade students at a local magnet school and provided the kind of forethought and scaffolding it required to become one of our more successful and respected programs–an award winning, living history program in which we trained our eighth grade charges to teach younger students (fourth-graders) about the life, labor, class, and gender issues on a 19th century Mexican rancho.  The program was popular, engaging, intellectually rigorous, and of greatest importance convinced students of the importance and excitement of research and teaching. Indeed, oftentimes our program was the only reason some of the poorest performing students bothered to come to school.  The structure and novelty of the project certainly played a role in the students’ love of the program, but I have no doubt that one of the most rewarding parts of their experience was the time they spent with my friend and colleague. She made those kids feel special, important, valuable, competent, and intelligent.  Indeed she made everyone she came into contact with feel that way.

Over our almost five years together, my friend and I took on new projects for the museum.  We partnered with an organization in LA that offers arts education to at risk youth, and my friend played an important role in training their teaching artists and providing support for their classroom teachers.  Together we hired an extraordinary staff of bright young people, many of whom continue to change the lives of the 50,000 or so students we see every year.  And though she had no previous experience in the field, my friend soon became the education lead on all exhibitions relating to the cultures and histories of Native Americans.  I assigned the task to her because I knew that she would immerse herself in the topic with extraordinary depth and passion.  Indeed, after my friend’s passing, I had to notify several members of the local Native community because she had worked so closely with them for so long.

And now she’s gone.  She left us halfway through the wood, with so many things to do and projects to oversee.  I know that she desperately wanted to stick around, and I know, as well, that she would give me a very hard time for the sentimentality (and length) of this post.  And so I will just close by saying that I miss my friend very much, and I hope that, over the coming years, my work will be a positive legacy to her memory.  And I hope, as well, that I will stumble into some new friend on this side of the wood and that we come out the other side together.

As always…stay tuned.