Last Monday I saw three children laughing to high heaven in the playground of the church that houses the Columbia Road Children's Center. One of the kids was black, one white, and one Hispanic. Their faces were alive with joy, and I knew that they had been touched by the love of my friend Bobbie Chambers, that somehow her spirit had graced them on that bright sunshiny day.
Bobbie had an enormous capacity to give and to love, and it was through her love of children that she taught me something about a social vision -- having one and acting on it.
We had first met in the late 1960s, two women with opposite backgrounds but similar passions for justice and tolerance. Bobbie was born to moderate wealth and went to a fancy women's college. I was a southerner raised in genteel poverty -- rich with education and culture, meager in money. Her sense of justice was shaped by Jewish roots; mine was formed by the black experience. From the time we met, I knew that Bobbie was the genuine article.
And the Columbia Road Children's Center, the school where Bobbie had once served as director, was her vision of how the world should be: culturally pluralistic, respectful of the individual worth of every soul. When I looked at that school last Monday, when I watched those three kids share the euphoria of the moment, I wanted to thank Bobbie for doing so much to make her vision a reality for so many people.
But I couldn't thank her. They had buried Bobbie that morning on a hillside in Maryland. She was 40. She died of cancer.
Bobbie learned she had cancer in 1978, at a time when she was training for a new career as a psychotherapist. The tragedy of the dreadful disease was doubled because of her extraordinary zest for life. For four years she tried to deal with her mortality, her fear of dying. She began to keep a journal, a vivid, insightful record of the great contradiction between the beauty that she saw around her and her own confrontation with personal nothingness, her search for the courage not to be.
August 20, 1978: At the farm I have found that I can accept death. On the Vineyard I find that I wish for immortality.
Yesterday I watched two old people at the vegetable stand in West Tisbury selecting herbs one by one, a few mushrooms, laughing over the paucity of the choice. I wondered if they still made love. Smiles deepened the creases around their eyes. Her body was still tall and strong. Amazon like, unbreakable it seemed. A heavy paunch girded his belt and overflowed and yet I envied him as well and wondered if their thoughts raced alike, like mine, from mushrooms to sex.
May 23, 1979: The Catacombs, Rome, Italy. Today I descended them. What did I expect?...Graves, covered, neat, flowered, silent. But not skeletons, bones, writing, signs of the Christian passovers, walkways that once were open for public use. This was a message to me. People once ate and drank at the site of the dearly buried ones. Life and death comingled in aching proximity. Suddenly I saw the continuum. From them to me. I knew that we die. The flash of truth was everywhere . . .
Anxiety laid its head down. Sadness stilled. For one moment I had found what I had come for, the courage not to be.
A few months ago, Bobbie left the hospital and went home to die. Even in dying, she was still giving to those who knew and loved her. She had a paid nurse for only one week. After that, dozens of friends came in shifts to help the family care for her.
The sun shone brilliantly when her friends of all backgrounds gathered on the hillside to say their last goodbyes and to celebrate her life. A Spanish man in a pigtail said Bobbie taught him to be strong and to respect his own culture.
Then, as their two children stood beside him, Bobbie's husband Reid said: "The first thing Bobbie and I -- and our children -- want to say to this group is 'Thank you.'" And so he celebrated a person with a vision, a person "with a vital smile that could melt icebergs," a person who in life -- and in death -- was fulfilled.