Tuesday, March 26, 2013

She Who Had a Why to Live

The last time I saw my friend Elissa - really saw her, before the illness came back - was in December 2011, in Washington, D.C. I was in town to staff a conference put on by the organization I work for (which she also used to work for), & Elissa took time out of her own work/life schedule to attend. When she asked if she could crash with me in my work-paid hotel room, I of course said yes; having Elissa around was a joy, & I felt honored, even, that she'd want to spend the time with me. Unfortunately, my busy schedule while at the conference meant we didn't see much of one another, but we did get a little bit of time to catch up - & when she took off, before I could say goodbye to her, she left behind a package of chocolate-covered Peeps from the Just Born store around the corner & a sweet thank-you note for hosting her.

In February 2012, when I was living in New Hampshire, Elissa emailed to ask me if I had time to spend a free day with her in Boston while she was in town for work, but I had to decline, as I was to be in Israel at that time staffing a Birthright trip. When I think now that I missed the opportunity to spend this one-on-one time with her, even to do something as special as leading a trip to Israel, I feel physically ill. That same week, after Boston, Elissa flew to Atlanta, where she became sick, & then to Chicago, where she checked herself into the hospital - & never left it.

The next time I saw Elissa was in August of 2012 in Chicago, & by that point, she'd already been in the hospital for four months. She was awake but not necessarily alert; she knew I was there & engaged in conversation with me, but mostly, she asked me to talk, & she just listened. I caught her up on all the juicy-but-harmless gossip I could think of, friends' engagements & weddings & new jobs & moves. We talked a little bit about rabbinical school, which she'd been slated to attend that fall - & the fall before - but would have to defer yet again because of her health; Elissa was rarely angry, but I could tell that her continued delay in attending seminary was a tough subject for her to talk about or even think of. We talked about actor & comedian Jeff Garlin, who'd come to visit her in the hospital because he heard she loved Arrested Development, sat in the corner of the room & tried (& succeeded!) to make her laugh for a few hours. When I left her that day, I said I'd try to come back the next - but I didn't. You can bet I'm kicking myself for that now.

Elissa died on Friday of complications originally stemming from Hodgkins Lymphoma; she just couldn't get well again. But to speak of Elissa's illness as though it was the biggest thing about her does a disservice to this remarkable woman who defied all cliches & truly would've gone on to change the world. In her 29 short years on this earth, Elissa did so much more than most of us ever dream of doing, filling her days with kindness & love & a keen sense of what is right. She endeared everyone she met to her personality & her passions, & she fought for social justice in a tangible, change-making way - all while retaining an unrivaled sense of humor.

Yes, Elissa was truly a person unparalleled in humor, compassion, & sense of justice, & as such, there is so much to say about her. I could tell you all about Elissa as social justice hero, because she was - for me, for so many others, for people she never even met. I could tell you all about the incredible things Elissa did for the world, because she did - on reproductive rights, equality, immigration, gun violence prevention, & so many more, she fought hard, made a difference, & would've continued to. I could tell you about what a righteous Jewish woman Elissa was, because it's true, in a sense of the word "righteous" that is almost beyond by comprehension. But someone else can tell you about those things, like in these two beautiful, fitting tributes to Elissa given at her funeral on Sunday. What I want to tell you about is Elissa as my friend, as a humble, down-to-earth person who never sat on any high horse but found a way to relate to every person in a unique way - someone who made you feel special, like you were one of her best friends, even if you were just one of many in a sea of people who loved her.

One of my favorite memories of Elissa is of the time we saw one of the Twilight films together at the Uptown in D.C., neither of us too embarrassed to see it alone but both knowing it would be much more fun together. We silent-laughed throughout most of it, trying hard not to be disrespectful to other viewers by being too loud - & when the movie ended, we both agreed that the Harry Potter preview was the best part of the whole experience (aside from Taylor Lautner's abs, which we both felt creepy about). We walked toward home together in the dark, discussing dating & cancer & how tough it was for her to make the two work with one another; that was the first time - & maybe the only time - Elissa & I ever talked about the possibility of her dying.

I remember the time Elissa avoided attending an event I'd be at because she was wearing my favorite dress - & she was afraid I'd be upset with her. In an email to be titled "Mea culpa," she wrote, "I ask for your forgiveness: I am weak, and too full of admiration for your awesome stylin' self to have not purchased the dress." I laughed & laughed at the absurdity both of my being upset with her &, the idea of us buying the same outfit from a Dress Barn, & we promised to consult each other if ever we planned to wear the dress & might run into each other. We did this so well, in fact, that I can recall zero instances in which we showed up in the same place in the same frock - which feels, in retrospect, like a disappointment, as I know this would've become a cherished photo.

I remember the time Elissa asked Emily & I to teach her about blogging, to help her find a new layout & to make her blog, She Who Has a Why, more accessible to readers so she could most effectively convey her cancer journey with friends & family. I remember the time Elissa read my tweet about fear of an upcoming MRI & offered to attend it with me, allaying so much of my anxiety & reading the then-newly released Babysitters Club prequel while she waited. I remember when she hosted a few of our friends for a small, intimate Rosh HaShanah dinner at her apartment, serving, among other things, the most delicious kugel I've ever tasted - & sending me the recipe to it later. I remember when I was having terrible back pain & Elissa offered me Vicodin from her personal stash. "You have cancer!" I told her, refusing to take them. "Which means I can get more!" she insisted, making me.

I remember excitedly making plans with Elissa to see Newsies on Broadway, as she was one of only two people I know whose love for it rivaled mine, but she was already in the hospital when her ticket date (March 31st of last year) rolled around. I remember staffing these ridiculously draining seminars with her for another Jewish organization, because we couldn't pass up the money but also couldn't really bear to do them, except that they gave us some time together. I remember quoting 30 Rock back & forth in person & by email & on Facebook because neither of us could get enough of Kenneth Parcell or "werewolf bar mitzvah." I remember the way her voice sounded & how easy her laugh was & what a victory it felt like to get it out of her, these happy, loud belly laughs that made everyone else laugh, too.

I remember so many things, but I wish I remembered more because truly, no amount of time with Elissa could ever make up for a lifetime without her.

Rest easy, my dear friend. Let us all be worthy of carrying on your legacy.

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