Not to get all deathy on you…

My version of Heaven would have all the people I ever loved all hanging out together, having as much espresso and red wine as they want, eating Joel Durand’s chocolates until I come around the corner for that final lap, break through the finish line tape, and they all hoist me up and pour Gatorade on me.

Yes, I picture all my dead homies following some great Twitter-feed in the sky of all the people they like to keep tabs on.

This always comes up for me in July, because three of the women who influenced my life deeply died in July. Different years, different reasons, but it’s weird enough that each summer I brace myself and take my mom to all her doctor’s appointments.

I believe whenever something happens in our life that makes a huge impression on us, it comes up over and over again around its anniversary every year…some form of psychic branding. I think that’s why we’re so into our birthdays. Maybe it’s because these three people are on my brain so much in July, but I feel their presence so much more clearly during this month. It makes me happy, almost as though I have them back for a little bit.

So this month, I’ll introduce you to my dead homies.

The first is the one I knew for the shortest period of time: one afternoon, in fact. But she had a profound influence on me. Her name was Katharine Meyer Graham, and she’s the former publisher of the Washington Post.

Born into an affluent family, Kay was destined to be a pampered housewife. But after her husband Phil committed suicide, she stepped up to run the family business, the Post. Guided by Ben Bradlee and Warren Buffett, she led the paper to both editorial and financial glory.

She wrote a pretty amazing book, Personal History, which won a Pulitzer Prize. I read it on a flight to Europe after picking it up in a bargain bin at Border’s. I was a junior in college, and a Journalism major, so I figured I should hear what this chick had to say. But I looked at it as edification, not entertainment.

I was soooooo wrong. She takes clear-eyed stock of her life and how she got through it, and it’s a glimpse into a fascinating mind.

Now, quit rolling your eyes at me. I know reading her book doesn’t make her my homey. About three months after that, I was in a journalism ethics seminar. I was in a new school, older than everyone else, and a single mom. I wasn’t feeling very sure of myself, to put it mildly. But the lessons from her book guided me through some of that rough patch.

So when my teacher said we each should get a speaker to talk to our class about Ethics, I thought, “Of course! Mrs. Graham.” Cause I live near DC, and she lives near DC. We should TOTALLY hang out!”

So I stayed up all night and wrote her a letter about how she was a trailblazer, opening doors for women in Journalism, yadda yadda yadda. But I firmly believe the most important thing I said in that letter was that I would bake her a chocolate cake from scratch. I faxed it off to her office and eagerly waited for a reply. I wanted soooooo badly for it to happen.

I remember waiting in my car for a class to begin, and squeezing my eyes shut and thinking “Please please please please please.” I don’t even know why I wanted it so badly at the time, just that I needed to win one. I needed something good to happen.

The next afternoon, there was a message at my house, from a woman in DC named Evelyn Small. My mom was stoked. “This is it, I know it!” she said.

“Probably someone wants me to sub their Yoga class, mom.” I said, grumpy, cause I was afraid to hope.

But when I called the number, Evelyn answered, “This is Evelyn Small, Katharine Graham’s assistant.”

Once I recovered my voice and stopped stammering, we made arrangements for my class to meet Mrs. Graham and Mrs. Small at the Post printing plant in College Park. I floatd through the next two weeks.

On the decided day, I packed the chocolate cake in a baker’s box, with roses in the corners. I dressed in my new suit to meet my hero.

It was one of those rare moments in life that lived up precisely to my expectations. She spent two hours with the fifteen of us, answering questions and talking about the changing face of Journalism. She called the internet “The electronic threat,” and spoke of how no newspaper was turning a profit in cyberspace yet.

And when it was time to go, she turned to Evelyn and said, in her elegant Vassar voice, “Evelyn, darling. WHERE is my cake? We mustn’t forget my cake.” One of my fondest memories in this life is watching Mrs. Graham walk up the long corridor, holding my cake box, and turning around to wave.

That was in October. In July, she fell at a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. She hit her head and never woke back up. I went to her funeral at the National Cathedral, with thousands of other mourners. I watched YoYo-Ma play the cello, and Henry Kissinger eulogize her, and I thought, Thank you. Thank you for teaching me that sometimes, all you have to do is ask. If you never put it out there, you never get it back. And a little chocolate goes a long way.

Tell me your hero stories, living dead, met or unmet.

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Comments (12)

  1. Reinspired@35 Friday - 11 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    What a wonderful story! I'm a true believer in what you put out will come back to you, good and bad. My hero is living and should for all reasons scientific be dead. This had been the one event in my life that I have question kharma but read this and you will see that good things do come back to good people. Summer 1996, not two months after graduating with her master's in audiology my dear friend collapsed from a massive seizure. Come to find she had a large tumor in her brain. Now, this was the friend that picked my drunk lame ass up in the middle of the night, worked out regularly, ate right, did not drink much if ever, never smoked a day in her life. What f-ing cosmic justice is that I ask you???!?? Well, she was soon to become part of a clinical trial with 35 other people at Duke University to kick this brain tumore in it's bum (as my 5 old is allowed to call it). Ten years later she threw herself a I'm Still Standing party to celebrate her 10 year anniversary of almost dying. She has had complications with the many surgeries, radiation treatments and killed brain cells that have damaged her vision and muscles in her left side. If that isn't enough to be the most inspirational person I know. Yesterday against the odds she delivered via C-section a healthy little boy! Not only is she truly a legend at Duke for still being alive (she is one of 5 in that clinical trial that are still alive), she against some doctors warnings and with some doctors blessings was bound and determined to not leave this world without giving it more life. God bless her and her legacy she is creating!
  2. rockrollmama Friday - 11 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    YES!!!!! Oh I'm so so so so so glad to hear the baby's born and is OK. She does kick so much ass. High five Auntie! Now go check out - new, in Beta, but you'l love it, design girl. xoxo, L
  3. Black Hockey Jesus Friday - 11 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    I always think about you when I read about someone whining about blogrolls & Twitter. I think "Lindsay Maines just dashes off email." Can I be on your blogroll? Yes. Will you follow me on Twitter? Yes. So much easier than long bitchy blog posts. (and don't slap me in the face with the guest thing. I am super freaking swamped Lindsay Maines!!!)
  4. Diane Friday - 11 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    Wow, that is a great story. It's sad that she died so suddenly, but your fond memories help keep her life alive.
  5. rockrollmama Friday - 11 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    Hey BHJ! That's where I learned it.:) I will not slap you in the face...all one can do is ask. One can also say not now, homes, and that is acceptable. It cannot be easy for you to be the new Dooce (go see BHJ on Twitter, you'll know what I mean.) Thanks Diane. I totally need to re-read her book now.
  6. Neil Friday - 11 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    I've read Personal History as well, and that was a fantastic book. I was always fascinated by the Washington Post because of the Watergate scandal, and for many years, Katharine Graham was clearly one of the most powerful women in America. I loved your story!
  7. ThatBrunette Saturday - 12 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    Reflecting on death does not have to be morbid. Your post sounds more like a positive memory and a learning experience. It's always good to pass the positive stuff on. Hmm, I wonder if my MIL has read KG's book. It seems like something she would do.
  8. Mike Saturday - 12 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    Your having three important people die in the same month reminds me of how my mother's sister died on my Mom's birthday. This has put a damper on her birthday, to say the least, but she tries to make it a day of remembrance instead of a sad thing.
  9. heather Sunday - 13 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    July is a hard month for me, too. My grandmother, who was my best friend, passed away in July just 6 days before her birthday. She still inspires me every day, and I named my daughter after her.
  10. rockrollmama Sunday - 13 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    I know that other people think about their dead, too, but it's not a topic that usually comes up with people I know IRL, whether it's because we don't want to make each other sad or whatever. So thank you guys for sharing this, it's really nice in a way to know that others mark those anniversaries in their head year after year. Heather, what a great tribute to your Grandmother. I like to think of my Grandmother hanging out with E in heaven before she was born. :) Mike, that's brave of your mom to turn what could be a really difficult (and I'm sure is) situation into a way to remember her sister on that day. TB: DEFINITELY get it for her! You can't go wrong.
  11. Tiffani Tuesday - 15 / 07 / 2008 Reply
    Terrific story. On my list of would-love-to-meets: Brenda Ueland – "Know that you are talented, original and have something important to say." (From "If You Want to Write) Anne Lamott – "Traveling Mercies" is one of my favorite books. Jon Bon Jovi – Do I need a reason? Brett Favre – See above.
  12. piglet Sunday - 17 / 08 / 2008 Reply
    this is an amazing story, your values shine through and you seem to recognize the important things in life--people that cross our paths and inspire us to do better and be better.

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