Fighting the good fight …
Singing “We Shall Overcome,” Summer 1967
Back in 1992, I traveled half way across the world for a rambling six-month journey through the Far East and South East Asia.
The trip was seminal in my life at a time when I really needed something of that magnitude to set me straight.
What made it easy in many ways, once I’d actually bought the round-the-world ticket was the blessing of a particular friend who knowing me for a lifetime had quietly urged me to break through my own barriers even if it meant facing a chasm that seemed mighty large indeed. She’d also offered me sanctuary in her home in Texas, one I did not need, but appreciated more than I could ever say.
My friend Geneva and I met when we were twelve.
It was the summer of 1966 and we were both campers at Camp Webatuck–a bright star in the firmament of “red diaper baby” camps that accepted all comers with open arms providing an integrated, non-denominational, non-sectarian oasis in the heady days of the civil rights movement. We became instant friends and in the intervening years between our three fabulous summers together hung out when we could, taking long subway rides between the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I lived and the far reaches of East New York, Brooklyn where Geneva lived.
We also talked on the phone whenever we could–sharing out secrets, our fears, and our love for this or that song or rock star. When we were 13, Geneva introduced me to the music of Laura Nyro–something we have shared ever since, uniting us into a small coterie of New York women of a certain time and place that “got” everything she had to say and more.
In the ensuing years ours has been an odd friendship of close flurries of daily contact interspersed with years of silence until one or the other of us had a eureka moment and dialed the phone or dropped a letter in the mail–as if mid-stream in what has become our lifelong conversation.
Geneva married young and had a son–while I married late and had a daughter. This last also gave us the shared experience of motherhood to link us–“finally,” she was to say.
We’d also both had struggles, illnesses and the like–but Geneva in particular, having become a geologist by trade and moving down to Texas of all places, fought through more it seems with a life threatening surgery that left her a little disabled, but never broken, and in fact had given her the temerity to embrace even more of what life had to offer.
We managed to see each other several years ago when I was able to swing a business trip down to Houston–and to say that joy reigned is to understate the obvious. We’d been communicating ever since with emails, letters and occasional calls — and finally this past Christmas she’d made it back up to Brooklyn to see family and me.
Our day together was great a one, yakking up a storm, eating good food, nosing around bookstores and taking in a movie. To me it meant that nothing had changed in the long arc of our lives as friends as our time together was vintage.
Out of it we planned a trip to Portugal, an entire week walking Lisbon and Faro–two old friends basking in the images we would trade as our eyes feasted on the architecture, art and people we encountered, not to mention the particularities of every bookstore we happened upon.
Geneva, however, won’t be making it.
With her usual understated and competent aplomb she is battling the demon of end-stage lung cancer with little chance to live out the month.
If a life can be said to be a battle where only the fiercest hearts are honorable and true, than Geneva’s course has been the exemplar of such understandings. She has walked her walk with her head held high–pushing back at the injustices of the world to ensure that it can be the sort of place she could be proud of.
As she has put it, “I am a black woman in Texas…what do you think that is like?” Still she perseveres, pushing, fighting, cajoling, talking back to television sets, Huff Post headlines, random conversations she overhears on the street, and the stupidity of narrow thinking she gently goads in the people she calls friends. And then there’s the classic Geneva in the constancy of her refrain: “Just because it says so in the newspaper, doesn’t mean it’s actually true!”
What she never does is complain. Not ever. Not about her spinal surgery that left her unable to turn her neck and in varying degrees of pain, nor about her diabetes or high blood pressure or the myriad of other health issues that plagued her over the years. No, everything has been taken in stride–even when she couldn’t walk along her beloved rocks any more that stand as monuments to the miraculous in the deserts of the southwest.
“My mind is my camera,” she’d say. Her way of acknowledging limitations.
I think now that she had some prescient knowledge that was impelling her to visit places she’d never been — and in their absence to consider the meaning of those places as so many individual strands in the warp and weft of a lifetime.
I’d been thinking a lot about our friendship in the run-up to our trip. We’d spoken a month or so ago about it. Sorting through which places we’d go to and which we wouldn’t. It got me to thinking that our lives are journeys with certain souls joining us with their presence for brief moments, while others manage to ride the bumpy waves of change that make up the complexities of the full ride. That we’d managed to persevere is something impossibly wonderful as she is always a true fellow-traveler who makes my life better every time she says “Hi, this is Geneva.”
Just as she gave me Laura Nyro all those years ago, Geneva is now giving me her death.
She is intoning the rituals of a brave, lovely soul fighting the good fight to her last. Would that any of us could show such grace as we embrace our end.