Remembering Rebecca

 
 


REBECCA NAHAS ABBOTT

 

Words from her husband James, at her wake on October 8, 2009


Just three months ago, many of you were here in Omaha to hear Rebecca speak eloquently from her heart about her mother, who had died at the age of 94.  Rebecca was, as always, poised, passionate, and full of love.  I will try to do half as well today, remembering her, as she did then, remembering her mother. 


As I began to think about what I would say here today, the thought came to mind: what if we had known when she spoke of her mom that we would be here today for this shocking purpose? Would it have been better to know?  I am sure not.  It is better that we lived those three months full of hope and confidence and zest for life, not withered into fear and resignation, or frozen by an impending loss.  In fact, we did have joy and hope and love, for it was Rebecca's loving and fighting spirit that guided us through those three short months.  She guided us then, Margaret, Griff and me -- and many of you, and she will guide you and me in the future.  She set an example of courage and faith that taught me much.


I know I am here with loved ones -- people Rebecca loved and who loved her in return.  So I know you will allow me to speak intimately of the love we had.  I have no perfect offering today, only my true love and a raw pang from great loss.  For what makes this so hard for me today is how very good things were for me through seventeen years of love.


I've been hearing a lot from Rebecca lately. 


She is with me every day, and always will be.  For example, she is saying to me now: "How could you possibly have been so silly as to schedule this event at the same time as a Nebraska Cornhusker's game!?"  She would be hard pressed to decide which to attend or view.  Please forgive us, sweetie! 


More seriously -- if that is possible -- let me tell you a story from the first of my days alone in our house after Rebecca left us.  It is a house filled with memories.  I was walking past the lovely, tall, elegant grandfather clock that Rebecca had in her place in Washington DC when I first met her.  It had worked perfectly back east, but when we moved it out here, it stopped working properly, and then stopped working at all about eight years ago.  So, for the last eight years it has stood silently in our dining room, an ornament only.  As I walked by it, I thought to myself, "perhaps I should move that out."   It was a passing thought, and meant nothing until about an hour later, when the clock struck twelve long, loud chimes -- the first sound from it in eight years.  The hair on my arms stood up stiff, and I whispered at once, "don't worry sweetie, I won't ever get rid of the clock."  And now, there is no doubt that I will never, ever, part with it, because she speaks to me through it on every quarter hour.


Another story, another visit from Rebecca:  One of our two cats, the male cat named Mister, always was Rebecca's, and Rebecca's alone.  He was in Rebecca's thrall, but if I was home alone, he was not to be seen or heard, hiding from me as if I was a monster.  This was true throughout Rebecca's last month in the hospital, as it had been before.  But when Margaret, Griff and I came limping home in the pre-dawn hours after Rebecca left us, and crept quietly into the now desperately lonely house, Mister rushed from his hiding place place crying loudly and insistently, and coming up to touch not only Margaret, his owner's sister, but me and Griff as well.  It was as if Rebecca had told him what had happened and how he would now have to change his ways.  He seemed to know what had just happened, and he was heartbroken.


You all know Rebecca's achievements.  She was an actor, a writer, an entrepreneur --  and at her core, and throughout all her other ventures, an artist -- an artist with her eyes and with her heart.  We lost much great work that was to come when we lost her, but I -- we -- have lost much, much more.  I have lost my very best friend, my lover, my teacher and my cheerleader.


Rebecca was my best friend -- my very best friend ever.  I saw life through the prism of her heart and mind.  We lived together "24/7" in the modern parlance, and although actually it was more like 18/7, we were joined at the hip, living all our waking hours working and playing together in harmony.  It is no wonder, then, that I feel such a gaping hole in my life.  Not only do I miss the simple words "Good Morning!" that came from her every single morning with such natural enthusiasm, filled with zest for the new day and love of me and her life.  How that buoyed me each morning.  It was always followed by that sweet smile that we all must treasure now in our memories.  And I was the one lucky enough to have it each morning for 17 years.  But now, when I turn to comment to her, to joke or to tease...she is not there.


Rebecca was my lover.  To tell you briefly about this, I will just paraphrase Leonard Cohen, the poet and songwriter who moved both of us:  I still see her undressing for me -- a soft, naked lady, as love meant her to be -- moving her body so brave and so free.  And, although I am now left only with the memory, I can assure you that it is a fine, fine memory.


Rebecca was my teacher.  Each morning this summer, AFTER her relapse had been diagnosed, she stepped out onto our front porch in Dundee and sang out loud.  The song she sang was "Oh what a beautiful morning," and the phrase that always took my breath away was "everything's going my way."  The courage and hopefulness that she exuded was something to learn from, and it continued until the end.  I learned and learned, and am still learning from how she dealt with this challenge.  Her heart was always filled with kindness and generosity and was guided by a deep and abiding faith in God.  Even when we traveled, she did not relax on Sunday until we found a Catholic church so she could attend mass.  She taught me the true value of faith in many ways, but none was as clear as the story I will tell you now:


It was perhaps two days before the end.  Rebecca's heartbeat had jumped alarmingly to 180 beats per minute, and it was erratic.  I asked that Father Lewis be called, and he appeared quickly.  Rebecca recognized him and followed his every word as he said two prayers for her.  As he spoke, Margaret, Griff and I watched with growing amazement as her heart steadily slowed to a more normal 125, and stopped behaving erratically.  After the prayers, her heartbeat never again rose to scare us.  Her deep faith had comforted and sustained her.  It comforted me as well, for I saw how well it served her, and I am jealous of that faith.


She also taught me things like humility: I played scrabble with her.  I watched her do a crossword puzzle.  But above all she taught me the value of optimism and a positive outlook on life.  She was filled with the spirit of adventure -- but it did have limits.  Only days after I met her, I invited her on a trip to Maine -- a trip to Maine in January!  She said yes at once, but then paused, and shyly but firmly asked:  "You're not a camper are you?"  My sweet Rebecca was, and always will be, a lady.  And as a lady, she was the ultimate hostess.  She got this from her mother. Just about everyone here has felt the warmth of her welcome, and she would have loved this gathering.  There was nothing she loved as much as to have friends and family gathered.  We ordered extra food for the lunch tomorrow, because she would have insisted that we have too much, and never, never too little.


Let me tell you a little about what Rebecca loved, and what I know she will miss.  She loved her family.  She loved them with an unequivocal and undying love, and they were always first in her mind.  She loves them all still, and always will.  She loved her father George and her sister Margaret and each one of her nieces and nephews.  She loved her mother Mary and her sister Nancy, remembering them each day, even when they were gone.  But Rebecca had other loves as well.  She loved her kitties, Missy and Mister.  She was not a cat person when I first met her, but eight years ago, in a burst of typical generosity, she presented me -- a lifelong cat lover -- with a birthday gift: our kitties.  Like so many acts of pure generosity, this one rewarded the giver as well as the receiver.  Rebecca fell deeply in love with her kitties and they added warmth and love to each of her days.  She will miss them.  Finally, she loved me -- lucky, lucky, lucky me.  She loved all of us without reserve, 10 out of 10, and for me it was a gift that changed my life, immeasurably for the better.


But if she loved us 10, she loved all of you 9!  She was a fountain of love.  She loved Vicki and Gabriel and their beautiful family. She loved the staff at the Nebraska Medical Center, who were awed by her strength, her cheer, and her resolve.  So many there remarked to me how special, how unique, she was.  And she loved her newly expanded family -- my cousins -- family that she finally found this spring when we hosted a family reunion in our place in Maine.  It thrilled her to have more family and it was her love of family that inspired the gathering -- a gathering for which I am now so very grateful.  The bond was so quick and strong that even though they only had the chance to be with her for about 48 hours, two of my cousins came all the way from New England  to be here with us today.


Let me tell you something very intimate.  Shortly after we married, Rebecca and I struggled to have a child.  It was hard, for we met late in life: I was 49 and she was 46.  We needed help, and we sought it from experts at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  There, to obtain my contribution to the effort, they sent me to a small private room with dirty pictures.  Rebecca giggled at how quickly I returned, having been successful at producing what was needed.  But it was not to be.  So instead, we nurtured other things.  There was our small, adventurous, and at first excitingly successful, internet sports game company.  She was so brave;  I could not have had a better partner.  But it also was not to be.


Then came our art.  When we shifted focus some years ago, and immersed ourselves entirely in the creation of art, Rebecca blossomed.  She had expressed her creative side in almost every other medium, and the world of imagery came naturally to her.  She was fueled by eyes that loved beauty and a mind that demanded perfection.  I think even better work was yet to come, as some of her last pieces had a new mystical tone that I was eager to watch develop.  But we will have to imagine it.  Nonetheless, she left a legacy of beauty.


Finally, there was our cottage on the coast of Maine.  We created it, and nested in it, together.  It fulfilled a childhood dream of mine, and Rebecca knew that, and loved that she helped make it come true.  When she was in the hospital for the last time, I brought her pictures, and she looked at them lovingly, saying rather wistfully, "I hope I see it again.  It is your greatest work."  Of course I assured her she would see it, but I was wrong.  So was she.  It was not MY greatest work, it is OUR greatest work, and she WILL see it again.  She will see it in every moment that I see it.  She will be there by my side, on my shoulder.  I know it.


I want her back.  In every moment of every day, I want her back.  Forgive me, but I even miss the last weeks in the hospital.  She was, as so many of you know, strong and cheerful right up to the end, and at least then I could do something for her.  But no, I am not that selfish.  I do not wish her back inside that world of struggle.  I'll take her back as she is now -- as my lifelong friend and helpmate -- and I am certain I will have her.


One last intimacy to share:  Each time that Rebecca and I had to part for a while, as on a trip, we would play two small games.  In the first the object was always, always to remember to say "have a safe trip."  In the second, the object was to be the last person to wave goodbye.  No matter how far apart we had gotten, at the airport, or in the alley from the driveway at home, each of us always looked back and waved again and again.  The games were built on a foundation of mutual love and respect and concern and we always ended these games in a tie.  I know that now she wishes each one of us a safe trip, and I know that Rebecca and I will never stop playing our games, but in a new way.  Yet now, regrettably, I get the last word. 


[James says "have a safe trip, my sweet lover," as he waves goodbye to Rebecca's resting body.  Eulogy ends.]


Afterthoughts


Above were my remarks at the wake on the evening of October 8th.  My notes included (but I failed to mention) one other game we played often, and of which we never tired.  I would say "I love you," and she would reply, "I love you more."  Then, of course, there would be my trump, then hers.  This game, I feel certain, we still are playing.


Another memory, one that surged back two weeks after she left and made me weep for not remembering it in time for the service:  We were in New York, at a small restaurant in Soho.  We had been together for perhaps three years.  It was mid-afternoon and we were relaxing in a quiet room lit only by a skylight from above.  There was a pause in our conversation, and we caught each other's eyes.  Simultaneously and spontaneously, we each began to cry.  And we each knew, without asking, that the other was weeping for the same reason: that with the other we had found happiness at last.