August 19, 2012

Jean Rice, beloved friend

Jean Rice (1946-2006)
in her kitchen on Cape Cod in Sandwich, MA

She had been a radical nun whose lifelong hero (and mine) was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. When Jean died five years ago today, I wrote this post, which I am republishing here. Who she was and how she lived inspire my better instincts daily. And I am missing her. The last winter of her life, fully grasping the implications of her health crisis, she sent her family and friends this message:

Happy Hannukah and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! All celebrations of life and vigor and weakness and being given what we need. Love to you, and thank you for the love you send.
— Jean

When my pal Jean got the diagnosis that would cut short her amazing life, I could not have imagined the rich and varied months still to come. Amazing for her, her family, and for the rest of us. Nor, despite thinking that I knew this human force for good after thirty-plus years' friendship, could I have dreamed that our "palaver" would be uninterrupted — even until weeks before her death. (We long relished the term, palaver, to describe our chattering with abandon on all matters — from the ridiculous to the sublime.)

Our palaver: two examples
I continue to engage in palaver with her. This morning, for example, walking in a park in Tel Aviv, I met a happy puppy named Six ("because he was the sixth in a list of rescued animals from which he was adopted," explained his person). When Six approached my hand to lick it, his person, responding to my question on possible early abuse in the life of Six, explained, "Six shuns conflict. He senses kindness, which attracts him." Aha! A perfectly palaver tail/tale item to share with my pal Jean who devoured evidence of positive energy in a tricky universe.

Another example. Last week, when I learned that my cousin in Jerusalem (who will be Bar Mitzva in December) has begun chemotherapy treatments for leukemia, I almost immediately reshaped this news into a palaver item. Because, in her life and in her dying, Jean, who had been my address on such matters, refused to allow grief to immobilize her or others. And she lent me strength last week, though differently, no less than during her life.

Pals across time and space
Jean was a core friend — fluent in the languages of art, philosophy, literature, elephants, children, friendship, memory, and soul. I so loved and admired her, learned from her, tried to emulate her. Often, she traveled thousands of miles with me — spiritually and in solidarity — to mark, honor, and serve often the least among us whom I sometimes encountered on my journeys.

In our last conversation, on the phone in late July, Jean rushed through her answers to my questions about her mood and situation. She preferred to focus on what she insisted was far more interesting and important: my family in Israel, and how they were holding up given mounting crises in this region.

Jean inspired me to keep moving, to acknowledge my mistakes, and to let them go. I have tried to emulate her ways and stances; the richness of her life rooted in gratitude, generosity, and joy, and filled with laughter and compassion.

Jean's many lives defied losses. Grounded firmly in prosocial values and daily practices, she was ever ready to rethink, restart, and reshape plans and outcomes that were not what she expected, liked, or approved of. She was always rebuilding, firming up, reinforcing, and letting go, beginning anew.

The triumphs of her life are measured not merely by the length of her years, but by the marriage she co-created, the children she co-raised, the stubborn optimism of her life, and her legacy.

Jean's life was a gift and her memory is a blessing.

Related post
Jean Rice Remembered