In Memoriam

I’ve been think­ing about this post for a long time, and it’s prob­a­bly the hard­est one I’ve ever had to write. The world lost some­one last week. She wasn’t famous, but she was impor­tant. Her name was Rebec­ca Ham­mann.

Rebec­ca, or Bec­ca, as she pre­ferred to be called, will be missed by many peo­ple; I’m clear­ly not alone. There has been an offi­cial obit­u­ary, and there will be memo­r­i­al ser­vices, although I doubt I can attend them. I can’t even begin to sum up a per­son who I haven’t been in touch with on a reg­u­lar basis for a cou­ple of decades; I didn’t know her as an adult as well as I did when she and I were young. I can say that know­ing that we will not meet again seems just as painful as it would have been if we had seen each oth­er reg­u­lar­ly.

We met, back in the late 1970s, at a sum­mer pro­gram called The Walden School, a 5-week pro­gram for kids 9–18 who were inter­est­ed in music, and in par­tic­u­lar, music com­po­si­tion. The Walden School, as it’s web site says, was and is ‘an artist colony for young musi­cians’. The name of the place is from Hen­ry David Thoreau’s Walden, which sug­gest­ed an affin­i­ty with the New Eng­land Tran­scen­den­tal­ists, as well as the idea of retreat to art with­in nature. More recent­ly, when I served on the Board of Direc­tors for the School, we wres­tled with a phrase that sum­ma­rized their approach, which was that at Walden, one could study music as if it were a lan­guage. You learned to under­stand it, as well as ‘speak’ it. As part of their train­ing, all of the stu­dents com­pose, and just about every­thing that they write is per­formed by a com­bi­na­tion of oth­er stu­dents, fac­ul­ty, and pro­fes­sion­al per­form­ers in res­i­dence. When Bec­ca and I were stu­dents, the pro­gram was held in Ver­mont, but since then it has moved to New Hamp­shire. I recent­ly learned with pride, that dur­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion in New York where a cur­rent Walden stu­dent was receiv­ing an award, it was referred to as ‘the renowned Walden School’.

Here’s what the obit­u­ary won’t tell you: Becky (as she was called back then) was no aver­age stu­dent. She had an extra­or­di­nary mind. She was a fine per­former, but not as excep­tion­al as she was a com­pos­er. At the time, we were both study­ing the opus 11 piano works of Arnold Schoen­berg. In par­tic­u­lar, the first of those three pieces, we real­ized, was the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of a Hirschfeld car­i­ca­ture, where instead of pick­ing out ‘Ninas’, one could find tens, per­haps hun­dreds of instances of a 3-note cell: b,g-sharp,g-natural — a falling minor third fol­lowed by a half step. In fact, Schoenberg’s piece of ear­ly atonal­i­ty is not so much hid­ing these cells, but like a body, it is almost entire­ly com­posed of them. Some of the stu­dents wrote a few pieces based on this method of tight con­struc­tion. As an assign­ment, Becky wrote a con­cen­trat­ed gem of a piano piece that I can still play back in my mind. It also was based on a three-note cell, but her’s was c,b-natural,f-sharp, a ris­ing major sev­enth fol­lowed by a falling fourth. The dra­ma of that ini­tial leap, fol­lowed by the small­er leap down, was fol­lowed by a bril­liant inver­sion of the first 3 notes: a,b-flat,e — a falling major sev­enth fol­lowed by a ris­ing aug­ment­ed fourth. Those first 6 notes dis­played her unique sense of musi­cal dra­ma and bal­ance, and along with the fine­ly craft­ed and dra­mat­ic pas­sages that fol­lowed them, won her a BMI (Broad­cast Music Incor­po­rat­ed) prize at the age of 15. The usu­al age for win­ning a prize like that is per­haps mid-twen­ties. Sev­er­al of my teach­ers, Pulitzer prize win­ners and now-famous com­posers won a BMI prize when they were old­er than she was, and many of them didn’t win one at all. I hope to be able to post or point to an online record­ing of the piece. The cas­sette record­ing I had of it is long lost.

Bec­ca and I stayed in touch, main­ly via spo­radic let­ters, on and off until I went away to col­lege. I know that she pur­sued a life in teach­ing, beat back breast can­cer, and adopt­ed an adorable child in Chi­na who is named Lucy. Those items one can find in her obit­u­ary. What it does not tell you is that she remained extra­or­di­nary — How could she not be? She had her seizure while teach­ing Sci­ence class. Despite the fact that she could no longer teach, she insist­ed in com­ing back in to see her class. She brought with her the images from her MRIs that indi­cat­ed the tumor. I believe that she also met with each of her for­mer stu­dents to talk about what death was, how it was a part of liv­ing, etc. In essence, she turned her ill­ness and prog­no­sis into a vehi­cle for learn­ing. Frankly, I’m in awe of such courage and clear-head­ed­ness.

The obit­u­ary also men­tions that when she learned of her diag­no­sis, she imme­di­ate­ly wrote Pres­i­dent-Elect Barack Oba­ma. In fact, her seizure struck just 2 days after the elec­tion. Here is an excerpt from her online diary:

TUESDAY, JANUARY 13, 2009 5:15 PM, CST

When I first found out about the return of my can­cer and that it was ter­mi­nal, one of my first thoughts was to write a let­ter to Oba­ma. Remem­ber, all this began the day after the elec­tion. So I did write one, telling him to use his lead­er­ship to get us to make hard deci­sions. “Your task is daunt­ing. It is not some­thing you can do alone. You will need to con­vince the peo­ple of this coun­try and in this world that they need to and can change. If any­one can do this, it is you. In a cul­ture of lies and con­ve­nience and ease, you have the abil­i­ty to say the truth clear­ly and, I hope, the peo­ple of this coun­try have the will­ing­ness to hear your words.”

I want­ed VERY bad­ly for him to read the let­ter, but every­one knows how hard it is to get a let­ter to the Pres­i­dent him­self. My sis­ter and her hus­band gave it to some­one who gave it to some­one who gave it to his per­son­al sec­re­tary, the per­son who decides what papers go across his desk. Pret­ty darned close.

Then today, I got a let­ter from Oba­ma. It was beau­ti­ful. It feels incred­i­bly good to know he heard me.

Rather than link to her let­ter and his reply (which are online else­where), I’d like to pro­vide them here:

Dear Pres­i­dent-Elect Oba­ma,

For the last year or so I have felt as if the world was falling apart. Our sys­tem is based on buy­ing more than we need, more cheap­ly than the true costs. We believe that we deserve com­fort and ease and mate­r­i­al things that our Earth can not afford to give us. That is why I hoped so much that you would be elect­ed. You bring hope and true lead­er­ship to this coun­try and this world. There is a chance, now, for my two-year-old daugh­ter to live in a world of beau­ty and love instead of the chaos and greed I had begun to imag­ine for her.

She is a glo­ri­ous child, full of life and love and humor and she alone is worth chang­ing the world for. You must not fal­ter. I know in my head that there are mil­lions of chil­dren to pro­tect; even adults who have cre­at­ed this mess are wor­thy. But I must ask you for her in par­tic ular. The day after your elec­tion I learned that I do not have much time. A sev­en-year-old can­cer has spread to my lungs and brain and will pre­vent me from tak­ing part in the changes that must occur. So I am beg­ging you to lead this world with all your heart and mind, to not take the easy path and to nev­er let the rest of us take it either. This is a lot to ask of you, I know. Our entire par­a­digm must shift. Our deci­sions have been based on mate­r­i­al pos­ses­sions and com­forts. Even mine. I just decid­ed a few weeks ago to try to live with­out my own car. I real­ized that I must be part of the solu­tion now before it is too late. But my tiny real­iza­tion must be mag­ni­fied a mil­lion times if it is to save our beau­ti­ful Earth. Our lives must change. We sim­ply can not sus­tain what we are cur­rent­ly doing.

My hope is that you are hon­est and coura­geous enough to lead us in the direc­tion we must go. You have two beau­ti­ful daugh­ters your­self. You know there isn’t a moment to lose.
But your task is daunt­ing. It is not some thing you can do alone. You will need to con­vince the peo­ple of this coun­try and in this world that they need to and can change. If any one can do this, it is you. In a cul­ture of lies and con­ve­nience and ease, you have the abil­i­ty to say the truth clear­ly and, I hope, the peo­ple of this coun­try have the will­ing­ness to hear your words. The changes we must make will require almost over­whelm­ing amounts of courage and hope — and that is what you inspire in us.

My dar­ling Lucy can do with­out most of what we have grown accus­tomed to — the mate­r­i­al pos­ses­sions and the com­forts. But she needs a healthy Earth and a thought­ful self-sac­ri­fic­ing humankind will­ing to act for our future gen­er­a­tions no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult.

Please, from the bot­tom of my heart, don’t give up this fight. If you could meet my daugh­ter Lucy, you would know why you can not. And there are mil­lions of Lucys in this world.

Sin­cere­ly,
Rebec­ca Ham­mann

Obama’s reply:

Dear Rebec­ca,

Thank you for the let ter that you wrote to me on behalf of your daugh­ter. I was moved by your sense of hope and pur­pose.

You described what makes Lucy unique and glo­ri­ous, and then end­ed by say­ing that “there are mil­lions of Lucys in this world.” I was struck by the seem­ing con­tra­dic­tion, but of course it’s true — we all know that there are hun­dreds of mil­lions of chil­dren, and yet each is unique.

Just like you, I try every day to build a bet­ter world for my daugh­ters, and to make sure they are ready to enjoy it — that their per­son­al­i­ties are shaped by love, knowl­edge, com­pas­sion, a sense of hon­or, and the free spir­it that my moth­er always nur­tured in me. While I can’t imag­ine the anguish you feel know­ing that Lucy will grow up with out you, I am pro­found­ly hon­ored to be part of the hope that buoys you today.

You are right to be hope­ful, because our chil­dren face a future of lim­it­less pos­si­bil­i­ty. We know that a sus­tain­able way of life is essen­tial to our chil­dren and grand chil­dren. But beyond that, the quest for sus­tain­abil­i­ty that you described with such elo­quence and pas­sion is inte­gral as well, because it is a pow­er­ful uni­fi­er, moti­vat­ing peo­ples and nations to act in con­cert so that all may ben­e­fit.
I have every con­fi­dence that your daugh­ter will grow up to be a part of this, liv­ing out the prin­ci­ples that have moti­vat­ed you and which will live on with­in her. My heart tells me Lucy will play a part in cre­at­ing the change you and I seek. My faith tells me that you will be smil­ing down on us the whole time.

Sin­cere­ly,
Barack Oba­ma

With Becca’s death last week, two phras­es come to my mind. The first is Shake­speare, from King Lear, when he mourns Cordelia: “Thou’lt come no more, / Nev­er, nev­er, nev­er, nev­er, nev­er.” I will nev­er again hear her unmis­tak­able voice, nev­er again take in those gray-blue eyes, nev­er again kiss her (we kissed once; I thought there would be more but that one was the first and last), she’ll nev­er see the sketch­es I made of a Sym­pho­ny that includ­ed her name (or at least the let­ters E-B-E-C-C-A) worked into it in sev­er­al sec­tions. We’ll nev­er have a reunion where we laugh over my youth­ful crush on her (and how one day she final­ly wrote me a let­ter telling me to light­en up, that I was becom­ing a bit of a pain).

The oth­er is a phrase from one of the Eng­lish trans­la­tions I read of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao is the mys­te­ri­ous female.” Like many young girls, Bec­ca talked soft­ly and mum­bled. Rather than ask her to say a phrase again, the awk­ward, pim­ply ado­les­cent that I was, I would just guess at what she had said. This, plus the com­plex work­ings of her mind, made her a great mys­tery to me, and one can’t but help but love a mys­te­ri­ous female.

Final­ly, as a last word, I want­ed to include one oth­er entry in Becca’s online diary, which also dis­plays, for lack of a bet­ter word, just how extra­or­di­nary she was, to the end:

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2008 1:25 PM, CST

This whole expe­ri­ence is pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent than I would have ever expect­ed. I feel over­whelm­ing­ly lucky. There is so much good­ness around me. I have to say I’ve been kind of down on humans as a species for a while. When we just go about their busi­ness, we take too much from our Earth and each oth­er. We are so often self­ish and cru­el. But when faced with chal­lenge, human beings are a glo­ri­ous thing. We are full of love and strength. Any­thing is pos­si­ble. The thoughts and love com­ing from all of you just proves this. Thank you for shar­ing your thoughts and feel­ings with me!

And it seems clear that this whole expe­ri­ence isn’t real­ly about me. It is about the chal­lenge. The thing that makes us rise up and be what we ought to be. I see those around me do this every­day and it fills my heart with hope. Not for the amount of time I may or may not have, but for all of us.

Bec­ca

7 Replies to “In Memoriam”

  1. What a love­ly post, David. I think the world prob­a­bly is dimin­ished with­out her in it. At the same time, it tru­ly re-chal­lenged me to reflect on where there are oppor­tu­ni­ties for self-sac­ri­fice on my part for the greater good.

  2. I would have loved to have met Rebec­ca. David, I’m sure wher­ev­er she is now, she’s hon­oured you wrote this. I pray that when it’s my time to pass, I can leave the world a bet­ter place like her.

    And a lit­tle more hope­ful too.

  3. Thank you David — for a small oth­er win­dow into our Bec­ca. I don’t know how to bear it with­out her yet. But I hope to learn. Your post light­ened my heart a lit­tle. Thank you.

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