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.
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.
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.