On the brain and in my heart

We had a big storm here last night. At about 4 a.m., the thunder, lightning, wind, and hail woke me just in time to reflect that my friend Nancy took her last breath exactly one year ago at this hour.  Thought I, the gods are angry that she’s gone, and letting us know in no uncertain terms. Roger that.

I wrote this a couple days after she died from complications of Leukemia, after a year of doing battle. I repost it now, in loving memory of a good friend.  

A Remembrance of Nancy A. Jones
January 2, 1952 – December 22, 2011

I first met Nancy sometime in 1980, when she joined Walker Associates Inc in Los Angeles as an interior designer. I had been employed there as a graphic designer for six months or less when she arrived. She became my “girl crush” before she became my friend. (As defined by various internet sources, this is an attraction to qualities one envies or admires in another woman.)

Nancy was physically petite like me, and only one year older. Yet, she displayed an authority beyond her years. She expected her opinions and performance to be valued, and clearly didn’t appreciate it when she felt she was being slighted or ignored. Even when she was all riled up, her righteous indignation was somehow endearing.

Whereas I would spend my first minutes at the office each day putting on my makeup, filing my broken or bitten nails, and trying to make my hair conform to any kind of shape, it seemed to me that Nancy always arrived perfectly put together. Her hair was coiffed in a neat poodle cut, and her polished nails and shoes often coordinated with her clothing. She dressed in a manner both professional and boldly feminine. Lots of color. Nancy wasn’t the only woman at WAI to raise the appearance bar for me. I learned and stepped up my game, but never quite achieved making it look effortless like Nancy. There was a palpable amount of shoe envy going on at WAI among those of us with the XX chromosomes. In the second photo, it is possible that Nancy is casting her eyes downward in a moment of reflection. Equally plausible to me, is that she’s eyeing and coveting Clara Igonda’s shoes.

Right to Left: Clara Igonda, Nancy Jones, Meg Burke, and me. A Walker Associates Party in the early '80s.

Right to Left: Clara Igonda, Nancy Jones, Meg Burke, and me. A Walker Associates party in the ’80s.

Same Walker party. Was it the shoes?

Was it the shoes?

One Thanksgiving weekend in New York City, I survived a killer cold bundled up in Nancy’s fuzzy, 3/4 length coat, which she had loaned me when my own (favorite) coat was stolen from my car in the parking lot at work.

As opinionated as Nancy was in her professional life, she extended her own personal brand of unconditional warmth and acceptance towards me as a friend. Throughout the years—as we’d lose track of one another then reconnect—I received a bit of loving advice from Nancy here and there, but never an ounce of one-upsmanship or judgment. A favor I returned, I like to think. It was the quality of the time we spent together, rather than the quantity. I feel certain that many of Nancy’s friends felt similarly nurtured. The thing I enjoy recalling the most about Nancy was her voice and laughter, and this unique talent she had. She could chuckle and speak whole sentences at the same time.

My favorite story about Nancy:

The project managers at Walker Associates were encouraged to recognize and reward their teams (which typically consisted of the manager, one to two designers and two draftsmen) for their work. One Monday, this story circulated: Nancy’s project manager had taken his team out for a meal and a Friday afternoon sail in a rented sailboat/dinghy at Marina Del Rey. After too much fine drink and food, the manager became incapacitated, unable to pilot the boat. Nancy took command of the situation and with the help of the other designer, sailed the boat, the ailing manager, and two extremely nervous draftsmen safely back into the harbor just as dusk closed in. When pressed, Nancy graciously soft-pedaled her manager’s impairment but confirmed the rest. It intrigued me to learn yet another facet of Nancy. Underneath her toy poodle-miniature pinscher exterior was a less domestic sort of animal altogether. She, of the fire engine-red fingernails and stiletto heels, had grown up rowing summer provisions across a lake to her family’s cabin, and had sailed a sailboat or two. The daughter of a career military man, she could always perform under pressure as required.

Two years ago, I felt inspired to google Nancy then picked up the phone. A somewhat courageous act, considering a half-dozen or more years had elapsed since our last contact. But she sounded genuinely glad to hear from me. That impulse granted me the opportunity to fill in more color between the lines. When Nancy spontaneously shared her high school yearbooks and memories with me, I was so not surprised to learn she’d excelled at just about everything one can excel at in high school, including popularity. I also got to experience the peaceful elegance of the home that Nancy and her husband had Tom built, which reflects so much of Nancy’s taste and style. After years of creating beautiful spaces for others, she’d finally been able to create one for herself.

Eight to nine months after her bone marrow transplant, Nancy and I had lunch together in September 2011, a week before my high school reunion in Los Angeles. We spoke of our shared days at Walker Associates, and tossed around Nancy’s idea for a little pilgrimage we could make to LA together. Nancy was very thin, and she appeared sunburned due to a graft-host reaction. Yet, her personality and spirit seemed undimmed by what she’d undergone over the past year. I never doubted that she would both survive and thrive. I simply couldn’t imagine otherwise.

I will always be grateful that we had that two-hour lunch. Three weeks later she was back at UCSF. A couple weeks before she died, I visited Nancy in the critical care unit and seeing her so changed broke my heart. After she’d passed, though, I came to feel that Nancy had the heart of a tigress and had fought the good fight. If she couldn’t win, at least now she was free. In my mind’s eye, I could picture her ever-rowing (skillfully) across the lake to her family cabin, laughing her inimitable Nancy laugh, wearing a red windbreaker with the wind ruffling her wavy hair.

Although it was a tough ride, I thank her husband, Tom, for allowing her many friends to participate in her final days on this earth through his moving and detailed email updates.

To paraphrase an old proverb: friendship doubles our joy, and divides our grief in half.

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