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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Holly, Allie, and Annie: a salute to dear ones lost too soon

Holly Day Barnett in Trinity Alps of California, circa 1997

          Two weeks before this writing, my buddy Al and I traveled by train to Santa Barbara, California and boarded the boat Conception for a half-week cruise around the Channel Islands.  We slept and ate aboard the boat, while hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking the rugged islands, making friends of the crew and our fellow passengers.  One crew member, particularly, captured all our affections: the 25-year-old Allie, a bright, vivacious deck hand on her first voyage in that capacity, clearly in love with the sea and her opportunity to help others enjoy it as well. 

 

          A few days after our return home, we learned that the Conception's very next cruise had ended in tragedy: all 34 scuba-divers and one crew member perished in a fire that destroyed the boat off Santa Cruz Island.  We anxiously awaited word on which crew member had not survived.  It turned out to be Allie, and we've spent the past several days sharing our stunned disbelief in anguished emails.  How could anyone make sense of this? 

 

          As it turns out, I had the misfortune of having gone through much the same disbelief 20 years earlier, when one of my three daughters was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and died four months later.  Holly also was a much-loved, compelling, lively young woman, 23 years old when we lost her.  A few weeks after her death, well over a hundred people gathered to mark her death and celebrate her life with her family.  Among the spoken tributes, I offered my reflections.  For what it is worth, I here include my remarks at that time, constituting one attempt at coping with the seeming senseless loss of a young person brimming with life.  I preface these remarks with the brief newspaper obituary describing Holly's life:

 

          "Holly Day Barnett, 23, died of cancer in Sacramento on Friday, January 8, 1999, surrounded by her family. Her life, though short, was rich and full. Her passionate engagement in life won her a wide circle of dear friends.

          "Holly moved to Chico with her family when she was one, and spent much time in Bidwell Park growing up, where Salmon Ladder was a favorite spot. She was captain of the Chico High School volleyball team, and selected for All-League honors. During high school she traveled to Hawaii and to Belize, where she enjoyed Scuba diving.

          "At U.C. Santa Cruz Holly majored in Geology and Earth Sciences, waitressing all four years to help put herself through college. Her coursework in water quality topics brought her to the attention of U.S. Geological Survey personnel, and upon graduation in 1997 she secured employment at the U.S.G.S. Sacramento office, where she joined a team of hydrologists studying the movements and effects of pesticides in the North Delta of San Francisco Bay. In September of 1998 she won an award for her work on the project from her colleagues.

          "During college Holly developed a passion for mountain biking, and in the summer of 1998 she added Adventure Races to her busy life. In the High-Tech Adventure Race at Folsom, CA in July, her team placed twelfth out of 165 teams, being the highest-placing nonprofessional team. Holly was the top-finishing athlete from the Sacramento area in the race.

          "Holly's love for the natural world earned her the nickname of 'Hiking Holly' in her family. She especially loved Lassen Park and the Trinity Alps, as well as the coastal areas of Santa Cruz and the Lost Coast.

          "Though she is gone, her family and many friends have been deeply enriched by the gift of her life, and will remember her warm presence gratefully for all their days."

 

          And now this, from the Celebration of Life for Holly Day Barnett, January 23, 1999 in Chico, California.  Remarks of her father: 

          On behalf of Holly's family, we welcome you to this gathering. We're all here to mourn Holly's death and celebrate her life. We envision this to be primarily the celebration part. If your grief is anything like mine, it is beyond words. Beyond words to describe, certainly beyond words to assuage or diminish. So although the mourning will doubtless break through, perhaps frequently, and that's fine, we'll try to concentrate today on celebrating Holly's life.

 

          As we all know, Holly's life was so rich and full, so jam-packed with joy and strength, that her diagnosis of cancer last August seemed particularly surprising and hardly credible. Since many of you here today have asked "What happened?" I will very briefly describe the last four months. 

 

          We were all very confident initially that Holly would just breeze through the treatment and emerge healthy and cured. She was young, strong, positive, and had the support and prayers of hundreds of friends. Even as we learned that her cancer was a particularly aggressive lymphoma, even when the initial chemotherapy didn't take, we all remained confident. This was Holly, after all.

 

          The ensuing radiation therapy apparently destroyed the original tumor in her paranasal sinus. But the cancer had spread to several sites in her body meanwhile. Holly knew that other, alternative treatments were available, and that there were risks to a second-line chemotherapy, but it was her decision that an aggressive, multiplied cancer required an aggressive treatment.

 

          Only two days at home after the treatment, Holly experienced an acute system-wide reaction to the chemotherapy, and we readmitted her to the hospital with multiple organ failure, in addition to the still-spreading cancer. The physicians did not expect her to survive the day. Somehow, on sheer strength and courage, she survived three more weeks. We family members were there the entire time, every day and, towards the end, every night as well.

 

          Finally, on January 7, it became apparent to us that not even Holly could survive much longer. On the advice of her physicians, we withdrew life support. We gathered around her bed when Holly next became alert, reminded her how much we loved her, and told her that she had only a day or two to live. She wept, and said she didn't want to die. She closed her eyes for along moment, then gently nodded. In a surprisingly clear voice, she told us she wanted to be cremated, and her ashes scattered in Bidwell Park, and in the ocean at Santa Cruz.  She named the college roommate to be in charge of this, thinking of her friends to the end.

 

          "It would be good if I didn't have any more pain" she said, and her older sister immediately appointed herself the Angel of Anesthesia, and coordinated with the attending physician to see that it was done. Holly drifted in and out of consciousness for a day and a half, then on Friday evening the 8th, surrounded by family, with neither anger nor fear in her heart, Holly died.  

 

          So. What are we to make of all this? I myself can find no sense, no reason at all, in any of it. All I can do is offer a few observations.

 

          First, Holly died peacefully. And she died well, with courage and grace, just as she had lived. Death, of course, is no surprise. It is natural and inevitable, and comes to us all, sooner or later. It came to Holly a lot sooner than she or we could have imagined. That is very sad, and difficult to accept.

 

          But it strikes me that the timing of death is not nearly so important as the content of the life that death encounters. It's not how long you live, but how well you live. As the comedian Jack Paar put it half a century ago: "The big question is not whether there's life after death; the big question is whether there's life before death."  When we consider how well Holly lived the years given to her, then we have no important cause for regrets.

 

          How would you think about the content of a life? Would you look at love? Holly was steeped in love her whole life. In her youth, her family surrounded her with love.  Not a smothering kind of love (Holly wouldn't take that), but the kind that accepts and encourages. She had an incredibly happy childhood.  Even the divorce of her mother and I couldn't diminish the love of her family. Indeed, Holly often told me that the main effect of our divorce was to add two wonderful step parents to her family.

 

          Then, as Holly's heart matured, she added the love of friends, in high school and then college. She always had a wide circle of dear friends, with whom she shared her life and her love. Between her family and her friends, Holly was immersed in love her whole life, and she gave as good as she got.

 

          Another aspect of a full life, perhaps, is establishing competence in a profession. Holly loved being a hydrologist, loved the work at U.S. Geological Survey in Sacramento. She won not just the hearts of her colleagues, but their respect as well, and last September was the recipient of an award for the quality of her work on the project tracing the flow and effect of pesticides on the North Delta region of San Francisco Bay.

 

          How else might you think about the content of a life? In the intensity of experiencing life? Did you ever know anyone more full of the joy of life than Holly? Anyone who more enthusiastically embraced the good things in life, and worked through the bad things?

 

          Holly lived, day by day, with the same concentration, the same reckless abandon, that she showed on the volleyball court. Or hiking, or mountain biking, or climbing.  Or in parties.  Did you ever know anyone who loved to party more than Holly? 

 

          For Holly, celebrating life with intensity was as natural as breathing. Holly loved adventures, and she had a ton that we heard about, and probably more than a few that her mom and I didn't hear about. Life with Holly was itself an adventure. You found yourself doing things that you couldn't believe you were doing. For example, her last month of life I found myself driving back and forth from Chico to Sacramento in a bright red pickup truck with a prominent sign on the windshield that proclaimed "Girls Kick Ass!"

 

          Another example: in her senior year in high school, I found myself standing beside a silent Holly in a state-jurisdiction courtroom, explaining how my little girl had only drunk one beer in her life, and it happened to be in her hand when the state fish and game warden surprised her group of friends on the shore of Lake Oroville. Usually, a "minor-in-possession" citation is an automatic loss of one's driver's license, but somehow Holly and I walked out of the courtroom with her license intact.

 

          You can imagine how surprised I was to find myself three months later standing beside a silent Holly in a county-jurisdiction courtroom, explaining to a different, county judge how my little girl had only drunk one, maybe two beers in her life, one of which happened to be in her hand when the county deputy surprised her at a party on the outskirts of town several days previous.  That was when Holly and I discovered that county computers didn't talk to state computers, and this judge knew nothing of what had happened three months earlier.  So Holly walked out of that courtroom with her license still intact. 

 

          Knowing Holly, you will not be surprised to hear that a scant six weeks later, I found myself standing in a city-jurisdiction courtroom, before yet another judge.  Explaining how my little girl had only drunk a few beers in her life, one of which happened……  That was the day we discovered that city computers didn't talk to either county or state computers.  Three "minor-in-possession" citations and Holly still had her driver's license, a record which I imagine still stands. And I had seen a lot more courtrooms than I had ever dreamed I would.

 

          Finally: how do we remember Holly? How do we honor her life? We will all do it in our own ways. Here's mine. 

          Laugh much, as Holly laughed much.

          Love much, as Holly loved much. Not just family, but friends as well.

          Get outdoors more. Holly was keenly aware of the beauty, the energy, the grandeur of the natural world. She loved her times in Lassen Park, on the Lost Coast, in the Trinity Alps and the Sierra Nevada, in Hawaii.

          Holly spent a lot of time outdoors, and fairly regularly had a bad case of poison oak.  Although she never said it in so many words, Holly felt that if you didn't get poison oak at least once a year, you just weren't spending enough time outdoors. So I plan to flirt with poison oak more, for Holly.

 

          Each in our own way, for Holly, we can embrace life more intensely.

 

          Holly's life, though short, was rich and full.  She was a blessing to her family, and friends. We will carry her warm presence in our hearts all our days.

 

          Those were my remarks twenty years ago when we lost my daughter. I would only add two more observations.

          First, soon after the celebration of life for Holly, her mother made a pilgrimage to India, to attempt to make some sense of what had happened.  When people there asked her, she described what had happened to her beloved daughter.  And on many occasions, she discovered that her questioner had experienced the same loss.  Losing a young daughter, or son, turned out not to be the freak, unnatural aberration that we had thought it was.  Burying a child, in fact, turns out to be a very familiar, common experience to many parents.  Part of life, like it or not.  Even in the West, it's only been in the 75 years since World War II that we've been sheltered by modern medicine from the experience.  And in the rest of the world, it's common even today. 

 

          This doesn't make it less wrenching, nor diminish the grief. But—knowing that many others share your deep, lasting sorrow is somehow comforting. 

 

          Second, a Taoist master I later met told me that in the Taoist tradition, the cause of death is not fundamentally cancer or heart attacks or accidents. The fundamental cause of death is—birth.  At the moment of birth, all creatures begin their path to death.  To experience one is to guarantee the experience of the other.  The only variable is how much time elapses between the two.  For some, it is days or months.  For others, it is decades or scores of years.  And that duration is not very important, really, compared to other factors.  The important question: is there life, richly-lived, before death? 

 

          We all experience the death of a young daughter, or a young friend, in our own personal ways.  It affects us all differently.  The wrenching death of Charles Darwin's favorite daughter, Annie, in her tenth year ("We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age") completed his journey from a Cambridge student preparing for the Christian ministry to something between an atheist and an agnostic, instead studying the basic processes structuring the natural world.

 

          Twenty years on, I can see how Holly's death has led to my current dedication to travel and time in the natural world, to more nights enjoying starlight and days enjoying swims in Chico Creek and snorkeling off Maui. 

 

          So even as we grieve for Allie and Holly and Annie, we salute their dear lives, we remember them deep in our hearts, and we push on.  To these three ladies this tear-stained blog is dedicated. 

         

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