A Samba in the Stars

My dear friend, all that is brightness, exuberance, kindness, and joy will forever remind me of you. When I look into the skies tonight, I would not be surprised to see a new star twinkling and shining bright, reflecting the light you left behind in my heart.  FB post in memory of my friend, October 3, 2016

How the passing of a friend with cancer could catch me by surprise is understandable only to those who knew her. Even burdened with a terminal cancer, she was so positive in attitude and so effervescent with life that it seemed a long term possibility, not a short term sentence. I am certain I am not alone in thinking that we all had so much more time, at least many more months if not years. But anyone who has read When Life Becomes Air knows that lung cancer reaches out and extinguishes even the most positive, engaged, and vibrant of individuals. Life’s breath becoming elusive air, indistinguishable from the billions of air molecules around us, is a powerful metaphor for life and death. But as I think of Camille, I think not of ephemeral air but of light. A twinkling of memories; of people touched, of words spoken, of moments shared.

My story of Camille is just that, my story. There are as many stories as there are people in her life, each having their own amusing recollections of things she said, things she did, and ways that she demonstrated her open heart. I think we share one thing, a knowledge of how much she loved and cared about her friends and family, and how often showed it.

I first met Camille decades ago professionally. She was bright, enthusiastic, and an energetic force impossible to ignore. One of my first impressions was of her intelligence as a challenge. She could see so many different approaches to any given problem that it was almost like a diver staring down into the deep from the high board; knowing that committing to any one action could result in anything from a graceful dive to a belly flop, and everything in between. Rather than running impetuously full speed ahead and leaping towards an impending deadline, she paused and considered. To me, the type of diver who runs down the board and unceremoniously executes a cannonball, this hesitation in face of a deadline was an enigma. Admittedly short sighted, all I could see before me was the looming deadline and the fastest route to reach it. A little patience on my part, and we eventually arrived–rushed in the end–but unscathed and usually the better for it.

Camille was intensely interested in everyone and herself intensely interesting. At work we chatted: during work, after work, between work. Soon her coworkers were friends, and many not just friends in the hallways and at the lunch table, but lifelong friends in all aspects of their lives. Friends who relied upon her advice, her compassion, and her understanding, friends who relished her enthusiasm with life and shared their leisure time going places, doing things together, and always, always finding laughter. Being out with Camille was an adventure, one never knew what to expect–what she would do, what she would say–but did expect it would be memorable. My response was typically an eyebrow raised, a jaw dropped, or an untimely burst of laughter, followed by either an incredulous or a chuckling, or a simultaneously incredulous and laughing, “Camille!”

The old-as-the-hills joke we often shared was our almost-sisters story. Sadly, my brother’s wife passed away and after a couple of months she said she would like to meet him for a casual date. My response was, “Camille! It is too soon!” In the months that followed, she casually mentioned it now and again; I repeated my response. Finally I said, “Okay, I will pass on the invitation,” but when I did, I discovered that my brother was already in a committed relationship that eventually resulted in my having a new sister-in-law. Our short-handed route to the punchline was simply her saying, “We should have been sisters” and my saying, “It is too soon, it is too soon, it is too late,” and both of us would dissolve in laughter.

Camille had a love of life and the people in it. Her FB posts were filled with righting social wrongs, helping the helpless, and hope for a better world. She never married or had children, but she shared her love with those who surrounded her and had a family larger than few can claim. Camille officially became a Big Sister to a young women in challenging circumstances; she unofficially became to Big Sister to the other siblings in the family, coworkers in distress, and friends in need. As much as she loved to chatter, there was no better listener when it came to talking about life’s harsher moments. Not only did her friends feel listened to, but understood, cared about, and embraced with all the support she had to offer.

Camille was fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, and she completely embraced and experienced the cultures of Spain and Brazil. An exchange student to Spain in her younger years, she returned when she could and often spoke of her experiences there. Her love of Spain paled in comparison to her love of Brazil, visiting often, befriending Brazilian friends in the States, and attending any and all Brazilian cultural and sporting events. Yes, she loved “the beautiful game” and the only time I have known her to cheer for the opposing side was when US played Brazil (and I suspect she just told me she was rooting for the red, white, and blue while secretly cheering on the other side). I watched the Brazil Olympics while constantly thinking of Camille, knowing how proud she would have been of all the pomp and circumstances they were able to muster. Sadly, I later found out she was hospitalized and had not seen the games, but she was surely with me when Brazil won the gold metal against Germany as she was when Brazil stumbled against Germany in the last World Cup final. In fact, I do not think I ever have or ever will see a game with the Brazilian side without thinking of Camille. As Brazilian as “the beautiful game” is the annual Carnival in Brazil. Camille did not merely see Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, she was in it as a member of a samba school in the Carnival parade. Twice.

She loved so much in life, I would be hard pressed to say what Camille loved most. Opera was near the top of the list, and her knowledge of opera plots, opera performers, and opera productions was astonishing. Days after my father had died, Camille invited me to join a group to see Madam Butterly. Camille and the clock were not always in synch, the clock always seemed to be well ahead of her. That night she drove, and she drove with no time to spare. I was in a massive boot after weeks in a wheel chair and I will never forget clunking as quickly as I could clunk, round and round the spiral of stairs in the opera house to our balcony seats. It was a miracle that I and my massively encased leg settled into the tight seats before the lights went down. At the time I was probably exasperated but what I remember now is how cathartic it was to let Puccini wash over me in my grief, and how glad I was that Camille made it possible.

Not sure I forgive her for a Wagner performance though. The production was monochrome, ranging from white to black with mostly gray in between. The music was about as colorful as the costumes and sets and soon we both had our heads lolling with drool threatening to escape our near snoring mouths. The only color was a greenish character that periodically peeked out from beneath the stage that I dubbed, “the lizard king.” We were laughing about our nodding off and the weird creature at the first intermission. By the second intermission we were hearing people chuckling about “the lizard king” in rows above and below us. Camille could turn even the most somber events into a party, and those around us joined in.

Camille and I started knitting about the same time. We had a group at work who started to bring their projects to work on at the lunch table, and sometimes sneaking them into meetings. I went to my first Stitches West with her, an overwhelming convention hall filled with fibers, yarns, fiber related merchandise, and knitting events. The first time we went, we went dumpster diving in bargain bins and came home with rather questionable purchases. In subsequent years, we egged each other on to the reverse course and come home with dearly priced treasures. One thing we did not come back with was sweater yarn. That was my fault.

I talked Camille and my sister-in-law into joining me for a “teddy bear sweater knitting class,” where the idea was to knit a complete sweater in a teddy bear size. Well unfortunately making a small sweater is conceptually no less difficult than making a full-sized one, and it was a disaster. I sensed my sister-in-law was actually annoyed at me for dragging her into this, but Camille as usual found the humor in it. We had not been knitting that long, and for some reason I became the poster child for how not to do it; every time the teacher wanted to to demonstrate a “do not do this,” for a given step, she stopped by my chair, picked up my work, held it up for the class to see, and pointed out what not to do. Camille thought this was hilarious; she not only found it funny during the class, but we had laughs about for a long time after. One time I mentioned I had a bit of a misunderstanding with a knitting pattern and she said, “You?” in an incredulous voice and we both burst out laughing. Like with many things in my relationship with Camille, this became an oft shared joke and the punchline never got old.

The memories of Camille are swiftly running through my fingers like grains of sand, but in writing this I take solace in grabbing a few grains and saving them, treasuring them. This is my personal story of Camille, but much of it is shared by everyone who knew her: her joy of life, her sense of humor, her laugh, her generosity, her concern for others, her energy, her vivaciousness, her love of family and friends, and all that made her the unique and amazing person she was. I think not of breath becoming air but life becoming light, a new star in the heavens. A star that jiggles, giggles, and twinkles, dancing a brilliant samba in the sky. A light that forever shines.