I fear the ghost of Nancy Redwine.
Not that Nancy – my friend and former Sentinel colleague who died last week – was ever a particularly scary person. But if I were to sit down and write about her “life-affirming soul” and her “courageous fight against cancer,” she would, sure as I’m sitting here, take the next ghost train to my subconscious and mock me until I begged for forgiveness.
Knowing Nancy, though, she wouldn’t moan and whisper and drag chains around in the middle of the night. Instead, she would haunt me by appearing in the passenger seat of my car in ugly Highway 1 traffic so I couldn’t get away, and then recite every cliché I’d ever put in my writing. It chills me just thinking about it.
Those of us who knew and loved Nancy are hurting right now. There’s no spinning that. She died at 50, having dealt with stage-4 cancer for years, and no one in her circle is in the mood for laughing these days.
But I want you know this about Nancy Redwine – she was funny. Not only that, but she had a deep connection with smart, dark, self-deprecating adult humor. And we shouldn’t forget that.
I worked alongside Nancy for several years in the features department at the Sentinel, and she wrote about much of the same people and subjects as I wrote about. She had what I might call a “journalist’s soul.” That it is to say, she always able to reflect, even share people’s passions without “signing the petition.” It’s the kind of fine line we all walk in this business – to be engaging and genuine with people while maintaining the kind of skepticism that is the mark of a healthy mind, and not tripping over into cynicism. Nancy not only walked that line, she danced it.
My buddy Dan Fitch, who knew Nancy about as well as anyone, told me that on her 50th birthday back in April, he gave her a quote he’d found from the novelist Nick Hornby. It was a quote that Dan believed captured Nancy perfectly: “Sarcasm and compassion are two of the things that make life worth living.”
“With her going through cancer,” said Jill Wolfson, perhaps Nancy’s closest friend in the world, “we had more big, hearty, belly laughs than you would have with people just going through normal life.”
The sound of her laugh was epic. A couple of years ago, I took her to a press screening of the film “The Aristocrats,” a documentary whose subject was a notoriously dirty joke. If they gave awards for loudest laughter during that screening, Nancy would have come away with the blue ribbon.
Sentimentality and cliché are viral agents that infect our art, our entertainment and our political discourse. Nancy, triumphantly, remained immune to that kind of thinking, even in dealing with the harshness of chronic, life-threatening disease. She spoke of her ordeal with honesty, often profane honesty, and a kind of matter-of-fact-ness, always resisting to cast it as anything other that what it was: a heinous disease.
Pre-cancer or post-, Nancy always had a cutting sense of humor, and we spent lots of time laughing at each other and everyone else. She laughed at slapstick, at sophomoric jokes, at sophisticated, ironical comedy, all of it. Yet not once did I ever detect a whiff of nastiness in anything she laughed or joked about.
Years ago, Dan came into the newsroom in the old Sentinel building downtown to hit on his coworkers for a fundraiser in which his daughter was involved. The product was beef sticks, those horrifyingly, quasi-edible spears of animal product available in finer truck stops everywhere. I’m sure I probably ran to hide when I heard him coming, but Nancy bought one. Dan remembers her waving it triumphantly in the air saying, “This beef stick is never to be eaten.”
She stuck it in her drawer and there it remained for years. It wouldn’t shock me if it were still in that ugly old building somewhere. The idea that a shrink-wrapped, perservative-filled piece of chew-toy animal flesh would outlive her is an appalling joke, but exactly the kind of thing that would make Nancy laugh.
The last communication I had with her was an e-mail exchange a few weeks ago in which she told me “… every day, good wins out over evil, and sweetness prevails.” Coming from someone else, I might judge such notions as sentimental piffle. But from Nancy, those are words I believed then, and, even without her around anymore, I believe now.
Then, she ended the message with a bad joke – “What’s better than roses on your piano?” The fact that I can’t give the punch line in a family newspaper and am commiting the first cardinal sin of comedy – never start a joke you can’t finish – would have amused Nancy to her core.
“She was determined to live,” said my friend Dan who was there to shave Nancy’s head during that first round of chemotherapy. By that, he didn’t mean she was determined to survive the cancer that killed her. He meant she was determined to relish the experience of being alive, every day.
“Some people thought this came easy to her,” said her good friend Jill. “But Nancy worked really hard at staying alive, and at not giving up the part of herself that could laugh and see humor in the everyday absurdity of life.”
So, if you knew Nancy, sure, cry for her. We’re all doing it. She’s gone, and that hurts.
But do that first.
Then, find something to laugh at. And laugh loud and hard. The world’s supply of laughs took a bit hit the day Nancy died. The best way we can honor her is to fill that hole with our own laughter.
I fear the ghost of Nancy Redwine.