One year ago today my friend, Laurie Foley, died.
She and I were in touch daily, often many times a day, and the void is enormous. I long to call and find out her take on what’s happening in the world, and ask her advice. I long to hear her say, “Let’s talk about that,” when I raise a question. What a superb friend. Never judgmental, never shocked, at anything I told her. For someone in the public eye, that is rare. All too often, people peel away when writers reveal their full humanity. Never Laurie.
To say I have missed her every single day since March 3, 2016, when she breathed her last breath on this plane, would not be an exaggeration. For a long time, I would pull up her phone number to call her, not remembering for a split second that those moments had passed. Shortly before she died, she called and we talked for two hours. Her sister was in the room, and recorded the conversation, so I can still hit “play,” and hear her big laughter, so close to death and yet so alive and with me.
In November and December 2015, she was in the hospital, and I wasn’t sleeping, so we made a fine pair, texting on Facebook messenger at 4am, talking about everything, and nothing. Every night we would meet online, me knowing that she would want company, that she was scared, and her knowing that at any moment she could reach me.
In one of those conversations, she asked me if I would speak at her funeral, and of course, I said yes. Then I had a heart attack, and couldn’t travel to see her before she died, something I will always regret. But I was there with her, and she knew that, even after we couldn’t text.
On this one-year anniversary of her death, I miss her so. Here is the eulogy I gave at her funeral. There’s no way I could have captured what she means to me, but these words stood in for the real message. I love you, Laurie.
Eulogy for Laurie Foley
12 March 2016
When you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, it is huge and deep and wide, and awe-inspiring. And then you take a photo of it, as most people do, to validate your presence there. But when you get home and look at that photograph, there is no way it can even approximate the depth and width and sheer grandeur of what you experienced there. It cannot take it all in; you are left with a sliver of it.
That is what my words feel like today – just a mere snapshot of a life so meaningful that it cannot be contained in language. But in this simple snapshot, my hope is that the depth and breadth of our shared loss will be magnified and illuminated like a setting sun over the rim of the Grand Canyon, for we have suffered a trauma, a collective and very individual trauma. And none of us have suffered this trauma as deeply as Laurie’s beloved family. And so, these insufficient yet heartfelt words are dedicated to them.
I was honored and undone when Laurie asked in December if I would speak at her funeral. I said “yes, of course,” amidst many tears between us. And I desperately hoped we would never get here, that this day would continue to elude us, always a few steps ahead of us. But we are fully here now.
The service to this point has covered the glorious life Laurie has gone on to – and I am thankful for the church covering that part, because my part is different. My part is a very deeply human, “I want her back here with me.” My part is, “I want to hear her voice again.” My part is, what a treasure we have lost.
Grief is the long aftermath of love, the internal work of knowing, holding, more fully valuing what we have lost, said poet Mark Doty. What have we lost? We all know the answer to this question, and that is why we are here.
That is why people around the world are sitting at this moment with candles lit, in honor and memory of Laurie Foley.
I would like to speak to four aspects of Laurie and what we have lost in her dying:
Laurie Foley was a true witness
A family went to a restaurant one night and after the parents placed their orders, their five-year-old daughter said, “I”ll have a hot dog, fries, and a Coke!” The father immediately said “Ohhhh, no she won’t. She’ll have meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and milk.” The waitress smiled and paused a moment, then turned back to the little girl and said, “Hon, what would you like on your hotdog?” The family sat in stunned silence as the waitress walked away with the order, until the little girl, eyes bright, said, “She thinks I’m real!”
Laurie Foley made everyone feel seen and real, the kind of real where you are worthy of being witnessed, the kind of real where you are worthy of being listened to, deeply, the kind of real where you become your best self, trusting in her confidence. Laurie engaged with all of us as if we were just as real as we could be, even in those moments when we ourselves were doubting our realness, even when we anguished at our felt unrealness.
Just before I came to Decatur to do a book reading one year, I got an email from a woman named Laurie Foley who invited me to dinner at her house, with her book group, prior to the reading. I usually accept no invitations right before a reading, but when that invitation came in, for some reason I said yes. A friend said to me, “But Patti, you don’t know this woman! She could be an axe murderer!” And I said, “I could be an axe murderer too, but she invited me for dinner in spite of it.”
It was the best “yes” I ever spoke. That axe-murdering book club dinner host became one of my best friends on Earth. As novelist Toni Morrison wrote, “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” It’s good, as Toni Morrison wrote, and it’s rare. And you know what you have lost when you lose it.
Laurie listened and she asked the best questions ever asked, and she got to the heart of our hearts with great precision. And she made us laugh while revealing big truths. She was a true witness, rare, unrepeatable. We have lost a great witness.
Laurie Foley was a wise sage and a great consistency
I looked up Laurie’s doctoral dissertation once. I can summarize it in one word for you, “huh?” The woman was scary smart, unquenchably curious, able to navigate from the land of the mind to the land of the heart and back with unnerving quickness and depth of understanding. The mind and the heart, both were her native soil. This is rare, indeed.
Laurie’s dissertation was about fractals, those never-ending patterns that represent a profound consistency rarely seen in nature, and a beauty rarely found among humans. Fractal comes from “fractus”, which means broken/fracture, when it is really anything but fractured. It is reassembled, like a puzzle. And Laurie Foley loved a puzzle, yellow highlighter in hand. Fractals reveal structures that are hiding in plain sight, as did Laurie in both her life and her work. Fractals reveal other layers of the beauty of nature. Laurie’s ability to truly see people revealed layers of their beauty they weren’t even aware of. Laurie was a seeker of patterns and puzzles and sense-making her whole life. She was – and will continue to always be – a fractal, because fractals are never-ending. And, like fractals, Laurie was consistent in a way I’ve never known. We have lost a great consistency.
Laurie Foley was beloved
She was a witness, a sage, and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. And she was beloved. I will simply quote from Raymond Carver: “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did, and what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” In the loving accounting of her days, Laurie Foley’s spreadsheet overflowed. I hope she knew that. She is beloved. She will forever be beloved, and our love for her will continue to deepen and widen, like the Grand Canyon, throughout our lives.
Laurie Foley was an alchemist, a model of great transformational energy
I asked Laurie to speak at a conference after she was diagnosed. “Let’s talk about that,” she said, one of her trademark phrases. I told her I wanted her to speak about “The Courage to Be Mortal”; she delivered a speech that received a standing ovation and that stunned us by its courage and beauty.
She said, “What makes us human is our ability to transform states of energy.” She told stories of her husband, Joe and how as they sat with this terrible diagnosis, he transformed the energy of terror into the energy of presence and love, and the energy of despair into the energy of commitment. She told of her father, who traveled 300 miles to be her chemo buddy, taking her by the shoulders when she said to him “you know you don’t have to do this,” and how his response: “don’t ever ask me not to come” transformed the energy of a terrified little girl into the energy of a beloved daughter.
She said, “Painfully, I came to realize that I felt entitled… I felt entitled to live 80 years. I felt entitled to have a long and happy marriage. I felt entitled to see my son grow up and have a family of his own. But I am not entitled, and I never was.”
“But I learned to transform the energy of entitlement into the energy of hope. I hope for a long and abundant life. I hope to witness everything that brings joy. I hope to be there for my husband when he has a crisis some day. I hope to experience love and connection as long as possible.”
She challenged us, and I am challenging you: “How do you want to use this amazing power that we have as humans to transform energy—for yourself, or for the people that you care about?”
She said, “You can choose and transform despair into commitment. You can choose and transform entitlement into hope. You can choose and transform mortal fear into molecule-rearranging love.”
And then Laurie reached down, and picked up a cupcake and said these words as she lit the candle to demonstrate another transformation of energy:
“So with this little cupcake, I hope you’ll remember that whatever really raw ingredients life may bring your way, you have the power to choose and transform them into something sweet, into something loving, and profoundly hopeful.”
These words are dedicated to you and to this family she so desperately didn’t want to leave.
Our job? To transform all this grief into molecule-rearranging love – and into soul-deepening gratitude for her being in our lives, then, now, and forever more.
Death ends a life, not a relationship. Your relationship with Laurie—your mom and sister and child and partner and friend—will continue, transforming you, always.