Diana Joy Colbert, 1970-2011

Dear Diana,

Yesterday was hard. About a hundred of us gathered for your memorial, and spoke of how you touched our lives in so many ways.

We are wounded. But even from where you are, you’re bringing people together. It was so good to connect with dear Julie, Jess, Angela, the gang from Rivington Street. And your mom and dad, and Charles. So many new friends, too, since we were together. It was inspiring to see, all these connections, all this love. They all probably felt the sorrow I felt on New Year’s 2012, the first day of the first year without you.

You and I met in late 1990, October I think. At a party on East 7th Street, not far from your memorial. And you became my first real love. We lasted until about April 1994 and the end was not easy, but it’s all in the past. What I’ll keep with me is the sunshine and the joy — your middle name. And the music.

At some point your mom came up to New York from Memphis for a visit, and the three of us were walking down East 7th (that street again). We passed by the little jazz club Deanna’s, and a band was playing “Monk’s Dream” by Thelonious Monk. You and your mom began singing the difficult melody, accurately. I’m thinking you first heard Monk through me, maybe I’m mistaken, but it wasn’t long before Monk became one of your favorite songwriters. Of course! You loved him enough to get your mom hooked too.

I took you to Bradley’s to hear Benny Green and Christian McBride, smoking piano and bass duo, way before McBride became a star. We went to hear Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra at the Village Vanguard. They played “N’kosi Sikeleli Africa,” the anthem of the African National Congress. John Stubblefield was in the band, Ray Anderson, Tom Harrell. You knew about Harrell’s struggle with schizophrenia, and you were awed by his triumphant trumpet solo. You were rhapsodic after the show, about how jazz is life-giving, transcendent in spirit, open to the humanity in everyone.

Remember the drive to Memphis? We started seeing confederate flags and scary knives in the gas station shops in Virginia, almost ran out of gas in the hills of West Virginia, picked up your dad and spent the night in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, before driving straight across Tennessee to your hometown. Visited the Lorraine Motel, site of King’s assassination. Then there was our Adirondack trip — fantastic sights, left the mountains for a bit and stumbled on Lake Champlain. Nothing on our agenda, so we hopped on the Port Kent ferry to Burlington, Vermont. The water was gorgeous, the sky dark gray on one side, pure sun on the other. Drove across Vermont to New Hampshire, spent a half-hour watching a moose (!) wade in a roadside creek, stayed in a crap motel with mirrors on the ceiling. We watched a brand new MTV show, “Beavis and Butthead,” and didn’t get it at all. (Later I became a zealous convert.) The next morning it rained, so we hit the road again for Montreal, the big city. I loved those travels with you.

We weren’t in close touch for a long time, but I got the wonderful news of your marriage to Charles, and the birth of your darling Lily. And much too soon after that, the evil, unfathomable news of your disease. And the accounts of your incredible and valiant fight. We messaged on Facebook for months about getting together with our daughters for a play date. I’m thanking heaven every day that we actually did it, around August 2010, the last time I would ever see you. I was about to teach my first course; you gave me great feedback and insight. Tess wasn’t walking yet, but Lily was rocketing around the playground at 18 months. You looked good, and as far as I could see you felt good. I spoke to Charles yesterday about future play dates. I want that to happen. I want to watch Lily grow and do her mother proud, and I know she will.

You insisted that your memorial include “Happier Than the Morning Sun” by Stevie Wonder. As we all sat and listened to the track, and watched photos of you float by on the screen, I thought back to those Rivington Street days. In that apartment with probably a half-dozen roommates, we had Stevie’s ’70s albums in constant rotation, a soundtrack to all our lives. I’ve been revisiting Stevie Wonder in recent years and learning a lot of his music on the guitar, but I’d never thought to study this one, so close to your heart. Getting home from your memorial, I cracked open my case and learned it right away. A far from perfect rendition, but then, you weren’t a believer in perfect. It’s my goodbye to you, Diana Joy.

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