On Saturday February 22, at 1:20 AM, my sweet, cool, beautiful cousin Naomi Angel passed away.
As a kid, I idolized my older cousins. Anything and everything they touched/wore/said/did was imbued with Cool. I would actually jot notes to myself after their visits about their vocabulary (“stylish”), things they ate (“tofu stir-fry with peppers”) and trendy things they wore (“wedge?? shoes”). Believe me, my cousins were gods.
And then there was Naomi. You know those women whose faces make your jaw drop in the ketchup aisle because they are soooo perfect? She had that kind of face. She could have walked down Bloor Street in downtown Toronto wearing a burlap sack and she would have made it look like Chanel. I don’t want to overly harp on the fact that she was so pretty because there’s more to life, but it’s true. She was a stunner. Periodendofstory.
About six years ago, when I was still in medical school, Naomi and her fiancé Mitchell stopped by to visit us as they took a road trip down the coast. I hadn’t seen Naomi since I was a teenager, and it might as well have been five hundred years. That year they came to visit, I was twenty five, and Naomi was thirty. By then, I thought of myself as mostly an adult. I drove and I voted. I would even go to the bank sometimes. Naomi was an adult, too, I thought.
“She’ll seem like a regular person now,” I told Adam.
I was wrong.
I opened the door to our apartment, and there was Naomi, ever gorgeous and understated, and still a rock star. As they stood in our kitchen telling us about their trip, Naomi mentioned that they’d stopped in the vineyards in central California to go wine tasting. Wine tasting. I stared like a fifth grader staring at a rocket ship. I began interrogating her about how much fun it was, and if she knew all the different kinds of wine now, and how much it cost, and if she would do it again. I took notes.
On the day they stayed, we took a trip to the Museum of Tolerance in downtown Los Angeles. (Did my beautiful, sophisticated cousin want to spend her time in LA relaxing at the beach? Poking around the Glendale Galleria? Nope—this lady wanted to listen to Holocaust survivors share their stories. As I learned later, her graduate studies would focus on the cultural memorialization of trauma.)
Taking a break for lunch, Naomi and I were standing on the sidewalk outside a café near the museum, on a very downward-sloping street. She was striding gracefully in fashionable shoes—maybe platforms. I asked her about her fiancé Mitchell. He seemed nice enough, I told her. Good sense of humor. Maybe a little quirky.
She told me she knew him for a long time before they officially became a couple. He was a wonderful guy, she told me. Her eyes sparkled. As we talked, she gave a bit of change to a stranger who passed by.
Mitchell’s got brains, I realized. He waited for you, because you’re like seventy different kinds of amazing.
Five years later, we would again find ourselves walking down a street and chatting. By then, our worlds were vastly different: Naomi and Mitchell were married. They’d already had Nate, their incredibly adorable son. I’d had my stroke months earlier.
This time, we were together in Oregon, having gathered in town for my sister’s wedding. As we walked back to the hotel, I poured my heart out to Naomi. I was worrying about my stroke, I told her. I didn’t know what it meant for my future. I wanted to do whatever was in my power to live forever. I felt like my life was out of my control.
“That’s because it is,” she said. “You just have to do your best, and let the rest go.”
Within months of that trip, Naomi was diagnosed with breast cancer. Less than a year after that, after Naomi underwent a double mastectomy and grueling chemotherapy, the cancer was back; it had spread to her brain.
Overcome by the senseless awfulness of that news, I sent her a long, rambling email about the weird-scary-horror of death and how much I wished I could make it go away. (I don’t know. I was trying to comfort her, but I was really hoping maybe she’d comfort me.)
She replied back quickly, from her iPhone,
This is what I tell myself:
Everyone dies, but not everyone lives. So I am focused on living now.
Much love to you and Adam!
I told you, she was a rock star.
Naomi: you lived an honorable, full, loving life. You fought hard to live, and you inspired people near and far away. You will always be beautiful, smart, and totally awesome.
We love you.