Eulogy for Leslie Davis, January 30, 2006
January 30, 2006
In her final weeks, Leslie said that she wanted everyone who so desired to speak at her funeral. What she didn’t consider is that if we did this, we would be here until the messiah graciously joined us in this room packed way beyond the fire marshal’s nightmare. Our compromise in fulfilling Leslie’s wishes is to invite all who would like to speak to do so after the service, when we return to the Davis-Lazar home to share the seudat havra’ah, the meal of consolation with the mourning family.
Death is not a refutation of life. Death is no blessing, but it is not the worst that our tradition records. Far worse than death is a life wasted, a life lived dreamlessly without vision, without hope. Far sadder than death is the epitaph that reads, “Here lies a life written on water.” Leslie Davis lived her life inscribed on the parchments of memory.
In the last weeks of Leslie’s life, she asked many what her life had been. For those of us who were blessed by knowing her, we couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. We could only hope that we might accomplish a fraction of what she had done with her all too brief life.
We will remember her for the rest of our lives. The Hebrew verb, zachar, appears no less than 169 times in the Bible. Memory is important because it is natural for the mind to be fixed upon the last agonizing moments of illness; to be concentrated on our terrible helplessness, on the paralyzing impotence that befalls us; when nothing is left but to wait for the shadow of the angel of death to descend. It is exactly at this moment that our tradition urges us to remember the whole life.
We must not allow the last painful, anguished hours, days and weeks to blot out an entire life. We must not allow the fright and sadness to erase our memories of celebration and delight to eclipse the richly lived life of Leslie Davis. Memory is for the sake of our wholeness and the wholeness of the one whom we remember.
Billy has asked me to read a letter that George Davis, a friend of the family, wrote four days before she died. His words speak for all of us:
Leslie, Bill, Aaron, and Peter,
Now it’s come, the possibility we’ve all denied for so long. Though you’ve carried us all along on your journey, Leslie, through each challenge, each victory, each discouragement, each encouragement, nevertheless I’m unprepared to accept your news.
In this most recent e-mail you sound calm, peaceful, and resolved. Or maybe it’s my optimism or my hope that colors the tone of your e-mail. And yet you are one of the strongest people I’ve ever known, so I find it likely that you have in fact found a place in your soul that is strong and loving enough to release you from the sorrow. I certainly hope this is the case.
In any event, I wish you strength and courage as you live through the biggest challenge yet. And I’m confident, Leslie, that your struggle, patience, determination and hunger for life have not been in vain. That sunshine and springtime you feel slipping away from you now is precisely the gift that you’ve been giving away for many years. The gift of optimism. The gift of dreaming. The gift of simplicity. The gift of trumping yearning with striving and succeeding. The gift of hungry, unbridled living. The gift of strength and conviction.
You gave me perspective to discover and love Santa Fe. You gave me the caring and wonder to find in my motorcycle accident something life altering. You gave me the confidence, courage and support to build a lacrosse program. To become a teacher. You gave me the bravery and the will to tip my skis down the steepest hills I’d ever seen, and the insight and passion to find out how not only to survive my way to the base to love, no to CRAVE every second of the descent. In short, Leslie, you catalyzed in me some of the most formative experiences in my life. You helped awaken in me a hunger for life and beauty and nature and people that I’ve shared and will continue to share around the world. You have given me and so many others more than you can ever understand. I hope that you can find satisfaction in knowing that you have given so much of your life to others.
Institutions such as Santa Fe Prep, Tesuque Elementary School, and HaMakom owe her boundless gratitude for her passionate commitment and excellence to helping them increase good in the world. She began her work early, when she was 23 as an advocate for alternatives to imprisonment. When she found a fourteen year-old boy being held in solitary confinement in a strait jacket, she literally fought every agency until he was released. They asked her, who are you? because they didn’t know, as we do, who they were dealing with, a she-bear, a warrior of love, who knew when to embrace and when to kick you know what. She brought this program to New Mexico.
If I were to tell of her many accomplishments as a community activist, we would be here until the messiah comes. With her friends, the Yondas, she built solar greenhouses all over America in the late 70’s. She created environmental education programs in elementary schools and created a foundation in her mother’s memory for the health of women. None of these endeavors speak of the hundreds of lives she touched personally with her notes of encouragement and gratitude, and her little surprise gifts that raised each of us at crucial times. She perceived need and she met it.
I’d like to speak personally for a moment about Leslie, my glorious president and friend. I met her when her father-in-law, Eddie, died, and she and Billy made the surprising decision, most of all to their children, Aaron and Peter, to have a Jewish funeral. The boys wondered even more when their parents chose to begin a Jewish community and become practicing Jews.
A year later we buried Bill’s mother, and less than a year after that, Leslie was diagnosed. She called me in California, where I was waiting for the birth of my first grandchild. Her first words were, “Malka, I’m so sorry I have to bring you this news.” Her remarkable compassion for others was matched only by her holy insistence to fight for her last breath.
This past Thanksgiving, I brought my grandchildren, Solomon and Lesley, to visit her. Leslie took out clay for them and showed them how to make pinchpots. I had to drag the children from the house to spare Leslie’s energy; they loved her.
Her illness and her courage gave our new community a lesson in meaning. We learned We were called to stand by her, and she returned her gratitude a thousand times more than we gave her. As president of HaMakom, she taught us how to build a community, and we watched her turn from a newly returned Jew into a Ba’alat tefilah, an impeccable prayer leader.
With her I experienced the delight in being successful in collaboration. We worked together in joy, we wrangled painfully once or twice, and every time I see how much HaMakom has changed the lives of so many, I know that Leslie will live forever.
What was her secret? Truth be told and bless her heart, as Leslie would say, God blessed her with abundant yetzer, an energy that can only be described as fierce. She was a fierce worker and lover, and when she put her multi-talents to work in her many causes, the world changed. Marge Lazar, her sister-in-law, described her as one of the most effective people she knew. Just look at the exquisite clay pieces she made, her garden, or remember her masterful Yogic headstands, and you’ll know her work in the physical realm, too.
She inherited her father’s strength and incorporated it with a woman’s heart, yet she found her toughness both a gift and a burden. She didn’t know how to give up, and she ruffled the feathers of anyone who didn’t have her mettle.
Dayenu! If Leslie had only been a social activist, it would have been enough. But she was more than that. Leslie was Billy’s wife, Aaron and Peter’s mother, Abel’s daughter, sister to Patty, Laurie, and Jad, and friend to so many of us. Several days ago she looked at her sons and said, “My children are my life.” When she wrote them, she closed her letters with, “I love you fiercely.” In them she saw her two passions, social activism and the environment, carried on.
She and Bill created a world of goodness in the 33 years that they were married, living a life that held sacredly the principles of righteousness and lovingkindness. By her own admission, the one quality that she wished for was a better sense of humor. When Bill and the boys guffawed at a joke, her face told them that she didn’t get it. Sometimes she thought that they were teasing her. But it was her own sensitivity that made her so compassionate to others’ feelings.
It wasn’t easy to watch Leslie in the final weeks, trying mightily to overcome physical pain and aching regret for not having more time. She came to accept what must be but she never stopped hoping, believing that God works miracles.
Stephen Spender writes of those who delighted in life, “The names of those who in their lives fought for life, who wore at their hearts the fire’s center. Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun, and left the vivid air signed with their honor.”
Our tradition teaches that the memory of the departed will be our blessing. May Leslie’s memory cause each of us to live with her courage and grace, and keep her love flowing for eternity.