This is the (slightly edited) speech I delivered at Robinson Playground Park, Austin, on the occasion of the dedication of a memorial bench in honor of my wife, Donna Young Eichenwald, on June 15, 2016.
Thank you all for coming.
As I wrote to Donna early in our relationship, “Remembering someone while sitting on a park bench, with the breezes on your face and life going on around you, is just infinitely better than having to travel to a cemetery.” At the time, I didn’t have this in mind. But I think Donna would like the idea of having her memorial next to a children’s playground. She was so involved with life herself, in all its complexity and capacity for joy.
Although I knew Donna had at one time held the status of a minor celebrity in certain parts of Manhattan, it wasn’t until her final illness that I realized how beloved she was to so many, and indeed might have been the human equivalent of an indispensable public institution.
Even now, nearly five months later, with summer upon us, it’s still hard to believe she’s gone. And I don’t really think she is. Someone who was always such a forceful presence in the room, such a key observer, commentator, and participant in the daily comedy, drama and occasional farce that defines life on Earth, can’t just vanish without a trace. I still have the need to speak with her, to check in, to help me find my center, my core humanity and decency.
Donna will be remembered not because of this bench, and certainly not because of me, but because of all the things she did during her lifetime.
Donna Young – an extraordinary person hiding behind a common name – started life in Newark, New Jersey, taking up the double bass at the age of eight, learning recorder and clarinet and several other instruments along the way. She always said she never needed to learn how to read music; she just knew. She played for years in symphony orchestras and chamber groups. Later, when she tired of the politics of the classical world, she became the go-to bassist of choice in the smaller but very happening universe of cabaret rooms and piano bars in Manhattan, playing in shows and helping to put some of them together. She was good at what she did, and she loved the shows and the company of her friends. Even in the last year of her life, missing the camaraderie, she got together a small group of lovers of the Great American Songbook, calling it the Northwest Austin Cabaret-Piano Bar Casuals. And so we had evenings where people came and played and sang in our living room, with Donna, of course, on bass. It was fun while it lasted, if all too short-lived. I’m so glad she got to do that.
Within the context of an orchestra, the bass is aptly named, as it’s the foundation of everything. As one of Donna’s musician friends put it to me, the bassline supports every instrumental part above it. As, too, within our family Donna was our base and foundation.
Donna always liked the classics, whether it was music, literature, fashion, jewelry, architecture, even vintage cars. She was quite comfortable having so many tastes in common with her parents’ and even grandparents’ generation, from the ’30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, Astaire and Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Mel Tormé, and the composers and lyricists of the great Broadway musicals, which of course meshed so well with her partners in crime in the cabaret rooms.
Donna’s story in Austin, in the 21st century, is connected with becoming a mother relatively late in life, dealing with having a child with special needs and advocating for him and others like him, and becoming a role model and inspiration for other mothers with whom she networked locally and nationally. Alongside me, she was also the co-moderator for the Austin Freecycle Network, which I founded but couldn’t have run nearly as effectively without Donna. Together, we encouraged people to recycle thousands of items that would have otherwise been thrown out.
Donna was steadfast in her beliefs and her actions. She wouldn’t accept anything less from herself than her best, and she constantly encouraged me and our boys and gave us her love. Whatever she did, she put her heart and soul into and excelled at, whether it was music, photography, writing, cooking, or parenting. Donna was as human as anyone else, but she was always herself. She lived at the intersection of logic and compassion, of activism and empathy, with a ton of wit and fun and laughter. She did things her way. You were just happy to come along for the ride.
When I think about what it is that I owe Donna, I end up thinking that it’s pretty much everything important.
When I think of the most meaningful moments of my life, the greatest moments, the most profound moments, they are inevitably, and inextricably, connected with her. I know that she has made me a far better person.
Before I met Donna, I’d never met anyone else like her.
And I’m certain I’ll never meet anyone like her again.
I know that we are here on earth, for all too short a journey, to love each other, and care for each other, and if we’re lucky, to create something beautiful that will survive us.
And Donna did all of that.
Even though she was so sadly taken from her boys before they had even gotten to celebrate their eleventh birthdays, I know that however long they live, Luka and Leo will be forever blessed by their mother’s influence, her caring, her warrior’s spirit and her precious love, and that’s something nobody can ever take away. Nor can anyone take away the years Donna and I had together.
Thomas Wolfe was one of Donna’s favorite authors. This is her copy of his first novel, “Look Homeward, Angel.” These lines from the beginning of the book were significant to her:
A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile…Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
Back in mid-August of 2001, shortly before Donna and I would have our first face-to-face meeting in New York, we were emailing each other on the subject of free will vs. predestination, because why not, and we both agreed that we hated the phrase “It was God’s will.”
Donna wrote this to me, and I’d like you to hear it in her own words:
“The whole ‘God’s will’ thing is beyond me. I understand why people say it; they’re at a loss for something comforting to say. Not to wrap this up in religion, but this is why I could never buy into any sort of concrete notion of God, because it makes no sense that someone’s just pulling our strings as though we’re helpless marionettes. I didn’t buy that as a kid, and I don’t buy it now. I’m all for free will, but I also believe there are other forces at work.
“And that brings us to coincidence — that’s a different thing. I confess to having several friends who make their living at being psychics, whatever that might mean. I mention that because they maintain that certain unique opportunities inevitably come our way, and it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to cast fear and expectations aside and take advantage of them.
“For the past four or five months I’ve had quite a few people telling me that there are no coincidences, too — and given the events of this year, I’d have to agree.”
And then Donna quotes from another Wolfe novel, “Of Time and the River”:
Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth. Whereon the pillars of the earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending — a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.
“Again,” Donna wrote to me, “I hate to keep going back to death, but if there’s any blessing to it, it’s that it forces us to take a closer look at our lives. When I was sick, it was surprisingly easy for me to arrive at a certain peace with the prospect of death, and though I was committed to fighting it all the way, I was okay because I’d come to accept the presence of a certain energy, if you will, the wind and the rivers, something that propels us, something more than just a will to live.”
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do know that one day, we’ll be together again. Until then, this is true for me:
Whenever I hear my boys laughing, or any children laughing, Donna’s there; whenever I hear music that moves me, Donna’s there; whenever our family gets together to share a meal, or whenever someone decorates a Christmas tree, Donna’s there.
Whenever someone helps a friend out of a pure and unselfish desire to give of themselves, Donna’s there. And whenever two people hug and say they love each other, Donna’s there.
In the going out and in the coming in, in the rising of the wind and in the flowing of the rivers; and in all our hopes and dreams for a better world.
Thank you for everything, Donna. We love you, forever.