I am—thankfully, luckily, or otherwise—a novice mourner. I remember my maternal grandfather dying when I was seven after a long illness; I don’t have any memories of him before he was sick. I lost a cousin several years ago in a motorcycle accident, and was truly sad, but he hadn’t been enough a part of my life for me to feel a real loss. For those who have had more occasion to mourn, my apologies if this post comes off as maudlin, the product of a mind too well sheltered from the realities of the world. Apologies now out of the way, I declare it Sharing Time.
Some people don’t remember their dreams, but I always have remembered mine. Vivid, often wild dreams. Dreams that mix with reality in confusing ways. Dreams that feature people in my life as well-represented characters who behave here normally, there not so normally. Mostly they’re good dreams, but I have always had a sprinkling of bad ones. They have rarely been severely disturbing, but the worst are always those in which someone I love dies. That happens often enough that my internal dream detector beeps at that point, and I usually awaken instantly.
Today would have been the 92nd birthday of my maternal grandmother, whose twelve grandchildren all called her Nanny. She was one of four close, elderly relatives who all died between January and July of 2011. I wanted to write about the four funerals, and the people they celebrated and/or exploited, at some point, but I haven’t gotten around to it. They live on in me, at least as memories but I believe something slightly more, and so I am always understanding life and death in new ways through them. Their effects on me are almost as present today as they were during the recent years before 2011, when I was going from day to hectic day, always forgetting to call people, always focusing on the Now and the Upcoming, and rarely on the Where I’ve Been and the Where I Came From. They appear in my dreams sometimes, and their presence isn’t startling, and they never, ever die in my dreams. I miss them, but I am at peace with that. It’s, in a sense, what I thought would be happening at this time in my life.
Today also would have been the 36th birthday of a mostly unknown public servant, my friend and colleague Kristin Bourkland (pictured above). She died in a car accident driving home from work on November 6 this year. She left behind a husband, a 4-year-old daughter, and a one-year-old son, as well as an older couple who had invested all their parenting in their only daughter. On the morning of November 7, after finding out what had happened and getting control of my emotions to some extent, it was my duty as one of the managers of the spacecraft attitude control group to see that people who knew her closely were informed personally, before email reached them impersonally. Late that morning, we gathered the group together in the presence of a grief counselor, and my boss announced her passing, barely keeping control himself. This grief counselor later told me he had served in the same capacity many times at Goddard, and he had never seen anything like the emotional devastation he saw that morning. The reasons for that are worth sharing with you, some of the many beneficiaries of the science that Kristin’s work has enabled.
I had known Kristin for 11 years, ever since she started working in the spacecraft attitude group at NASA Goddard. I had joined the group less than a year before, and though we rarely worked together for the first few years, we quickly became friends. We were part of a large cohort of spacecraft dynamics engineers who were all hired in a 3-4 year timeframe. We all regularly lunched together, chatted about our histories, our expectations. As our careers advanced and we lunched together less often, she would sometimes find me at my desk, planning to eat vending machine chips for lunch, and she’d close her eyes and smile in this confident way, toss her head, and I would have to follow. I remember a day when Kristin, her best friend (my officemate), and I all sat around trying to figure out whether and when the fiancés would pop the question (they thought it amusing that I was the most secure in that). We were all married within a year of each other; I attended Kristin’s wedding, and I know she would have been at mine if it had been anywhere close by (Jason and I had to get married in Canada, but that is another story).
I feel like I had a special bond with Kristin, and yet, everyone who spent any appreciable time with her felt the same way. She was sweet, funny, kind, honest, dependable, one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. She had no time for acrimony, overlooking it in others and avoiding it herself. She made important things happen on the projects she worked; the Solar Dynamics Observatory benefited often from her quiet corrections and technical diligence, and the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, which will start collecting climate data in 2014, has most recently received her intellectual gifts. NASA recognized her in 2010 with the Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal, quite an achievement even for an engineer ten years her senior. The nomination for that medal started “Kristin Bourkland is one of the unsung heroes” of the NASA Goddard attitude group.
Kristin was also my mentor as a parent. Her four-year-old had always, in the previous few months, been at just the same stage as our three-year-old. Whenever I felt I might have been too harsh with my daughter, or too soft, I could always go to Kristin and let it all pour out. Usually with a knowing laugh, she would have a story that made me understand just how normal my relationship with my daughter is. However bad I had been, she—sweet, loving Kristin—had been worse. And she usually had some brilliant idea for child control that hadn’t occurred to me. I’m really going to miss her quiet competence, because that was something I could never recreate in my own mind.
Which brings me to my conclusion, or my prologue, perhaps. For the first week after Kristin’s death, each morning, at some point in my grogginess, I would remember what had happened, and my mind would reel. The first day, the first time this happened, I actually did reel; that was the closest to fainting I’ve gotten in a long, long time. The effect has been less as time passes, but it won’t go away. I think that’s because Kristin dying in a car accident is exactly the sort of thing I would dream.
And then need to wake up from.
Consider this an open thread about loss and grief. Please share, because sharing ourselves brings us closer to God, whether you believe in Her or not.