Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Eulogy for Van

My dear friend Vandelear Walker died today at five. The death certificate will say that she died from bone cancer but she was really a Hurricane Katrina casualty. We’d moved to New Orleans a scant 10 days before the levees broke and washed away all our belongings. Van never found her way back. Starting over is always hard but harder when you’re 55 and the American workplace is downsizing everyone over 50. It broke her spirit and when she had indications that her breast cancer had returned she didn’t go to the doctor. She’d lost her job, didn’t have medical insurance and couldn’t find the energy to fight for the medical treatment that should have been her right. When she finally got to the hospital several months later, her cancer had moved from breast to bone. She fought a valiant fight but didn’t win the battle.

I met Van one hot summer afternoon in the 80s at an outdoor jazz concert in Brooklyn where Cassandra Wilson and Olu Dora were cutting up onstage. It was instantaneous friendship. We read the same books, liked the same kind of music, loved theatre, dance, photography and art. While everyone else was sleeping in on Saturday mornings, Van and I met early to do our weekly shopping, take care of our other chores. We wanted to get the weekend business out of the way so that we could get to the real purpose of days off from work, fun. Van was a good time girl. Almost from the beginning we were road dogs. We often traveled together, to New Orleans, Atlanta, the Caribbean, Ghana. When the National Black Touring Circuit started booking my one-woman show, Sally of Monticello, Van was my stage manager, handled all the details of life on the road so I could be free to perform. She was the sister I’d never had.

Van had moved to Baltimore when Bianca, a young woman who became my adopted daughter, had a seizure and was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation of the brain. Bee didn’t have medical insurance and Van returned to New York as often as she could to hold my hand as I fought the Medicaid bureaucracy for Bianca’s surgeries. A few years later, Van took the Greyhound to New York every weekend when I had a tumor removed from my spine. And I was there for her, when she was sexually assaulted, when she bought her first house, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We celebrated life’s high, propped each other up during the lows.

Van was excellent cook, loved nothing better than preparing food for her friends. She was larger than life; had a personality that matched her full name, Vandelear Venita, and almost six-foot statue. She was generous, took people at face value and never judged. I love you Van. We all do, all of us who knew you. You will be greatly missed.

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