I am proud to say that Harriet had made me a friend, though gawd knows that is no rarity, because Harriet was someone who came to know people easily, and embraced our common humanity. Really, though, I must have come in some special category, because I learned of Harriet’s death from Susan Baum.
If you read Too Late to Die Young, you will remember that there is a character named Susan, and that Harriet matter-of-factly told us that she does what Susan tells her to, because she knows it will be right. When I returned a call from Harriet’s office on Wednesday afternoon, June 4, it was Susan who spoke with me, and explained that calls were being placed so we wouldn’t learn of Harriet’s death by reading about it in the paper, or some such. And when I asked, she confirmed that, yes, she was that Susan. Susan told me that Harriet had worked a full day on June 3, and then rolled home, to die before the next day. And of course, that is the death she would have chosen.
Earlier this year, Harriet had sent a letter to her friends around everywhere, contemplating what it meant that she was “L.” Of course, despite her realization when she got to college, it was not too late, and Harriet did die young. To say I will miss her is so gross an understatement I can’t find the words to say what it really should be. Can I say, it was an honor and a privilege to work with Harriet in reviving and building the National Lawyers Guild Disability Rights Committee, along with Brian Stanford, Cordelia Martinez, Brian East, and Marilynn Mika Spenser, joined by Cordelia Martinez, Henry Feldman, and the rest of you, finally, too numerous to mention? You know who you are.
But this isn’t about the Disability Rights Committee, or even about the special friendship we developed, as the self-appointed Bull Goose Looney of the Disability Rights Committee (me), and the Treasurer and first wheelchaired person, Harriet, before she recruited RadRobin, and power chair took on a whole new meaning.
It is about Harriet, and what I can share with all of you who knew her, and can never forget her rich laugh, that sounded like a prolonged hiccough, her shy sweet smile, her tender way of correcting you (me) and moving on in friendship.
And of course, since she took it with her to the grave, I can’t tell in public the story of the secret identity of her Valentine. But I promise at the next Guild convention to tell those of you who gather the amazing nearly true tale from a life of her Valentine’s memorial, which she told me on a long-distance phone call one Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, that wonderful Harriet story, one from a million dozen flashes of my memory. This one, too, at a Guild convention, the one in Southern Arizona that she left on a stretcher to the local hospital, sister Beth at her side, not smiling at all as our eyes met. Death was inevitable, Harriet taught, but was it going to be this way, her nightmare, in a strange hospital? Fortunately, not even a close call, and that was 2001, so another almost seven years remained.
But that gentle, and wondrous sense of humor. We were doing an early a.m. workshop, on Institutions, and going around the small room. It was just before or just after my wife Nancy explained who she was, and that she was there to support her local crazy. I talked briefly about my raging days in psychiatric hospitals, and said I’d been Hell on Wheels. No, Harriet piped up. You’re not Hell on Wheels, you’re Hell on Feet. I’m Hell on Wheels.
Harriet never believed in a Hell or Heaven, and I don’t say she is looking down on us and smiling. I say she imbued us all with the spirit of the life she lived, and the miles we won’t have to travel again, because Harriet blazed those trails indelibly with her life, in the Disability Liberation movement.
To return to the marvelous friend I feel I made yesterday over the phone in the worst imaginable circumstances, I said to Susan Baum that if I needed further reason to remain an atheist, I had it in the impossibility of a god who would take Harriet McBryde Johnson and leave George W. Bush. And because she is still That Susan, she corrected me, that it shows we still have work to do.
So, amidst the tears, I ask that you lift your glass, or suck on your straw with me, and join in the Toast that embodies the memory our beloved lost and gone Harriet: “To Work.”
Love and solidarity to you all,
From Remembering Harriet, 2008/06/05 at 3:13 AM