On Monday, I was informed that my dear friend, Nancy Rayburn (who was my research partner, dear friend, and sister-in-spirit), has died.
I guess you could say that Emmett introduced me to Nancy.
In September, 2013, when I was only a few months into the research, I found an obscure article about one of Emmett’s close friends (Robert Anderson, who had given Emmett’s eulogy at the Elk’s annual remembrance ceremony held December 2, 1918). The article had had been transcribed into a Florida genealogy database. Nancy’s name and email address were at the top of the page. The article was several years old, as was the email address — was it still good? I gave it a shot.
A few days later, Nancy emailed me back. She told me that not only could I have permission to use the article, but she had a scanner and would send me images of the original document, plus any other information I might need related to Anderson — she was the proud owner of several vintage and out-of-print/rare Florida history books. Was I interested?
Was I? I couldn’t believe my luck!
She sent the articles the same day, then asked about Emmett Wilson. I warned her that she was treading into dangerous territory, because I tended to go overboard in my explanations — I live, breathe, and eat Emmett’s research — and I sometimes forget other people might not be as excited about him and early 20th century Florida history as me.
But Nancy was interested — so, I told her how I ‘met’ Emmett, and how the project came together, and my purpose for doing it — and thanks to Emmett Wilson, we became fast friends.
Nancy and I emailed and/or talked to each other other several times a week, up until December 16. Mostly, we talked about Florida history, the research process, great Florida archives, finding guides, and wonderful obscure trivia about gilded age politics. But what amazed me was that Nancy was truly interested in Emmett’s story, and the things I found out about him as I put the pieces of the crazy jigsaw puzzle of his life together on paper.
Along the way, I’d share drafts of different sections of the book, so she could see how the story was coming together. She’d ask me probing questions about the facts, people, places and events supporting the sections, and how they fit together. I didn’t ask her to be a copy editor or to take it upon herself to vet the story from a reader’s perspective — she truly wanted to do it because she grew to love Emmett’s story as much as I do.
Nancy was tough on me, too. I remember some rather hard feedback on a draft about Emmett’s first love relationship, and she didn’t like it. She was concerned about Emmett’s story drifting too much into ‘chick lit,’ a genre Nancy and I both dislike; but mostly, she said I ‘talked too much’ in the sense of explaining everything to the reader.
“Let the reader figure some of this out for themselves. Also, remember to let Emmett speak for himself though his actions or inactions,” she said. “I know this is hard, putting this story together from bits and pieces, but you can do better than this. You can do it. I know you can.”
After about a year and half of emailing and talking, we finally met each other in person in October, 2015, in Pensacola.
We spent a day in the archives of the University of West Florida, then a day in the Escambia County Courthouse Archive to read reels of purple-blue microfilm containing Emmett’s ancient court cases. We explored both St. John’s and St. Michael’s cemeteries, locating the graves of the supporting characters in Emmett’s story. We walked around together in the buildings in which Emmett worked, worshipped, and died.
Fast forward to Summer, 2016.
My family went on vacation in August to Niagara Falls. I didn’t hear from Nancy during that time (about 10 days), but she knew I was on vacation with the kids, and I’d figured she off with her cousin for a long getaway herself. So, I wasn’t concerned.
We returned at the end of the month, right as school was starting. In early September, Nancy sent me a carefully worded email: She had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Nancy was upbeat about it. Her doctors were excellent: They said the condition was serious, but Nancy was in excellent health otherwise, and was likely to withstand the chemotherapy well. Nancy did thorough research and prepared herself for whatever it took. When I communicated with her, she didn’t sound worried, but confident.
I couldn’t come down there right away because of work; but she told me there was no need, all was well. Also, I knew Nancy. She was a big, strong woman, like a mighty oak in a beautiful forest. My own father, who was and is in fairly poor health, managed to beat stage 3B colon cancer. If he could do it, surely someone as robust and strong as Nancy would come out of this just fine.
So, I shelved my worries for the moment, told her to let me know when she wanted me to come down to help, and I did what I thought was the next best thing: Over the next several weeks, I was sending regular care packages with everything a chemo patient might like (Werther’s hard candies, wonderful lotion and chap sticks, head wraps, thick cotton socks, peppermint teas, books I thought she’d like, et cetera) to keep her comfortable and occupied during the treatments.
She thanked me, but told me (lovingly) to cut it out. Her nephew lived with her, and while she knew it was not going to be easy, she believed she “was tougher than any S.O.B. like cancer. Relax. I’ve got this.”
The communication between us slowed down a bit, as she told me her Monday chemo sessions left her exhausted for two days. She told me not to expect much, but to please keep emailing and writing posts, because she needed the distraction, and she needed my corny jokes/funny memes.
By the first of December, Nancy finally admitted to me that her cancer was stage 4, and, good news, the chemo had defeated the cancer. We were thrilled — but she then told me that one of the medications used to beat the cancer brought about pulmonary fibrosis, and the least little exertion left her gasping for breath. She was pissed, of course, as was I about “the irony of the whole damn thing,” but she was continued to be optimistic. “All of this could improve in a few weeks,” she said. “We’ll just give it time.”
A few days before Christmas, Nancy sent me a brief message that she was still in the hospital, and there were no changes, but she was still hanging in there.
She congratulated me on a recent find that Jacki Wilson had shared about Emmett for my research, and Nancy was happy to know that the Mississippi State Bulldogs were actually going to a bowl game despite having a crappy season. (Last fall, I converted her into a Bulldog fan! She and I would watch the games on TV while texting each other. What sealed the deal was that I had given her her very own Official Mississippi State cowbell for her birthday on October 10, which she loved!) Nancy also told me she was proud of me for bringing Emmett’s book down to the last 30 pages, and to keep on going. “You’re so close. You’ve got this.”
What I didn’t know was that Nancy went into hospice that day. She didn’t tell me. I wish she had.
I think she didn’t want to worry her friends right before Christmas, which is why she didn’t say anything. She never wanted us to worry about her. When I didn’t hear anything from Nancy during this time, I figured she was resting and dealing with the fibrosis and we’d connect when she felt up to it. Still, I sent her several e-mail messages with obnoxious jokes (the kind she liked) and a rather funny Christmas card; I wished her a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year, and Go Bulldogs!
Nancy’s nephew let me know on Monday that Nancy died the day before, Sunday afternoon, January 8, at about 2:35 pm. She did not suffer, thank God.
She’s at peace; she’s no longer suffering. But at this moment, I feel as if a huge hole has been torn in my heart.
Nancy was the most wonderful person you’d ever know. She was kind, generous, funny, and we had a great dialog. We could talk about anything, and we talked all the time.
She was the friend I know who would be completely honest with me because she loved me as a sister. Over the last several weeks, while I was worried about her, I wanted her to know I was thinking about her and praying for her, and that I treasured her friendship.
In the midst of my sorrow, there is this: Yesterday, one of her dear friends wrote to tell me Nancy disliked trivialities, and so only surrounded herself with those people and things that meant the most to her. So we, the few she specifically asked to be notified immediately after her death, should take comfort in knowing that we were special to her. Her nephew said that it was her firm desire to celebrate life, rather than mourn death.
She’s been on my mind a lot over the past two days. I’ve caught myself reading an odd story in the news, or a corny joke, and I automatically think, “Nancy would love that. I have to send it to her…”
…and then, I realize she’s not there, and I don’t have that kind of ongoing conversation with anyone else at this moment.
I know that Nancy would want me to keep on finding the humor and irony in everyday life, to build new relationships with the people in my life, and to build connections with my friends and colleagues, such as what Nancy and I did. She’d want me to keep on sending the jokes and memes to my other friends, who also appreciate an irreverent sense of humor.
Nancy will be irreplaceable. But I sense, now and then, that she’ll be standing behind my shoulder, watching, looking over Emmett’s manuscript as it comes together.
Maybe even she’ll give me the occasional nudge here and there. I hope so.
Eternal Rest grant unto her,
and let perpetual light shine upon her.
May she rest in peace.
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