Saturday, November 2, 2013

Layne Redmond (1952 - 2013)

It was a muggy night in early August in Asheville, North Carolina, and my friend Layne Redmond was sitting up in bed. ...Which was already cause for me to secretly hold my breath. Had she taken her evening dose of morphine? Was her eldest cat still shut out on the porch? What had we forgotten? Had I done yet another incredibly bone-headed thing and, if so, what would it be this time?

"You know, Dave," she began. Of the two times she'd started a sentence like this before, one of them had been because I'd left a pair of wet dish sponges on a painted-wood windowsill, and the other had been because I'd completely blocked the next-door neighbor's driveway. 

"You know," she repeated, "I'm really, really glad you're here."

I tried not to sigh loudly enough that she could hear me from the door.

"So am I," I said. Because I was.

And the thing is, maybe it wasn't until that very moment that I realized how badly those who'd praised my companionship had missed the point completely. It was no gift at all to come to Asheville from my home in Gainesville and spend six weeks adding distracted chaos and forgotten grocery lists into Layne's otherwise serene and dignified circle of end-of-life care. The gift had been -- as it always is, in such matters -- in the receiving of my feeble efforts. The gift had been asking me, in front of two close friends via skype (!), to come to stay with her, despite the palpably non-romantic circumstances. The gift had been the vulnerability of needing someone, and in deciding that, yes, that someone could be me, despite all the broken dishes and forgotten grocery notes. The gift had been presuming that I was up to all of this. And what a gift that proved to be.

The story of Layne Redmond's life and teaching is well known and widely available. From an early age she knew that her path would always be voiced through sprawling creative ambitions and an intense, at times almost reckless-seeming adaptability to evolving opportunities and changing circumstances. She may not be the only person ever to have (a) received an Artists' Studio Grant at The Clocktower in New York, (b) recorded award-winning musical albums, (c) written and successfully published a work of worldwide intellectual significance, and (d) convened an entire global network of pupil-fan-supporter-advocates as a life transforming teacher of self empowerment through artistic expression -- but if there is another such individual then I certainly don't personally know who it might be.   

It's all too easy to acci-plagirize the best of what's available on the web about Layne's resume: Founder of the "626 Broadway" performance artists' colony at the age of twenty-four. Grant-funded visual artist in the most intense and prestigious art city on the planet. Internationally recorded musician and collaborator by thirty. Instructor of the frame drum by thirty-seven and internationally acclaimed author by forty-five. And at each turn the surmounting of each new medium accompanied by the sort of breathless popular acclaim that would have made anyone dedicated to any one of these forms a blushingly contended person for the rest of her short life. In 2000, to pick one random but illustrative example, DRUM! Magazine produced a special edition with the theme of "Heavyweight drummers who have made a difference in the last decade." Of the fifty-three persons named, only one was female. Layne Redmond.

But if the act of sifting the many bios of Layne's professional life seems an unfulfilling component in the development of these thoughts here, then perhaps it has less to do with how many other people have chronicled her amazing accomplishments already, and more to do with just how little any of the tributes and milestones and media accolades ever mattered to the person at the swirling vortex of it all. For Layne Redmond -- for the Layne Redmond that I met at the home of mutual friends in 2007 -- not even a thousand appearances on NPR's All Things Considered would have been worth trading away a single opportunity to reach the individual persons whose lives she dedicated herself to changing face-to-face. Layne never cared about anything more than she cared about speaking truth to you in person. And truth is what she spoke, every moment of her life, regardless of venue or circumstance.

In just three encounters over six years Layne Redmond opened her soul to me as only she could. We shared that first, giddily flirtatious evening at our friends' house; we shared a few stolen moments in my kitchen during my fortieth birthday party; we shared one movie night. Somehow, since it was Layne, that was all we needed. As if it were the most typical thing in the world the two of us had become a pair of people who could share in what we both expected to be her end-of-life transition, experiencing this arrestingly atypical form of intimacy without apology or hesitation. A couple, in the original sense of the word. We haggled over chores. We gossiped. We squinted at episodes of BBC television on her laptop. We cooked for each other and ate profoundly unhealthy food. We argued, and then we got over it. We loved each other. To say that this was a gift on my part, as so many did at the time and have since, is like saying that it was nice of the man who won the lottery to go ahead and accept the check.

By the time I'd even met her, Layne had already been diagnosed with breast cancer. As tough and self-actualized as ever, she embraced both conventional and holistic responses; at their peak she was taking over one hundred pills a day. The holistic remedies did much to improve her symptoms and her state of being, but nothing to alter the scientific reality of the tough odds we all knew she was up against. The conventional medical community could (as ever) do little to alter the cancer's path: They removed her breast and, with an almost palpable helplessness, they had to tell her that they hadn't done so in time to save her life.

In typical fashion Layne's response was to double down: She began working feverishly on new projects -- the last and most ambitious of which remains unfinished -- and to pursue every symptomatic remedy that was offered as a chance to extend her life those extra few paces to satisfy her goals. She was already enrolled in the hospice program early this past summer when a sudden change in her condition necessitated what would for any of us be the most stark and terrifying decision of them all: Owing to an uncontrolled buildup of fluid in her lungs, Layne's pericardium was being squeezed against the heart muscle; she was literally drowning inside her own body. The doctors could cut the "do not resuscitate" band from her wrist and perform a risky draining exercise under general anesthetic, and from there she could expect, maybe, another month. If she didn't want to endure the withering discomfort and the wobbly postoperative recovery, she could expect to perish from asphyxiation in the following 60-72 hours.    

Layne chose the procedure. ...And then, less than a week later, she convened the already-scheduled frame drumming retreat that she was hosting in New York. For the next seven days she trundled up and down a flight of stairs, trailing an oxygen tank, between a series of retreat sessions in a main room, and a flat-on-her-back state of terrified exhaustion in a room directly below. All while her unsuspecting admirers played their drums and loved her with all their hearts and had the times of their lives. It was upon her return to Asheville from this retreat, worn out and frightened, that she reached out to me by skype and told me to come.

We fell almost immediately into an oddly comforting routine. Each morning I rose from bed in the home of a friend of hers across town, drove to Layne's, steeled myself to quiet my thunderous voice, and entered the house to pay a quick check on her, feed the cats, brew the coffee, wash the dishes. Layne didn't need or want a nurse, and she certainly wouldn't have accepted that role from me. What she needed was to keep her decks clear for the work she continued apace almost to the very last. Each morning when she felt up to it, she would adjourn directly to the editing studio to continue the monumental task of assembling the film that had dominated the final months of her life. At lunchtime, I made her lunch. At afternoon-nap time, I took an afternoon nap. Then some more editing while I did some more dishes, and a long, sinfully considered dinner (usually either steak, pork chops, or macaroni-and-bacon that would much more accurately be described as bacon-and-macaroni), an episode of something smart and escapist on the laptop, and back across town to bed. 

I have said to several people about my time this past summer with Layne that, sometimes in life, when someone asks you why you're doing something, the best answer you can give is "I don't know." It's a true-enough statement in the general case, but I don't think I'm going to say it anymore. The thing is, I do know why I went to Asheville to stay with Layne. It's not the absence of a reason; it's the very opposite. I went to Asheville to stay with Layne because she asked me to. If there's a better reason I'd like to be the second person to find out.

Throughout my time with her, and against expectations, Layne's post-operative condition continued to improve. From crawling room-to-room (no joke), she had graduated unabashedly to a walker, and then to limping sideways, and finally to walking just as spryly and normally as any of us -- if only occasionally impeded by the ever-present tether of her oxygen tube. We went to farmers' markets and grocery runs and sushi. Like old pros we switched from the in-house oxygen generator to the tanks and back again. We called Hospice and told them not to bring her any more time-release morphine, and then like clockwork the nurse returned with another bottle of time-release morphine. Each time her vitals were checked, her breathing, her pulse-ox, her incision where they'd drained the fluid from around her heart, she was better than the time before.

At some point in this improbable recovery (she chastened me from referring to it as a 'rally,' as well she should have), Layne felt well enough to begin thinking about her birthday, which would take place at the very end of the timeframe that I could possibly remain with her before returning to my home and professional obligations in Gainesville. At length she decided that what she wanted was a two-day celebration involving as many of the individuals with whom she'd connected, as possible. A holistic retreat center in the area was reserved, and all who could make it to Asheville were told to gear-up for two days of meditation and reflection. Since the capstone event was to be a form of meditation called "bhramari," in which a vibration is made in the front of the throat and one's thoughts are centered around that sound, Layne decided to call the event her "Birthday Buzz-Off." None of us didn't get the joke, or not try to find it funny. And despite all the snafus and cumbersome logistics of trying to host what would eventually be close to 300 people, Layne continued to get stronger, and stronger, and stronger -- all of it as both of us nervously counted-down to the issue of my need to step from her side as soon as the party was over.

The first day and night were splendid: everything Layne had visualized for the celebration and then some. Wonderful meditations, wonderful support, and a grandly bad-for-you pizza party that stretched far later into the evening than Layne had managed to stay up in quite a long time. The next morning, however, we found that we couldn't get her oxygen regulator to seat itself securely at the top of a fresh tank. There in her upstairs suite, as the next designated care-supporter watched on nervously, I tried and tried to show how easy it was to switch an empty tank for a full one, and each time the oxygen began immediately seeping from the replacement with a low but ominous hiss. Ultimately we ran out of time before the start of the next full session downstairs. I told Layne that I'd done the best I could, but it was unlikely that she would get all the way through two hours of speaking and teaching without running completely out of air. We decided that she would signal me at the back of the room when that happened, and I would race upstairs to get her another tank. 

Two hours later, at what I sensed was very near the end of the formal program, I made the mistake of thanking the universe for allowing a slow-enough leak that the changeover hadn't been necessary. I had just formed this thought in my head, all the way through. And then I heard Layne say, directly into a microphone that was being simulcast across the planet and recorded forever to YouTube, "Dave? Can you come up here for a moment please? I need your help."  (Beginning at 1:58:00 of the linked video.)

I essentially hurdled the dozen or so people seated directly between us, and in the next instant I was at her side and looking resentfully at the tank -- which I abruptly realized was still at least a quarter full.

"This is Dave," I heard Layne saying, now. "He came up to stay with me over a month ago, so I'm going to embarrass him."  

 To my shocked surprise, she proceeded to describe a few dozen washed dishes and some burnt pork chops as "nursing me back to health." And then she had the presiding priestess of the entire function bless me, personally, and in front of everyone. I wasn't embarrassed; I was too stunned and utterly overcome with emotion to be embarrassed. But it's safe to say that I hadn't anticipated anything of the sort, even though I should have: It was, of course, exactly like Layne, to do something intimate and warm and intensely personal and just a little bit devilishly sneaky like this, and in just that way that said without having to say it, "I knew you'd never come forward if you knew why." I cried for an hour and a half from the moment I understood what was happening. I cry thinking about it now.

After my departure we stayed in touch, of course -- but it was a form of staying in touch made far more complicated by the finality of that last moment at the Buzz-Off. We skyped twice when it should have been a dozen times. I spoke of coming back for a long weekend, but didn't make it. We e-mailed. We Facebook'ed. Obviously it wasn't good enough for either of us, but at the time it felt as if there was nothing more that we could do.

What I didn't know -- because she didn't tell me -- was that Layne's condition had begun to deteriorate in a way that was making her both uncomfortable and increasingly concerned. At some point in early October she received notice of her high school reunion down in Crystal River, Florida, and again Layne Redmond chose to be Layne Redmond about it all and drive herself the nine and a half hours it would take to get there one last time. We spent much of the next two weeks at the beach house of yet another unbelievable friend, Mary Lane, as I commuted back and forth to hold up my teaching obligations, and Layne grew more and more tired and discomfited and thought more and more of how much trouble it was becoming just to breathe.

By the time her two closest friends in the world had driven down from Asheville to retrieve her and her car, she was dozy, nearly bedridden, frustrated by her lack of control, morphine-addled, and in nearly constant if mercifully not excruciating pain. The decision was made to drive her home the very next day, a Thursday, and at 8:15 the following Monday morning, lying on her best friend's sleeping bag and having eschewed the oxygen tube, she took leave of her body and departed this life for the other side.

Layne was a devout believer in the eastern traditions, and accordingly her body lay in state in her front parlor for three days during Tong Lin meditation practice. I couldn't be there for this, but semi-miraculously I did manage to get back to the house at noon on Thursday, about five minutes before I and perhaps a dozen other people shared the last, heartfelt service of lifting her tiny body into the casket in which she would be cremated an hour or so later. At the mortuary we rang bells in keeping with her favorite rhythm, told wonderfully uplifting stories, and, about ninety minutes after we'd arrived, gaped at the profoundly moving sight of her flame-devoured vessel being stirred gently by the staff. "It's as if she's being cradled by flame," someone said -- and so it was.

Dinner was at Layne's favorite restaurant in town, a sushi bar, where those of us who had provided care in various types ate too much and drank too much and spoke too loudly about the amazing woman whose departure had left such a gaping maw in our hearts. In the highest Irish-wake traditions (and Layne had more than a little Irish in her), we passed an icon around at random and took turns telling our favorite stories about the person and all the resplendently cranky and charismatic ways she'd touched our souls. Nearly every story involved Layne either asserting control over something or barking at someone or both. And each time we laughed a little louder, recognizing that this was the Layne we'd all been drawn to in the first place.

When the evening was over, I realized in the parking lot that the rest of the group could no longer handle the strain of being away from their own lives, and that in the absence of Layne's sister (who'd been present for the cremation but had needed to leave for home in Florida) it would fall to me to, as it were, carry on the vigil -- by staying at the house. It was, and remains, the hardest thing I've ever done. Everywhere I looked in this suddenly empty space I saw remembrances of our amazing summer together. The few things that didn't remind me of that time made it even worse. I hadn't been as convinced that I wasn't up to something since walking through the door the first time in July.

That evening as I slept, alone in Layne Redmond's bed with her two small cats, I was awakened by a howling windstorm so sudden and so boisterous that for all the next day it was spoken about by everyone who knew her. I like to think -- we like to think -- that Layne was playing herself off. A final performance on the largest and most soul-affirming frame drum. That much at least has been a comforting thing to think about. None of us who knew her will ever be the same without Layne Redmond in our lives. She was an emissary of truth. She was a lesson in courage. She was a gift from the universe.

And now she's gone.

Dave O'Gorman
Gainesville, Florida


Anonymous said...

there is nothing to say--I only pray that I can be as good and wonderful a person as she was. WOW.

Anonymous said...

thank you dave. I thought I had cried all the tears that I had for layne, for myself really, and now you've brought me to tears again.

rhythmicginger said...

Dave, thank you so much for that.

You are evidently also an amazing individual.

Thank you.

Adam Warne

Kylita said...

worth the time taken to read ... wonderful glimpse of the most important time of her life ... thank you for this

Unknown said...

Dave, what an incredible account of Layne's last summer. You are truly a wonderful & cherished friend. Layne was lucky to have you with her. Thank you so much for sharing & for bringing the tears front & center yet again.
Debi Hahn

Anonymous said...

Dave~thank you so much for such a raw and touching tribute to Layne. She changed my life but the way she lived and by the way she died...I will miss her terribly...thank you.

Tahya said...

Dear David... with lots and lots of love, permit me to thank you with all my heart for writing this and sharing it with us... Being afar this has truly helped provide "closure" for me (and I am sure many others too) Plus I am most grateful for Steven Thomas' post:
"and so it is accomplished. With honor, joy, memories, and celebration. Shrouded in purples and greens, bathed in flowers."
O, may the blessings Layne shared with us ripple on and on and on and on and on and on and on..... to infinity.... and beyond ... the beyond
sssSSSsssSesheshet, Tahya

Irmgard Cottaar said...

Dear Dave,

Thank you so much for this tribute to Layne - to this unique and powerful woman. So comforting.........
And thank you for your vulnerability, your sensitivity and strength - really powerful - thank you for being you..........
I wish you a lot of love and blessings and beautiful people around you to process........

Lots of love from The Netherlands,

Irmgard Cottaar

Dave O'Gorman said...

Thank you, everyone, for all of these lovely and supportive comments. Layne's gift to all of us keeps giving -- in the form of having each other -- and I will always be grateful for that, among so many other gifts that I will be grateful for from Layne.

Tahya said...

Good morning Dave,

Even tho' we've never met, I think of you often and send my best wishes for a blessed recovery from the deep loss. With sympathy, Tahya

Paula Bickham said...

Thank you David for sharing this beautiful and heart shaped memories of Layne. I miss her every day. She will live on.

Unknown said...

Dave thank you for the gift of beautiful writing and heartful memories. What a loss to us all. Blessings on you and others who were closest to Layne. What you shared has touched me deeply. It is a wonderful eulogy to Layne.

Anonymous said...

Layne will never be forgotten! Such touching memories.