When Rebekah Owen was 13 years old in 1976, her father murdered her mother with a revolver as Rebekah and her younger siblings played next door. This totally devastating incident helped shaped one of the most compassionate and optimistic people I’ve ever known. Yes, she went “wild” for a long time after that — drinking too much, sleeping with all the wrong men. She married three times to men who only hurt her. When she finally met her fourth husband, Mike, a couple of years ago, she confided in me that she didn’t want to get married again because she was “a three-time loser,” afraid that marriage would doom her relationship with this sweet and wonderful man — a man who finally truly loved her.
And now, at 49 years old, she’s dead from brain cancer.
We’d been friends for almost 20 years, having met in 1995 at a nonprofit we were both involved with in San Jose, CA. While I liked her instantly when we met, she later changed my life one day with a simple gesture of kindness. (This day is memorialized in my unpublished memoir. A handful of agents are reading it as I type.) We remained steadfast friends over the years. She kept my life’s biggest secret close to her heart and loved me through the hardest times of my life, always offering words of wisdom, love and compassion. And she helped me move out of the house when I divorced. (“No one should go through that alone! Been there, done that!” she said.) She liked to answer the phone by saying “Hi cutie!” and end the conversation with, “Love ya!” I loved her, too. And told her so whenever I could.
I kept the few secrets she had and always will. But it was no secret how deeply her father had wounded her life.
“Life easing up is called death.” — An email to me on August 4, 2008
In late 2008, she moved from San Jose, CA to Dallas, TX. She was a real estate broker and The Crash had hit her hard. Dallas seemed like a good alternative. She was learning to work with short sales and foreclosures. Ultimately, Dallas didn’t work out. Among other issues, it proved too religious for her, too conservative and cultish. To make matters worse, her dog, Rebel, died just before she returned to California in 2010. Rebel’s death crushed her heart. “That dog loves me more than any guy I’ve ever been with,” she once told me. “Tell me: why do I need a man, again?”
Rebekah believed in Jesus and considered herself a Christian, but her beliefs were far more nuanced. Her liquid spirituality enabled her to be flexible, accepting and resilient…
Now my god is not some assyrian 20 something with surfer dude hair. My god is a girl.
She’s a cartoony, kinda chunky, pirate-y gal with a great twinkly laugh and a strong presence – she’s not menacing but you just know you can’t take her down.
As I re-read a chapter she sent me of the memoir she was writing, it’s clear her father suffered PTSD. He’d been in the air force for many years, serving in the Middle East in the early 1970s. When he came home for good, the violence and mood swings escalated to the point of catastrophe. After he shot his wife, he walked into the dining room and laid down the bi-centennial .357 Smith & Wesson where Rebekah’s cereal bowl had sat the morning before. The gun was red-hot with a round left in it when he called the cops to turn himself in. At that moment, Rebekah had to become The Mom to her three younger siblings; none of whom could totally fathom what had just happened.
But Rebekah shouldn’t be remembered for her wounds. Rather, she should be remembered for her compelling strength. How she rose above the cruelty and insanity of life to love others selflessly — not as a saint but as a fiery woman who loved sex, margaritas, hard rock and good friends.
I first heard she was sick in an email last June 2012. A brain tumor. I called her immediately. She told me about her memory lapses and how she’d been with a group of friends a few weeks earlier at El Torito when it came to a crisis. As they waited in the lobby for their party to get a table, Rebekah was “blanking.” Weird clumsiness, nausea and dizzy spells had been plaguing her for weeks. She didn’t go to the doctor because she didn’t have any money or health insurance. When the server said, “Follow me this way,” Rebekah replied, “Wait — where are we going?”
Instead of partying, her friends took her straight to the hospital.
“Honey, I am worried,” her boyfriend said.
“What are you worried about, baby?” she replied.
“I was told that any woman with half a brain wouldn’t date me.”
In July 2012, she helped me with a horror story about a real estate broker. Her realism improved the story ten fold. I knew it was hard for her to read. I didn’t think she’d be up for it, but she was thrilled to help. She was always thrilled to help. I relied on her input for over a decade of my writing career because she was honest and articulate without being abrasive.
The last time I spoke to her was in — September? October? She had a blog I didn’t know about (or maybe had lost track of). She had a new dog named Shadow that she loved. Mike was her rock. I thought she was #winning. I’m kicking myself so hard right now. I was so wrapped up in my bullshit that I didn’t go see her. I wanted to go see her so badly. But instead I succumbed to self-involvement instead of flying up for a weekend to see my beloved friend who was sick — little does it matter whether or not she was #winning. Who fucking cares?
It was brain cancer. Goddamned fucking BRAIN CANCER.
I had had another friend who’d licked a brain tumor just prior Rebekah’s diagnosis. I guess I took it for granted that Rebekah would make it, too. She was healthy, a vegetarian, a biker and runner. There was no history of cancer in her family. (Although, she did use a Blue Tooth. She’d asked her oncologist if there was a causal relationship between the fact that the tumor was on the side of her head that she wore the Blue Tooth, and he responded that there wasn’t evidence to support it.) Anyway, all these things increased her chances of beating cancer.
But she didn’t.
I’m trying to celebrate her life, but the grief is burning my chest like a spent shotgun shell falling into my dress top. She’d told me once about how her father taught her how to shoot a .22 rifle, but when that shell dropped into her dress and singed the delicate white skin of her chest, she swore she was done with guns. Maybe someday I’ll be done with grief.
What’s adding to my grief is that her Facebook and Twitter accounts have been shut down. Her words and photographs have been taken away when what I want more than anything is to see and hear her again. I’m instead combing through emails and her blog to stop the hemorrhage of loss. I’m sure it’s painful for her family to see those things, but they’re invaluable to her legacy as a human being. She never had children, as much as she wanted them. Her fallopian tubes were severely blocked. IVF was not an option. And even if she’d had children, her words would mean everything to me. They’re the next best thing to hearing her voice.
I didn’t find out about her death until late last night. I’d called and left her a voicemail back in June. When I didn’t hear back, I assumed she was busy. (Question: Why the hell is her voicemail still working seven months later?) We usually went months without phone calls. It was no big. But then I started to worry. I emailed her on Saturday. No response. By Sunday night, my spider senses were tingling. I was obsessively Googling her name, trying to get an idea of what was going on via her online life. As I just mentioned, her Facebook and Twitter accounts had been shut down. I knew something was up.
And then I found this last entry of her blog. It’s titled, “Beating the Odds,” but the entry seems to indicate that she’s not. That’s when I Googled on my iPhone the phrase “Rebekah Owen died” and found a Facebook page called “Remembering Rebekah.” Her memorial was December 19, 2012. Since I wasn’t part of any of her regular social groups up north, no one told me.
I handed the iPhone to Bret and started shaking. After a moment, the tears started and wouldn’t stop.
Truthfully, if I’d learned of her death back in December, I probably would have collapsed. My hands were still badly injured, I’d just lost Ophelia on December 2 and I was rear-ended in a car accident December 3 that left me with whiplash. I was suffering under a brutish, abusive, incompetent manager at work (who was later fired) and I thought I was going to fall apart entirely as it was. If I had known then, I might not have handled it as well as I am today, as deeply as it hurts.
I had nightmares last night about my mother’s death. Rebekah was the first person I had called when I’d gotten the news about my mom. I knew she would understand. Rebekah’s own death has hammered my core. I can only imagine how it must have been for Mike and the rest of her family.
I’ll leave off with a prayer that she and I had often said together:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Love ya back, lady.