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Olivia

 

According to the New York Times, Olivia Cole died a week ago Friday, on January 19th, which was only a few days after the last time my Mom had spoken to her on the phone. At first, we weren’t sure the news was real; maybe someone had confused her with her mother, who died this fall. But her mother had a different last name, and lived in NY, while Olivia lived in Mexico, and the news stories had that detail right. And then we saw a quote from her agent, and too many more details that made it all sound true.

Olivia was dead.

Olivia is dead.

Oivia & Mom stacked

Olivia and her Mom

It still seemed so unlikely, though. She was just in New York in December, traipsing across the city by foot, despite her rheumatoid arthritis, because she didn’t like spending money on taxis. She even refused to take a cab when she had to be at the airport at five o’clock in the morning, and instead chose to wear most of the clothes, so she wouldn’t have to carry them, and take the subway at three o’clock AM, in the middle of winter.

Mom was worried about that trip back to Mexico, with twenty four hours in transit, and called Olivia a number of times to check if she’d made it home safely. Olivia had a landline, but no cell phone, or email, or even a computer, so when Mom didn’t hear back, so she emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel and finally heard that Olivia had made it home safely. It still took a few weeks for Olivia herself to call, though. She didn’t like to use her phone for international calls, so she would borrow her friend’s computer-based phone system, on Mondays, to make her calls. She called on MLK day, and the two old friends talked about the need to take care of oneself, and about the foundation Olivia wanted to build, to help finance early education for children of color.

Olivia was one of my mom’s lifelong friends, from their years in the drama club at Hunter High School, and she would pop in and out of our lives every few years, sending tickets to plays she was in, and visiting when she came to New York to see her Mom. The first time I met her in person was when I was eleven, when she played Mama in A Raisin in the Sun at the Roundabout theatre in Manhattan. Seeing Olivia on stage was just like seeing her in real life: she was a character. She was larger than life. She was stubborn and opinionated and fiercely intellectual, delving into the Shakespearean canon for life lessons in even the most obscure of areas. She loved acting, and reading, and opining, but she didn’t like fame, or compromise.

Then Mom received the email, this Thursday, from a high school friend, with the attached announcement of Olivia’s death in the New York Times. The article said that she’d died of a heart attack in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she’d lived for the past thirty years. Mom called to me from the living room, sounding odd, and the only word I understood was “Olivia” and I thought, that’s weird, Olivia wouldn’t call on a Thursday. When I reached her and she repeated “Olivia’s dead?” as a question, I was sure it was a mistake. Yes, Olivia was 75, and had rheumatoid arthritis, and no sense of her own limits, but she took good care of her health and went to all of her doctors on her most recent visit to New York. She hadn’t mentioned any heart issues to my Mom, but then again, she wouldn’t. She was full of plans for the future, and still full of piss and vinegar, never changing, and never really aging.

 

Norah Olivia and me

Three old friends on a recent visit

Since we were still not quite believing the news. Mom emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel for confirmation. The email came back, yes, Olivia was found on her porch, sitting upright in a chair, reading an old article about Barack Obama. Friends hadn’t heard from her in a couple of days and decided to check on her, and they found her there on the porch. The comfort for the people who knew her is that this is exactly how Olivia would have wanted to go: reading and thinking and full of hope for the future.

I had to go to my internship soon after the death was confirmed, but Mom’s high school classmates stepped in, sending messages on their class listserv, offering memories and kindness and compassion. These New York girls grew up knowing that all that mattered was how smart you were, not the color of your skin, or which neighborhood you lived in; and a woman could become anything she wanted to be: a lawyer, a doctor, a mother, a teacher, a writer, or an actress.

There’s a sweet coda to this story. We had a visit from a bird last weekend, two days after Olivia’s death, though we didn’t know that at the time. The bird stayed in the apartment for a while, resting in the quilting closet, and on the vitamin bottles on the entertainment center, and then in the light fixture in the dining room. The bird seemed to want to stay with us, fluttering from place to place indoors, even though the window in mom’s room was wide open. Looking back at that visit, after the news of Olivia’s death, Mom is convinced it was Olivia, saying goodbye. Because that would be a very Olivia thing to do.

 

bird in the fabric closet 2

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

107 responses »

  1. What a beautiful friend. I am sorry for the loss of her.

    Reply
  2. I am so sorry for the loss of your family friend, Rachel. Beautiful story.

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  3. The bird…wasn’t that magical? It sounds like Olivia did not just live life. Olivia LIVED LIFE! I am sorry, Rachel.

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  4. Effie Carayannis

    I am so sorry for the loss of your dear friend, Rachel. Sending Hugs for you and your mum

    Reply
  5. What a beautiful post, and I believe as your mother does that bird came as Olivia- a gilgul perhaps. I am sorry for the loss of your friend. ❤

    Reply
  6. Yes, we birds are like that. The only being I’ve ever known who went out in her way was Kyla, the rescue Scottie. She was a foodie and her body was full of melanoma. She went out in her style, eating treats as the vet’s injection took effect.

    Reply
  7. I remember an earlier post when you introduced me/us to Olivia — what a beautiful woman she seems to me. Blessings to her and sweet, uplifting prayers to you and your mother.

    Birds are ancient messengers. This is definitely a Wren – maybe a Carolina Wren? Hugs

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  8. I’m so sorry for your loss, Rachel. She sounds like she was very special. I hope you and your mom find strength and comfort in all the memories you have of her.

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    • She was a very special woman. I wanted to write the post for my Mom, to collect some of that love and energy into one place, and all of the love my blog family has been sending our way is precious to both of us.

      Reply
  9. I want to go out just like Olivia! Hugs to you and your mom.
    It’s funny about the bird, cause a similar thing happened to my dad after my mom died. A bird got in the chimney and he was sure it was my mom. Somehow, the bird got out. What’s weird was the chimney was fenced off and it has never happened again

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  10. So sorry for your loss.

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  11. how amazingly beautiful. what a lovely tribute to such a lovely friend. i’m sure she was the bird who wanted a last visit with you

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  12. Warm thoughts to your Mom and to you. She will miss her precious friend deeply. What a sweet gift the way the bird came and filled your home.

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  13. What a beautiful and heartfelt post. Thank you so very much for sharing more about Olivia. I’m sure that bird was her giving you a little farewell. Condolences to you and especially your mum.

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  14. I’m very sorry to hear of the loss of a wonderful person. Commiserations.

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  15. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    So very sorry!

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  16. I am so sorry, Rachel, but I am glad that she was in your life. What an amazing person.

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  17. What a beautiful tribute! The bird must be Olivia. A wonderful friend like her would never leave without saying goodbye. Hugs to you and your Mom. ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ

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  18. Sorry for your loss. As you said, the universe is a magical place and I too believe the bird came with a comforting message from your and your mother’s friend.

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  19. The loss of a friend is always tough, enjoy her bird-visits in the future. I hope she will be back.

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  20. So sorry to hear of the death of your much-loved family friend.
    My wife is a strong believer in the association of birds and spirits, so that may well have been Olivia’s farewell.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  21. I am sorry for your loss. This is a wonderful tribute to a remarkable woman. Thanks for sharing.Viola.

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  22. My commiserations. We hear so many stories like that of the bird.

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  23. The bird says it all. My sympathies to you and your Mom. xo

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  24. Beautiful post lovely, sorry for your loss. There’s a reason we’ve planted a lot of trees in our backyard.

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  25. What a beautiful woman! And such a beautiful story. My dad was a beekeeper. When he died, thousands of honeybees came to his funeral.(No one got stung.) So, yes, Olivia lives on. Find comfort there.

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  26. I am so very sorry for your loss of such a dear friend. I like the idea of the bird coming to say farewell.
    My Mum is now reunited with my Dad, and I shall be saying my final goodbye next week. Mum and Dad will always be with me, as will your Mum’s friend Olivia.

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  27. My condolences. I agree, it looks like a Carolina Wren.

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  28. Sorry for your loss. Indeed, I have to agree with your mom’s observation about the bird. Life spirit is a remarkable thing, it touches life even from beyond the living.

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  29. such a lovely remembrance post, Rachel – many thanks for sharing – my condolences to you & yours. as sad as it is that our time here is limited, it is good to read your story as a reminder of how truly sweet life can be, filled with treasures…

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  30. So sorry for your loss Rachel x

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  31. It looks as if the bird came to bring you a message and Olivia sounds like a wonderful person – we are so sorry for your loss 💜

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  32. When it is our time, may we all go so quickly and quietly, doing whatever it is we love to do. May you and your mother’s happy memories of Olivia overshadow the sorrow of death.

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  33. She looks like a remarkable woman. I’m sorry for your loss.

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  34. I’m so sorry for you and your mom’s loss. Olivia sounds like a very special woman. I’m glad to have learned of her.

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  35. I LOVE this! Yes, the bird was surely her spirit! This is a beautiful story-so well written. Thank you for sharing! As a side, I’m as obsessed with everything my dogs do!

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  36. I am so sorry for your loss.

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  37. What a wonderful life to celebrate–and what a big void Olivia’s passing must create! Thinking of you and your mother…

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  38. I’m sorry for your loss, and what a sweet tribute to her memory you have written.

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  39. I’m so sorry for your loss.

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  40. Thanks you, Rachel. That is a beautiful story, and you wrote it in a manner that conveyed just how much she meant to you and your mom. I am sorry for your loss.

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  41. I am sorry for your loss. That was such a wonderful goodbye to a special person that I have tears in my eyes as I’m typing this. I’ve always believed that if your life has meaning and purpose, you touched the lives of others, you are loved, and also remembered – then your life was a success.

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  42. Sorry for you and your Mom’s loss. Olivia sounds like she was was wonderful person.

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  43. So sorry that you have lost such an important and remarkable person dear to you. Pip and the boys

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  44. Sweet story, and I believe Miss Olivia stopped by for a visit to say she was doing fine.

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  45. Sorry about your friend.

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  46. Full of sadness for your mom…but what a triumphant spirit Olivia must have been.
    Lovely tribute, Rachel.

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  47. Oh, Rachel. I’m so sorry for your loss. I was just catching up on blog posts and read this. It’s so very hard to be blindsided by a loved one’s death. My deepest sympathy to you and your mother.

    Reply
  48. What a beautiful tribute to your friend. Condolences. I love when our loved ones visit us one more time in the form of a bird (or other spirit).

    Reply

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