Remembering Emma: A Long & Winding Thought Process
Emma & I first met in 2001, in a photography class at Keighley College. We were instant friends, and I was struck by how easy it was to communicate with her. Emma’s bohemian, literary charm always made her the easiest person to be around. She always had something witty and insightful to bring to the conversation no matter the subject, and to this day she is the smartest person I have known, and yet also one of the most emotionally accessible – even when I didn’t really understand what she was talking about, it was never a challenge to know what she was saying, and she always made seemingly effortless sense of whatever random pontifications were on my mind.
I often nickname people I feel close to, not through any discernible process I’m aware of, but just because in my mind that name fits the person for some weird mnemonic reason I don’t even try to understand. Emma was always ‘Billy’ to me (again, I have no rational explanation for this), and she was utterly unfazed, accepting my oddness without hesitation (though she drew the line at ‘Bill’). Of course, I would come to realize that this unflinching tolerance for others’ quirks and foibles was a defining part of who Emma was, and our willingness to accompany each other on silly projects – both real and hypothetical – was doubtless one of the reasons we were so close.
We spent hours busking in Haworth in the run-up to Christmas 2003 (we tried Settle once too, but Haworth was better). We usually only made enough to buy a couple of drinks afterwards, but it really wasn’t about the coins the American tourists dropped in the guitar case – it was about doing something creative together, a way of actively enjoying each other’s company that I always relished in spite of the cold. Freezing my arse off on the bench halfway down the hill, singing Pink Floyd’s Breathe while Emma did the long bendy bits that sound like whales on her flute, then heading down the pub to discuss the finer points of fingerless glove design over a pint – these are my fondest memories of our friendship.
But it wasn’t all music and silliness. When times were tough, we had an unspoken but clear commitment to supporting each other. I visited Emma while she was in hospital, and she opened her door to me when life got the best of me and I needed a kind but honest ear & shoulder. We repeatedly sought each other out when we needed to vent, or to discuss an important decision before committing to a course of action.
As time went on, and our lives got busier and more grown-up, we spent less time together, but we still spoke regularly, and we often called each other to sound off about problems, ideas, plans – I would talk to Emma to check myself, to make sense of my own thoughts and feelings, and she never failed to provide sympathy, understanding, clarity and insight, all with the very honest, forthright, human intelligence that was so unique to her. I can only hope that my advice and support was half as useful to her as hers was to me. Despite not seeing each other very much, she remained a vital presence in my life, even after I moved to America in 2006. We continued to speak regularly on the phone, and Emma helped me through a difficult culture shock as I struggled to assimilate into my new life.
I watched Emma’s career develop with a kind of green-eyed pride. Here was my friend, my confidante, my Billy, making good in the world, achieving and embodying things I could only aspire to. I was a little bit jealous, but at the same time so happy to see Emma’s unique intelligence and experience paying off – she deserved every ounce of her success and so much more.
I managed to see Emma on my birthday when I returned to England to visit in June 2013, thanks to the collaborative trans-Atlantic ingenuity and deception of Helen Trunks and my wife Jennifer. There was a lot going on, and time was short, but I got to spend some time with Emma and to introduce her to my wife, who of course loved her instantly. If I’d known that would be the last time I would see her it would have been a very different night, but I’m so glad I did get to see her one more time in full celebration mode (celebrating Emma was always quite a thing to behold), and that Jennifer was able to meet and bond with this phenomenal person she had heard so much about.
Emma’s passing has left so many of us feeling empty – there is a Billy-shaped hole in my heart, a silent and perpetual reminder that I’m not ready for this friendship to be over, not ready to accept that calling my friend to share a success or lament a failure is an option that’s been taken suddenly off the table. I’m not ready to admit that I may not be able to mourn her properly until years from now, when I return to Yorkshire to walk Haworth’s cobbled streets or the Beck Side in Sutton and realize that she will never walk those paths with me again.
It’s a strange thing to lose a loved one from such a distance – there is nothing here to remind me of Emma, nobody here who knew her, nothing external to bring about the cathartic outpouring of emotion that usually accompanies such loss, no conspicuous absence to jangle my nerves into producing the tears I need to shed for her. Part of me feels that I dishonour her by failing to release those feelings, but I also know she would understand, and if she were here she would have something both profound and down-to-earth to say about it, probably having a good laugh at my self-indulgent wallowing, or joking that my skeptic personality can’t even get off the fence and stop analyzing itself long enough to commit to a proper grieving process.
This is one of the times I wish for a bit of Yorkshire weather. It would feel right to be trudging through the drizzle today, wrapped in a coat and scarf, but even as October begins plucking the first leaves of Autumn from the trees, the sun continues to beat down on the Midwest, scorching the cornfields golden brown, hotter than any Keighley summer. Emma would tell me to get out and enjoy it, to focus on introducing my infant daughter to the world rather than wasting my energy thinking in circles about how to say goodbye to an old friend. I’m not convinced she truly realized how important she was to the people around her, or how hard it is for us to let her go, but even now, her advice is still good.
So, after a long and winding thought process, perhaps it comes down to this:
Emma – you were one of my favourite people in the whole world.
I wish you peace.
I miss you terribly.
You are loved and remembered.