Learning to Fly

Yesterday, I got the news that one of the students, a very recent alum, who worked on one of my student teams just over a year ago, lost her battle trying to survive a tragic, life threatening accident. She was just 21, and on the eve of her upcoming  22nd birthday.  On the eve of the rest of her life, really. She was born in the year I began my career working with college students, and as I have said before, irony rarely skips past me.

When I hired her, for a leadership position, I knew within seconds of meeting her that she was a perfect fit for the team I was assembling that year. She was vivacious, articulate, enthusiastic and she wanted the job. All the things you look for. But she was more, you could just see it in her eyes. She was bright, she was positive, she was wise beyond her years. She radiated a joy and had an appreciation for life that most of us don’t wake up and completely understand until we hit life mid-stride.  A thrill seeker, she was always training for something, always found time to go out to support one of the other students on our team who was a star runner on the university’s track team. She had faith in me, her-more-than-twice-her-age-old-enough-to-be-her-mother-boss, when I signed up for my first boot-camp training group. She left notes for everyone around the office with affirming messages, brought in goodies at various holidays and despite challenging personal situations we knew she was dealing with, her attitude and ability to nurture others never wavered. She was the perfect mentor to the younger students she was responsible for helping and welcoming to our department.

This beautiful young woman was passionate about living every bit of her life, she loved the outdoors and was constantly pushing herself in the pursuit of every goal she set for herself. What is so perfectly unfair is that she lost her life as a result of a tragic accident, doing exactly what she adored. She was an ‘adventurist’ and while participating in a jeep-crawling event up in the high Sierra mountains, her jeep turned and she suffered burns over the majority of her body and other life altering injuries. She faced months in recovery and a long road to healing if she could pull through the hardest part.

In my work, I am used to saying goodbye; the people I work to ‘serve’ are supposed to leave!  I have often commented that it’s the perpetual preparation for parenthood, we send these students off into the world year after year, it’s what is supposed to happen if we are doing our jobs well. With every hello, comes more goodbyes, and it’s always hard to say farewell, especially to the ones we see every day. But because it is part of the landscape, we celebrate their leaving with great joy. But, as good as I am at these goodbyes, and despite all my years of  ‘practice’, nothing can prepare you for this kind of goodbye.

What paints the prettiest picture of Rachel, better than I could do with any words, is that within mere days, her family and friends had formed a foundation in her name to help pay for medical expenses,  raised over $20,000 in just over a week with efforts that were ongoing until the day she said goodbye, and established a Facebook page that gathered over 3,000 people within days, and ultimately, 5,000. This kind of response is incredible and speaks volumes about this young lady and the countless lives she has blessed with her resilience, her energy, her undying love of life and her ability to truly see each person. It has given me pause, stopped me in my tracks, to contemplate the kind of young person who generates that kind of response. Within minutes of learning about her accident and the outpouring of love and support, all I could think of is how much I, we, have to learn from someone like her. How she lived, really lived, her life. The small ways that she made those around her feel big. People all around her were only giving back the very thing she had given to each of them at some point, all along or somewhere in between.

To be just a fraction of that…

On my most recent road trip stop to meet Mimi and her Karma Truck, I learned that we share the love of some of the same music, and the song I selected for that part of my ‘trip’ speaks about going whichever way the wind blows you, being out on the open road.  It was only after discovering this song and playing it while ‘driving along’, so to speak, did I learn  the story of the artist, Melody Gardot, a contemporary of Rachel:

…The story of vocalist Melody Gardot is as remarkable as any who perseveres against abject adversity. Born in New Jersey in 1985, she took up piano and played as a youngster on the nightclub scene of Philadelphia, influenced by jazz, folk, rock, and pop music. At age 19 she was a fashion student at the Community College of Philadelphia. But, on a fateful day, while riding her bicycle, the driver of a Jeep made an illegal turn, hurdling into Gardot and leaving her in the street for dead. As she lay hospitalized for months with multiple head injuries and pelvic fractures, her love for music was the best therapy she could receive. While in her hospital bed, she wrote and recorded songs…

Well, maybe your wing may be broken

Well, maybe you’re learning to fly

Well, so am I

Finding your way out on the open road.

I feel inadequate to capture this unexpected paradox of two young lives; both incomprehensibly altered by a jeep, but yet, somehow, I am in the same breath, heartened by this odd, inexplicable cosmic kind of overlap, something that I clearly am struggling to find words for and can only feel at some level.

Rachel :: little lamb, one with purity | Amalia :: industrious, strong

Perhaps, I just want to know that Rachel is not just a bright shiny star, beaming down upon all who love her and who now feel a void once filled by her vibrant self. That she is not just looking out for all of us, sending her love notes and bright smile, but that somehow, someone is there, helping her learn to fly, helping her find her way out on the open road.


25 thoughts on “Learning to Fly

  1. Rachel sounds like she really made a difference in this world, no matter how long she was in it. Beautifully written and so moved to by the Melody Gardot connection. I had the good fortune of working a few concerts with her while I was a House Manager at SFJAZZ. On the second occasion I was escorting her to her CD signing and she immediately grabbed my arm and was quite friendly, even flirty. I was well aware that she was legally blind (perhaps that’s why she latched on to ME). But the funny thing is that my wife, who rarely attended concerts, was in attendance and just as I hit the lobby with the young beautiful star on my arm, there she was. We had a good laugh and Melody couldn’t have been more gracious when I waited until the final autograph seeker finished and I introduced her to my wife.

    Fast forward a few years and I was able to hear her sing a few nights ago at the Herbst Theater on the same day I found out I got a new job. I nearly cried half the show. So wonderful. Bon, I hope you get to see her live one day. And surely you will remember Rachel fondly.


    • Rick – what a great story, exactly why I thought you’d maybe appreciate how her music hit home with me. You are so lucky to have met her, and spend a little time in conversation with her.

      Her story just stopped me in my tracks. Did she sing Amalia at the recent concert?

      What a great connection, that you could be with her music on the same day as the great news of your new job; I could see how it would inspire the tears! Interesting that she is woven through such significant experiences. Thanks for taking a minute here! 🙂


  2. Bonnie – so sorry to read about the loss of a beautiful young person, a life you mentored and that held great promise. This is a beautiful tribute to her. Yes, nothing prepares you for goodbyes and especially good bye to a young person on the cusp of life. Thank you for sharing in the midst of your grief.


    • Maria…thank you so so much, that really means a lot to me. You are right, nothing prepares us to say goodbye to someone who is just beginning to really soar. Hopefully we can learn from the best of who they were in this world and make it a little bit of us!


  3. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss, but what an uplifting story. It reminded me of the Crocodile Hunter and how he passed on doing what he loved the most in the world. Thank you for the reminder to live every day to the fullest.


    • Thank you so much Jessica…she was an uplifting person and it seems that even in her passing,she will continue to inspire people far and wide. You are right, about the Crocodile Hunter, I hadn’t thought of that!


  4. How terribly sad to lose a young person so full of promise, hope, kindness, and I’ll ad adventure. Perhaps we take adventure too lightly and slough it off as an minor attribute in some, but think of the joy it brought Rachel and from that, the joy she shared with others. Some passings are just so confusing and difficult to come to grips with. Maybe that’s the way they should be? Maybe it’s times like these that help us ‘tweak’ the road trips we’ve planned on the open road.

    I’m so sorry for your loss and heavy heart, and the loss of others who have been touched by Rachel. I hope you all take what she gave you and share it with others, the way you did in this post.

    Beautiful words for her Bonnie, and sometimes that’s all we can do.


    • Pam. thank you my dear…such a loss of an extraordinary young woman.
      I love how you say,

      “Maybe it’s times like these that help us ‘tweak’ the road trips we’ve planned on the open road.”

      for what other sense can be made from a loss like this – if we can be reminded of what is most important in life.

      thank you…


  5. This is a beautiful tribute to a beautiful life, Bonnie.

    Thank you for reminding us all how precious life is and how supportive and wonderful people can be in such tragic circumstances


    • Dianne..thank you, so much. I trust that she would want us all to be reminded to think positive and appreciate life and recognize the good in everyone, she seemed to bring it out in everyone around her. xo


  6. I am so sorry that such a bright light on earth is now a bright light in the sky. I too hope there is somewhere there guiding her flight, to ensure that she soars wherever she travels. You have captured her essence with an incredibly loving and gentle hand – I feel like she is someone we all would have been the better for knowing. Yet clearly, she has left an impression of such profundity on so many, perhaps we all ultimately will. Through someone who knew her and loved her, and passed on her incredible spirit as only she would hope. You did that for her with this post Bonnie…xox


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