Last week Fran left. I don't want to say she's gone or she died, because she lives in our hearts. She was one of the bright lights of activism in Durham, in North Carolina and beyond. On Saturday we celebrated her life, some 250 of the people who shared it with her. A number of people spoke about Fran--her work organizing mill workers with Brown Lung disease, her efforts to save the Crest Street community when the Durham Freeway was built, her leadership at the Environmental Resource Program at UNC, her Buddhism, her love for and pride in her son, Theo. Steve Schewel, a long-time friend, mentioned her full-body birthmark and called it God's racing stripe. There were tears, poems, singing and, most fittingly, laughter.
Of the whole tapestry of Fran's life, I lay claim to one small piece, having known her for just six years.
I knew of her before that, of her fight, years before, when the Durham Freeway was chewing up our community. She worked with the Crest Street neighbors to save their neighborhood, seeing to it that the Department of Transportation moved everyone together up onto the hill behind the VA Hospital.
She had energy and ideas and passion. Perfect! I asked her to serve on the board of the Eno River Association, but she said no, she had too much to do then. That's the usual polite brush-off to that kind of request.
Fran did something different, however--she came back a year later and said, "Now." She had finished projects and was ready, as ever, for something new to do. She jumped into Eno business and suffered through long meetings and joined our resource development committee. And even though she thoroughly disliked asking people for money, she helped put together our first real fund-raising campaign and to make it a success.
Last week I took Fran over to UNC for a follow-up to her chemo. I got her in the car and we started down the road. She began telling me all the things that she wanted to do that day, bubbling with each task as she thought of it. Afraid of forgetting some of them, I finally pulled over to the curb and wrote them all down. I found that list a few days ago, and it reminded me that Fran was always, always Fran. There were more items on the list than we could ever hope to accomplish in the time we had to do them. In the midst of things she needed for herself (you know--the essentials like prescriptions, chocolate) there were items for others, gifts to say "thanks." And there were treats she wanted for neighborhood children. We didn't get everything done, but we did buy the cookies for the kids. She couldn't walk, but she could buy cookies.
She cherished this old world. She was at home in the woods. It gave her peace and a sense of connection, and she wanted that for herself and for all of us, especially the children. In her life she worked to protect the woods and streams, on a very large scale and on a very personal scale as well. She loved Ellerbe Creek, which flows through her neighborhood, and she loved the Eno.
When she wanted to get away from being sick, we'd go for walks. Our last walk was by the pump station on the Eno. At one point I started to point out something along the trail and Fran said, "No, no--this is my trail." She knew it well, from many previous walks with many other people.
We took our time and wandered along taking photographs. Even then she was engaged in learning, asking questions about photography and working on her skills. We also talked about the importance of having wild places, and we talked about child-rearing.
She told me that it's important to get our kids out into nature as soon and as often as possible. When Theo was 2, she said, she insisted on taking him backpacking. He was in a carrier on her chest, and she carried a backpack on her back. She thought about it for a moment and laughed and told me it was a crazy thing to do. Go car camping instead, she said, but go.
Walking at the pump station was particularly fitting, because it was one of the places that would have been most impacted had Eno Drive been built. My first clear memory of Fran was at an Eno River Association annual meeting, about seven years ago. The people who had been leading the fight against Eno Drive were worn out, and the association's efforts were beginning to lag. Fran sat through the meeting and got up at the end and challenged us. She wanted to know what we were doing, what we were going to do. She was clear she didn't have the time to devote to it, but it needed doing and we'd better get on the stick. She rallied us, and others in the association stepped up and took on the work, and today the whole length of the state park, and especially the pump station, are safe from the ravages the road would have brought. In large part, because of Fran.
Here's something I learned from her: You know the philosophy "It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission"? Fran showed me that if you do what you know is right, forgiveness really isn't relevant.
Here's something else: Live full throttle.
Fran never stopped. After the cancer returned and she had to consider what was most important to her, the Eno was on the list. She changed her will so that even now she's supporting the work of the association in protecting the Eno. She did it for all of us, and most importantly, for our children.