Along the avenue of beautiful women Judy Feder, who died yesterday at 53, never failed to attract notice. It wasn’t just her slender waist and long lashes, her red hair and porcelain skin, her knowing smile and flashing eyes. That all helped, of course. Those drawn into Judy’s field of gravity became aware of another dimension to her loveliness — her spirit, which moved at its own pace and was adorned with words like this: Vivid. Secure. Adventurous. Ambitious. Animated. Alive.
Judy was the first girl I ever loved. It didn’t last nearly long enough. But in the few months I was lucky enough to call her my girlfriend during the summer of 1971, she at the Westchester Music and Arts Camp, me as a young counselor in training in western Massachusetts, we wrote long, bright, ardent letters to each other. Hers came three times a week — neat feminine cursive on blue stationary. Mine were sent just as often — pencil on white paper I scrounged from other counselors. On the days that the mail brought Judy’s letters I savored her prose. My heart beat faster. I read her letters again and again. Those weeks away from Judy, she inspired in me the ability to love and the capacity to write.
We all have our roles. After Judy alerted me that our romance was over –in characteristically Judy notation that mixed the clear drum beat of doom with flute like grace notes — she almost never failed to introduce me to people as her “first boyfriend.” She did it to tease me. But she also wanted me to know that she’d reserved a permanent place in her heart for a first love.
Judy was the least ambiguous person I ever knew. My mother once told me that the most difficult years of her life were my teenage adolescence, which both describes the distractions of that period and the fortunate life Mom has lived. The point, though, is that Judy also disapproved. The high school classes missed. The grades that didn’t measure up. The partying and carousing and carrying on. Once, and only once, she caught up with me in the hallway at White Plains High School and let me know that I could and should do better. I don’t remember the precise words but I do recall how she said them. It may have been the only time I was near her that Judy didn’t smile.
Judy went on to Princeton and Tapani, a career, and her handsome capable boys. One weekend, before Eero was born, she came down to Washington with Tapani and Eliel to spend a few days at my house. We hiked in the Shenandoah National Park, strolled the National Mall, drank wine, and laughed alot. Every morning during her shower Judy entertained us with arias and melodies, the songs of a happy woman who delighted in what her life had become.
Like everyone else, I gulped when Judy announced she was sick. She resisted its onset, which is the only way she knew. She responded to the pulse of love that her family and friends sent by sending it back. Her emailed dispatches kept us abreast of breakthroughs in medical science even as they provided candid access to Judy’s passion, reckoning, endurance, and commitment to live. She would still spin, as she always had, at the center of her own life.
“The vocabulary of caring (aka “how do you talk to sick people”) interests me greatly these days,” Judy wrote in February 2009. “I’ve never been quite sure how to respond to “how are you?” Most of the time I answer, “I’m feeling well thanks,” or “I’m doing pretty well.” Lately, I’ve been trying out: ‘I’m actually very sick at the moment, but I’ve just started a new regimen, and I’m feeling optimistic.” Or, “I’m not feeling very well, but we’re working on it and I think we’ve got a good plan. Of course, there are always the people who go beyond “how are you” to “how’s your treatment going” or “how did that procedure go?” I’m grateful for these questions, but I realize that the brain is not wired to process the answers.”
She added: “But how I do love the heightened joy of those every day miracles. I loved the magnificence of The Seagull and the ass-kickin’ Alvin Ailey. I loved lighting candles all over the house during the holidays and sharing memorable meals with those I hold dear. I loved making excellent music a few Sundays back. I loved hearing a student of John Updike read his words with the tenderest reverence. I even love helping a younger cancer sister through some of the low points I know all too well. And I love all of you.”
Judy Feder’s life — purposeful, well-lived, and too short — was distinguished by her brains, her joy, her flair. And one more. Her pure resonance.
— Keith Schneider