Diana Nemergut was born on June 26, 1974. She passed away with peace and grace, me by her side, on December 31, 2015. She is survived by, well, me, her daughter Neva, her stepchildren Kaelan and Lily, her niece Sophia, her mother Sue and father Bill, her sister Elene, her brother George, and a nearly incalculable broader community of family and friends. But this doesn’t begin to tell her story. I’m not sure anyone could.
A magical moment in the early days of my professional arc came when I learned that all of us – you, me, your dog, your house plants, even your crazy Aunt Edna – are sculpted from the dust of distant stars.
In my world, that stardust is at times flattened into coldly clinical spreadsheets that list percentages from a periodic table. Those rows and columns can tell you a lot, much of it more full of wonder than you might guess. They would also tell you that people look a lot alike, certainly if you’re stacking us up against the house plants. But they can’t tell you something we already know: what the stardust that forms each one of us creates is far from the same.
I like to think that in a precious few, the dust arose from stars that burn hottest, shine brightest, send their light into unimaginable corners of our universe.
Diana was one of those few.
Some years ago, she took me to New Orleans, just a bit after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city she loved. Eventually, we went to the Garden District, the French Quarter, the places tourists go. But first we headed east on St. Claude to the lower 9th Ward. And here, sixteen months past the storm, we found house after house still branded with spray-painted X’s, many of them bearing numbers in one quadrant that let you know how many bodies were found inside.
Eventually, we reached a neighborhood that was quite literally gone. Diana walked slowly from the car, stood beside a ruined foundation, and said that during her AmeriCorps days, there had been a park across the now desolate street. A park she and her team had fixed up, a place for children to play. She had to walk down the road a bit and check a battered street sign to be sure this was the spot. She was crying.
We drove block after block of the 9th and beyond, me nervous about the dangerous reputation of this city as our bright blue rental car drew the occasional cold stare, her simply mourning the loss of neighborhoods she once knew. Neighborhoods nothing like those of her youth but into which she still poured her heart and soul.
That night, we walked from the Marigny to the edge of the Quarter, retracing routes and haunts of her 19th year. On one dimly lit corner, a man approached, black, poor, a little unsteady. I began to steer us away, but she broke off and walked up to him, asked how he was. He gave her a radiant and toothless smile and said I’m awright, I’m awright, could use a little help, get somethin’ to eat. She handed him twenty bucks, asked if he was doing ok after the storm, joked a bit about where we should go to find some music. Then he gave her a bear hug and walked off with a y’all have a wunnerful evenin’ while I stood shamed but also awed by the extraordinary woman beside me.
Because this was Diana. She didn’t care what you looked like or where you came from. Check that, she did: if you had a bigger hill to climb, she wanted to give you a boost. If you were adrift, your confidence shot, your bearings uncertain, your bestowed advantages not those of others, she sought you out, picked you up, provided the fuel that could power your launch. The less you thought you fit, the more devoted she was to changing your mind.
And then there was her work. In its intended form, science should be driven by boundless curiosity, assessed by the data alone, never constrained or misdirected by the human frailties of ego or bias or deceit. In its very best manifestation, these principles somehow fuse with the beautiful human trait of generosity so that others are lifted, their own spark of curiosity lit, such that science and its practitioners alike reach a higher plane. I know a few remarkable people who achieve this alchemy pretty often. But only one seemed to have it define her every single professional day. Diana. And from that arose the most creative and generous scientist I’ve known.
Strength. It’s a word I’ve heard a lot in the last year, sometimes applied to me. Bah. I’m just scratching to get through each day. You want to find true strength? Look at the life she led. Think about what it really meant to be a young girl who had scarcely left rural NY, who endured an unspeakable hardship in her early college days….yet who responded to that by choosing to go to the heart of a southern city she had never seen, and then once there decide to throw herself into its poorest neighborhoods, just hoping to help those most in need. Think about vomiting literally every day of your pregnancy past the eight week mark yet running all but three of those days, even the one on which your daughter was born. Think about the strength it takes to be unfailingly generous, unafraid to be wrong. Think about getting a death sentence and meeting that by going home to dance to Rebirth with your daughter. About running or cycling every single day of a grueling radiation and chemo treatment. About not only entering but winning races while chock full of drugs and a growing tumor and so dizzy you can hardly see. And about always choosing to lift the burden off everyone else, right to the very end, even as cancer was taking you down.
The closest thing I know to her strength sits beside me right now, a mini-Diana if there ever was one, the two of us climbing through 35,000 feet. This is a little girl who has endured staggering hardships of her own, yet seems to meet each one with the same grace and care for others that defined her mother. On Christmas, her mom confined to bed, she wanted to take Diana her stocking and gifts before opening her own. On learning of her mother’s passing, she wanted to know how everyone else was doing.
Because Diana was her mother, one who brought the same grace and resolve and generous spirit to motherhood that she did to every other part of her life. Who showed that one could be at once an extraordinary mom and scientist and make the whole damn thing remarkably devoid of stress, even when circumstances screamed otherwise. Who took trains, planes and automobiles to a German conference on her daughter’s cancer after essentially forcing her way onto the agenda, simply so that she could make the best possible decisions on what Neva might need. Who would stop at nothing to give her daughter not the modern trappings of material success but rather the foundation of a healthy, happy, connected life.
In essence, Neva began at the base of the mountain that became her namesake, Diana and I in camp chairs, lost in wonder beneath a Perseid-lit sky. Years later, we found ourselves in the same spot, only to depart minutes later as Neva announced her imminent arrival.
Two hours from now, this plane will bring that mountain into view once more, a few days before some of the brightest stardust ever to assemble is laid to rest in its shadow. But that stardust won’t be gone. One only need look up on a cloudless night to know it burns as brightly as ever.
Thanks to Bill Bowman for the beautiful photo of the Perseid meteor shower.