Not Your Ordinary Stardust

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.

11875011_10153132977315835_5840960975006124590_oIn 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.


18 thoughts on “Not Your Ordinary Stardust

  1. Cathy Lortie

    Thank you for a beautiful tribute to a woman I only met on one occasion and barely knew. Diana lives on in your heart and in your mind and in Neva. She will always be a part of you, and we will all be better people for knowing her.

  2. William Walters

    Alan, I’m really sorry for your loss, and it seems I missed an opportunity to get to know a wonderful person.

  3. Becky Ostertag

    Alan, there are no good words, but know that her generosity and wonder lives on in all those that she touched. Thinking of you all.

  4. Janet Jansson

    I am awestruck and thankful to gave met her and shared some science. She will be sorely missed. And words of course are not sufficient to express sorrow and thoughts of hope to you and your daughter.

  5. Ann Petersen

    Alan, I haven’t seen you or Diana since I was in grad school at CU 10+ years ago, but I will ALWAYS remember Diana for her HUGE smile and her laugh. She was such an amazing happy positive person. Once I dog- sat for you and Diana and we joked that I needed special instructions for taking care of the moss covered rock in your front yard. Diana thought that was hilarious and never let me live it down. She had a really contagious sense of humor. I am so sorry for your loss, all of our loss.

  6. Mae Nan Ellingson

    Dear Alan,
    Thank you once again for sharing Diana with those like me who may not have known her well. Surely she is honored by the beautiful tributes you have written. Through your descriptions of her, as well as those of your parents and others who have posted remembrances I have become more acutely aware of the magnitude of the loss.
    Diana obviously had both physical and mental strength. But, I suspect that she was bolstered in this journey by your strength and grace, and I am sure her understanding of your strength and grace gave her comfort in knowing that Neva will be well taken care of. Like your parents, I am in awe of that strength and grace.
    Having you and Diana as her parents will serve Neva well. And your gift with the written word will help her know the qualities, values and accomplishments of her mom that she was not able to witness.
    With love and sympathy, Mae Nan

  7. Sarah Hobbie

    Alan, what a beautiful tribute. I am so terribly sorry for your loss. My thoughts are with you and Neva. All my best, Sarah

  8. Mark Cerroni

    Dear Alan,

    Your writing skills are beyond measure, and I applaud your grace during this difficult period. If I may for a moment share with you my own story of Diana’s kindness towards others, I think it will allow you to nod and realize that your lovely wife truly was performing small miracles without anyone (including herself), even realizing.

    I won’t pretend that I was super-close with Diana. Although we were from the same small village in Upstate NY (Black River), she was just “that much” older than me for the two of us to have very much in common (or so I thought). That being said, Diana was very good friends with my late-older brother Michael, so whenever I would cross paths with her, I always received one of those famous smiles you mentioned.

    Anyway, fast forward the clock several years. Diana (like so many of us from that small village) had gone her own way, and the rest of us had gone ours. But, through the miracle of social networking, we all (close friends, acquaintances, former classmates, whomever) were able to remain somewhat involved with one-anothers lives, even if it was only from a distance. Diana’s postings on Facebook were the consistent highlights of my “feed”, because I could always count on her to include a picture of her cherub-like daughter, to offset the overall “drag” of people’s rantings about subjects they were most likely not qualified to comment upon.

    It was around this time, that a stroke of “luck” came my way, and I was invited to be a contestant upon the Wheel of Fortune. To be honest with you Alan, I didn’t have a lot of business being picked. I was never any good at that game, and I only went for the tryout because I felt I didn’t have anything better to do that day. But I was selected nonetheless (long story short), and I made my way to Los Angeles to try to win a million dollars. Well, of course when the time came for me to go under those bright lights, I didn’t do very well. In fact, it was in many ways the most embarrassing moment of my life. The night of “my” episode’s airing, my shortcomings as a player were the subject of good-hearted ribbing from all the folks back home (in fact there isn’t a trip home that it still doesn’t come up, even today), and I don’t think I ever wanted to disappear more than I did that night.

    Then, among the dozens of comments that were finding their way over to me, came a message from Diana. Now as I said already, Diana and I weren’t THAT close of friends, and aside from me commenting from time-to-time on how adorable her daughter was on Facebook, we really hadn’t communicated very much over the years. But then, during my low moment, among the fun being poked my way, arrived an uplifting message from (of all people) Diana Nemergut. She started out by telling me “Hey, good job out there tonight”, to which I responded “Thank you, but I stunk”. Within minutes of my response, Diana came-back with the only message that I think could have made me feel better at that moment. In that message she simply said “All I know is that the name Black River, NY was said on national television tonight, and I couldn’t have been prouder”.

    Alan, I know how petty my “low point” must seem. After all, I did win some money and I got to be on TV, right? But it didn’t feel the way it was supposed to feel; in fact it felt pretty darn terrible. And I swear to you, the only words that could have lifted me up, were the one’s that Diana chose for me. For that, I will be forever grateful to her.

    It was around this time that Neva fell ill. The news of Neva’s condition was shocking to say the least, and I can’t recall many other times in life where I questioned the fairness of the universe more than I did when reading the news affecting “the beautiful little girl from the pictures”. By that point, Diana and I had become somewhat regular pen-pals on Facebook, and I (like so many others) told her that I would hold Neva in my prayers. Diana of course thanked me for that, but I think she really appreciated that I told her I would be sending my prayers for Neva to my “Upstairs Team”, which consists of my loved one’s that have passed-away before me, which of course includes my older bother, and Diana’s friend, Michael. Looking back now, I only wish that I had thought to include you and Diana in those prayers as well.

    The days and weeks rolled-by, and we were all kept abreast of Neva’s progress (via FB), and despite the good news that was coming-in steadily, I continued to hit my knees every night in order to mention Neva to my “Upstairs Team”, until the news came one-day that Neva had been fully cleared! What a glorious victory that was for you all, so much so, that the only news that could have been as “impressive” as Neva’s full recovery, was the subsequent news of Diana’s illness shortly thereafter. I again found myself questioning that same “fairness” of the universe I had questioned when Neva fell ill, and it was then that a realization came my way.

    Now I know this may sound silly, and I hope that it does not come across as offensive in any way, but there is a part of me that believes that some obstacles in this life are too difficult to overcome, no matter how hard we try, without there being a tradeoff of some kind. In my mind, and in my heart, I believe that when Diana’s little girl fell ill all those years ago, she looked up to her own “Upstairs Team” (whatever and whoever that may have been), and said “If it means that Neva will survive if you to take the cancer out of her and place it into me, then that is a deal I would be willing to make.” And again, while I know that it sounds crazy to some, I will always believe that the universe was listening that day, and that unfortunately, it was the only way. I also believe that if my theory is correct, it is a deal that Diana would have made 10 times out of 10, if given the opportunity to do so.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with the world at this time Alan. I know that my “message” has been lengthy, and somewhat strange. But your wife was/is a powerful force that made an impression upon me in quite a few ways, and I felt I owed it to her, as the newest member of my “Upstairs Team”, to let you know that you’re not alone in believing in her truly impressive power.

    Mark Cerroni

  9. George Gilchrist

    Fair winds, Diana. It was a privilege to have known you. Alan and Neva, I know this must leave a big hole in your universe. Love each other. Katy and I are thinking of you.


  10. Jenny Talbot

    Dear Alan,

    Deepest condolences for your loss. Diana is a role model for me and other women in science. Your writings about her character make her even moreso. She, you, and your family are in our thoughts today.


  11. Linda Giudice

    Dear Alan,

    I am so very sorry to hear of your loss. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and loving tribute to your beloved Diana. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

    With sincere sympathies,
    Linda (Giudice)
    MS ENVS 2011

  12. Chad English

    Alan – I never had the pleasure to meet Diana, but I feel like I got a glimpse of her through your writing. I am so sorry for such a terrible loss, I cannot pretend to imagine what it is like for you – but know that you show the sort of grace that you talk of in Diana.


    -Chad English

  13. Dave Hooper

    That just seems crushingly sad and unfair to have such a wonderful person as Diana taken from your and Neva’s lives. The grace in your writing is remarkable. Thanks for sharing that tribute. My thoughts are with you both, and all Diana’s friends and family.
    All my best,

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