I was in Portland, Oregon on Friday when I got the news. Paula Ettelbrick had died. It is odd how something can not be a surprise and yet still be a shock. Many knew that Paula’s ovarian cancer, a particularly vile and aggressive type, was back. Just 13 days before her death, Paula sent a message to a list of friends who asked to be kept updated on how she was doing, telling us news that had me bursting into tears at the breakfast table—she was ending all treatment and beginning hospice care. Her note ended by telling us how much we mattered to her and how important our work was. Vintage Paula.
And yet, I still could not believe she was gone. As I walked the streets of Portland that morning, I reflected on the amazing leader and advocate that Paula was. She was unflinching in her feminist vision of full inclusion and justice for all. Paula tirelessly and fiercely fought for the almost forgotten and often ignored. Whether it was people, or issues, Paula was always asking and challenging us to think bigger, more broadly, more expansively.
There are many places where you can read a full account of Paula’s amazing life and work. But what I keep coming back to, even in my dreams, are memories of Paula as a person. When I called Sandy to tell her the news Friday morning I could hardly contain my grief. Sandy, ever wise, said, “Honey, Paula was one of those people who you knew you could count on, who was part of a small close circle of colleagues who you knew you could always trust.” That is so true and for so many.
Paula had integrity, ferocity, tenacity, and intellect. We will miss, surely, all of that. But where I feel most diminished, is to lose her laughter, her wit, her passion. Paula knew something important about everything, and every conversation with her was a rollicking good time. While Paula had strong and deeply held opinions, as our Legal Director Shannon Minter noted to me, “If you had a differing view, or disagreed, she welcomed that. She always valued other perspectives.”
Paula was also generous, kind, and loyal. When I had the chance to teach in Amsterdam in the summer of 2005, I took the whole family. Julian was 9 and Ariana was 4. Paula was part of the faculty as well. Her kids, close in age to ours, could not join her. Right away, Paula offered to watch our kids so Sandy and I could have an evening out. We, of course, took her up on the offer.
I last saw Paula and her kids when they came to a small event for NCLR in New York this past June. In the midst of everything else going on in her life, she took the time to come support me and NCLR.
Our movement and my life are lessened by Paula’s passing. She would allow us to indulge our sadness for maybe one more day, and then she would say, “Ok, back to work, there is still too much to do!” Vintage Paula.
RIP my dear friend.