Claudette was one of my eight housemates in one of those ramshackle houses with revolving roommates that Santa Cruz is famous for. She was big-boned, healthy and tan, the kind of girl everyone calls outdoorsy. She’d always been taller than all the boys, a fact she lamented. She had long chestnut hair that rippled with sunny highlights. She played the guitar. She drove a Honda Civic. Her dream was to study wolves in Minnesota.
The last time I saw her was at the house of our friend Mikkel, who was throwing a party to celebrate her five-year remission from leukemia. It was a happy occasion; a true celebration of life, and friends had come from all over to be there. Claudette said she had something to show me. A close friend of hers had died that year, she told me, and at his funeral, by the mound of fresh earth at his graveside, Claudette had sung one of her own songs. She got her guitar out of her pickup truck and we sat on the tailgate, and as the sky grew dusky she sang:
I have contemplated my death/I wonder how it will be/by cancer or car wreck/or something unforeseen.
The next day I went home. I moved away and we fell out of touch, but when I returned to Santa Cruz four years later, I couldn’t wait to see her again. I had just gotten divorced and I longed for my old life and my old friends; I wanted to go kayaking or camping with Claudette. I called Mikkel and left a message asking for Claudette’s phone number. When Mikkel called back her voice was strange.
"I thought you knew," she said. "Claudette died."
"She died? How could Claudette die?" I asked stupidly.
Claudette had joined the Peace Corps and gone to Ecuador but after only two months she became very ill and was flown home. Just a few months before I started looking for her phone number, Claudette, 32 years old, was dying of liver cancer at her mother’s home in Half Moon Bay. It was a hard death. At the end of her life everything that made her recognizable -- her beauty, her humor and bravery -- was gone. There was only fear and pain, and a fierce wish not to die.
Claudette was a mountain girl who loved wolves and dogs. She was boisterous and funny, and she still had her childhood freckles scattered across her cheeks. She had big feet and a sweet voice and she could make me laugh from her sheer exuberance. She sang a beautiful song about death, and not long afterward, she died of something unforeseen.