RIP, Rena Down

There is a certain kind of pain that comes from learning that someone you cared about passed away a couple of months ago.

It’s not that we didn’t try to get in touch with Rena Down before we left for Chile.

Dunreith did, a couple of times, via phone and email.

But we didn’t know at the time that her body and life were in their final stages.

Tonight, after Dunreith received a bulk email from Rena’s beloved daughter Katie, we poked around on the Internet and learned that Rena had died on June 6.

The news saddened me, both because we it came later than the time of her passing and because I cared deeply about Rena, who was a truly unusual person who accomplished an awful lot and taught me even more about purpose and passion and family and intellect and theater and just plain sucking the marrow out of life.

We met about 15 years ago, shortly after Dunreith and I had started dating at a Facing History and Ourselves exhibit, and around the time of the launch of the Choosing to Participate exhibit at the Boston Public Library.

Jeff, I’m Rena, a friend of Dun-reith’s, she said, her voice rising on the second syllable. I love Dunreith.

I did, too, so we had that in common from the very beginning.

Dunreith’s a great collector of strong, intelligent, accomplished, fierce yet modest women.

Rena fit right into that mold.

She had a magnetic smile, a voracious intellect, and an enormously creative spirit that led her to win an Emmy award for her work on Falcon’s Crest, to pen a number of episodes of M.A.S.H. and to write the classic “Who Shot J.R.?” episode that ended the show’s fourth season. The last show set records for overseas viewership, led to the equivalent of billions of dollars being gambled on guessing the shooter’s identity and set the standard for modern television cliffhanger endings.

Rena did far more than write for wildly popular television shows, though.

She authored books and plays and screenplays, including one she wrote with her son-in-law in her last major professional project. She also mentored at least one generation of students at the New School, where she was a pioneering teacher in online education, and the dozens, if not hundreds, of younger people who were fortunate enough to come under her influence.

Even though I knew that Dunreith was way ahead of me on the totem pole. I was one of them, too.

I spent the first year of our marriage writing.

During a brunch with Dunreith and Rena, I said that I thought there weren’t many stories to write about in Western Massachusetts.

Rena and Dunreith disabused me of that erroneous notion, and encouraged me to attend a couple of days at the trial of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who was eventually convicted of killing three of her patients at the local Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

I went to the courthouse, met longtime Springfield Repbulican reporter Fred Contrada, who asked me which publication I was working for (I gulped, then answered I was working freelance), and wrote a piece that ran in the Northampton Daily Gazette.

Months later, a reporter who was working on a book about the trial contacted me.

Rena taught me about how to find a story, about how to sniff out, and then report and write about, the central elements of character and conflict and lust and intrigue wherever you are.

But she taught me more than that.

Unfailingly pleasant and affirming, she hosted Dunreith, Aidan and me at her apartment in Northampton as the three of us were learning how to become a family.

Rena showed how being on your own in middle age need not be any impediment to traveling around the world. (This included a train trip she took from New York to Chicago just to see us.)

The last five years of Rena’s life were marked by extreme, limiting and continually encroaching physical pain and disability.

But she kept living with courage, even as a stroke robbed her of her ability to walk, use the left side of her body and necessitated her receiving full time care.

I visited Rena in her apartment in May 2012, the day of the second Dart Society fundraiser. We chatted quietly for a while. Rena asked about what Dunreith was up to since she had left Facing History and offered her customary sage counsel before letting me rest in her bed while she went out to run some errands.

She was struggling to adjust to life in the wheelchair, but listened patiently as I talked about how Mom had taught me after her accident about how to accept that the life she had lived and known for more that six decades was over forever, with a new one starting to emerge in as yet undefined ways.

Dunreith and I went to see Rena again in January, again while I was in town for a Dart Society meeting. She showed us proudly how she was able to stand just a little bit outside of the wheelchair she wanted desperately to leave.

Dunreith told Rena how much she had meant to her. I let her know I loved her.

She already knew.

The size of the apartment, the location in New York City and Rena’s diminished physical capacity all reminded me of visiting my great aunt Ilse Goldberg , Ph.D., nee Frank, who lived on her own in Queens until she died in 2006 at age 103.

From visiting Ilse I l came to understand the length of time that can work before the guest can start to tire and the gift you can give simply by visiting and spending time chatting with someone.

You also get a better sense of the limits of what the human body can endure.

In May, Rena’s body started shutting down.

On June 6, it shut down entirely, and she died.

I’ll miss Rena’s bubbly energy and ready smile, her wisdom and generosity and guidance, and her sheer determination to do whatever she could in life.

Even though the last few years were very hard, her death is still a blow.

We know now why she didn’t answer the efforts Dunreith made to reach other.

But we also know that she is, and will be, inside of us for as long as we’re around in person, and, after that, in Aidan’s memory.

Farewell, dear Rena.

We honor you.

We miss you.

And we love you.

4 responses to “RIP, Rena Down

  1. In addition to being touched as always by your words’ tenderness, I am proud and inspired by the way you and Dunreith connect with and appreciate the most wonderful people. You seem to be from another era when folks took the time to visit and talk, not born from should, but the sheer joy of connecting with others. Love you.

  2. Jeff, thanks for this. I knew Rena in NYC, but had not seen her for a few years and did not know that she had died. I did know that she had been having serious physical problems. She was a terrific person and at one point got me going on a screenplay that turned into a novel.
    Signe Hammer

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Signe. I agree with you and am grateful, but not surprised, to learn about yet another person whom Rena helped during her productive and generous life.

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