Long ago in what feels like a galaxy far far away, I went to grad school at UMass to be an Environmental Engineer. My first year I lived in Northampton in an apartment, and right at the beginning of the semester this woman answered our call for a roommate. Alyssa Sheehan had just returned from living abroad in China and Japan, but she was from nearby Springfield.
I can honestly say I've never met anyone like Alyssa before or since. Bold and colorful, fluent in three languages, chock full of mischief, and a hell of a lot of fun. Our apartment somehow became a regular dinner and party place (imagine!). A lot of my fellow engineering students enjoyed hanging out and laughing with Alyssa-san, as I always called her. I still think of her whenever I make rice - she always insisted you don't refrigerate cooked rice.
The party pictured here might have been the first time she met our cerebral, quiet and quick-witted friend Alan Huntley. Somehow this hat of hers became the thing everyone passed around that night. It was a beautiful symbol, she always had so many lovely things - clothes, pictures, little odds and ends, teacups and other things that were exotic to me.
I think that hat put a spell on Alan, because to my surprise they started dating soon afterwards. After that wild year in Noho, Alyssa and I went our separate ways though stayed in touch. She and Alan fell in love and got married. We visited them a couple years later while they were at Kansas University. They lived in Japan for awhile as Alan worked for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Sometime around 2004, they looked me up while they were living in NJ and surprised me at a show in New Brunswick. We had dinner and it was great to hang out again. Not long after that they learned that Alyssa had inherited the gene for Huntington's Disease, the same disease that claimed Woody Guthrie. Over the years as the disease progressed, I went to NJ and did several benefit concerts near their home in Ewing to raise funds for the HDSA New Jersey Chapter. It's been 3 or 4 years now, but my last visit was sobering and depressing, to watch this vibrant, colorful, magical and artistic soul slowly disappearing.
On our return from our trip this week I heard from Alan that Alyssa's brave struggle ended on May 27th. I have met and known so many people in my journey, and it sometimes is hard to recollect so many wonderful little memories without a nudge or two. And losing a lot of those people as you go makes you want to be numb, and forgetful, to avoid the ouch. There's no avoiding it - this one is leaving a big ouch. It's not fair. And for Alan, dear soul, bearing the burden of being a complete and total caregiver these past several years. I can't imagine then, or now.
It's not fair to Alyssa that this is the way that I want to remember her. She lived so much life after this, despite the hard struggle with her disease. But tonight it's what I want to think about, and remembering how happy of an odd and wonderful couple she and Alan were. My heart is with my old friends tonight.