Her light still burns

So much crowds the mind on this Saturday morning — Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, NCAA basketball tournament, the teasing delay of spring’s arrival, the care of loved ones. But pushing it all aside is the news of a death that has come too soon.

It’s likely that all us have known a person whose light shone brightly and equally on everyone who shared the same space, everywhere she or he went. Jo Lee was like that. From the moment that you met, you knew that her purpose was to live life to its fullest and to spread joy. She died a few days ago. 51 years old.

We met when she showed up in a course I was teaching in the late 1980s. A few years later, our shared love of theater brought us together again, not in a classroom but on a stage. In a production of the musical “Oliver!” I had been cast in the role of Mr. Brownlow, the kindly gentleman who takes the wayward orphan Oliver under his wing and cares for him. Jo Lee blew away the competition at auditions and captured the leading role of Nancy, girlfriend of Bill Sykes, who is sidekick of the conniving Fagin, the man who masterminds a band of young pickpockets. Warm-hearted Nancy strives to rescue young Oliver from this dangerous life but is under the thumb of Sykes, whom she loves.

In characteristic fashion, Jo Lee inhabited the role of Nancy with a passion that energized everyone in the cast. There is a memorable scene in which her character expresses her tormented love for Bill Sykes, and she sings the poignant song “As Long as He Needs Me.” Jo Lee’s renditions were heartbreakingly beautiful, and she wept every time she sang it. When her song ended, she exited stage left sobbing, making her way to a dark corner backstage to compose herself. Every time. We all ached to go to her and console her, but she wanted privacy in those moments.

At times like these, in the dark moments when we try to comprehend the death of a friend, we reflect on why we are here, our purpose in life, what we hope to accomplish during our life’s journey. If making life better for others is our goal, clearly Jo Lee nailed it. With her passing, a light has gone out in a corner of our outside lives, but it continues to burn inside all of us who knew her and felt the warmth of her love.


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