Making music for Thea Dee's many friends at the celebration of her life at Ground Zero. Photo by Kat.
As I wrote about at the time, it was exactly a month ago that I lost one of my closest friends to cancer-related illness. Rachael Emborg, known throughout the online virtual world of Second Life as Thea Dee, was 49 years old. She would have been 50 on October 7.
When people pass away -- especially when it's unexpected and at a relatively young age -- the friends and family who were close to them are often left with no sense of closure or resolution. That's why various types of memorial events exist. It allows those of us who remain to process our feelings about the person, to share stories, and to honor their memory. That's why I was very, very happy when Meegan Danitz mentioned to me that the folks in Thea's circle of friends were planning some kind of memorial event. Jon Larson confirmed the details of the event a short while later. As was appropriate for someone who had loved the live music scene in Second Life, the "Celebration of Life for Thea Dee" would be comprised of a series of performances at what had been her home venue... Ground Zero.
The poster for Thea's celebration of life. I felt honored to be included among these great musical performers.
While I was glad that the event had been organized and scheduled, that's not to say that any kind of memorial event is easy. Human psychology being what it is, we have defense mechanisms that shelter us from dealing with information we'd prefer not to process. One of those is repression, and it's understandable that with something as terrible as the sudden death of a close friend or family member, many people try to avoid thinking about it. After all, we're still here and have lives we need to lead, and too much dwelling on the emotional impact of our loss doesn't allow us to handle our day to day responsibilities. And that, in and of itself, is why memorial events are important. It is a moment where we can acknowledge those feelings along with people who share the loss, and it offers a cathartic experience that may be difficult at the time, but allows people to be more at peace afterwards.
Thea's Friends... Onstage and Off
Jon had asked if I could perform at the event, and I let him know that there was nothing in life I'd rather do. While I take no credit for Thea's popularity in Second Life -- that was all due to her own merits -- I did let her know about SL's existence back in 2010, and some of her first experiences in world were attending my shows. It would only be right that I do live music at her memorial. I will say that as soon as I saw the list of performers the organizers had chosen, I knew right away that they'd made great decisions. In addition to myself, there was Funky Freddie, Red Heaven, The Follow, Voodoo Shilton & Jon Larson, and Lyndon Heart. I knew for a fact that these folks represented Thea's personal favorites. She and I had many conversations over the years about the SL music scene, and there was no doubt that this entire list of musical artists represented those who had a special place in her heart.
Likewise, a quick scan of the crowd let me know that Thea's best friends were out in full force. These were the folks whom she spoke about constantly, and with whom she spent the majority of her time in SL. To say she was well liked is a massive understatement. Dozens and dozens of people quickly filled the beach-like setting of Ground Zero, a venue that she'd helped run. It was heartwarming to see them all arriving as I prepared to perform.
A Unique Perspective
I decided that while many of the people involved in the event knew Thea primarily through her activities within SL, my personal perspective on her extended back to 1991 or so, when we were college students together in our early 20s. I wanted to share some stories about her that gave people a look into her background as a person, and I did some of that in between songs. I enjoyed being able to tell people how in college, she'd majored in theatre production and design... something that definitely raised the bar of the work she did with the in-world group Guerrilla Burlesque.
Speaking of songs, while I often put a good amount of thought into the music I plan and prepare for every show, this may have been the most difficult set list I ever did for any live show of my life. I really wanted to hot three different goals with my music selections: 1) songs/artists that I knew she personally loved, 2) songs that were representational of Thea as a person, and 3) songs that would be expressive of our collective feelings of loss as her friends. It's a tough balancing act... some of her favorite music was very upbeat and happy, and obviously you can run into a conflict of what may be appropriate for a memorial event. However, I feel pretty good that each song I played had some specific meaning to the event and to the folks attending, and I'd often explain the reason for my choice of a song as I launched into it.
I loved scanning the folks in the crowd and seeing so many of Thea's friends there to support each other and honor her memory. Photo by Kat.
The Mystical Power Outage
I should preface this next story by admitting that I don't believe in ghosts, spirits, or, frankly, any kind of afterlife. This is my personal outlook and I fully support and respect everyone's right to believe what they want in regard to what happens to one's soul after death. But something very strange and in some ways inexplicable happened about two-thirds of the way through my performance. The lights and other devices here seemed to flicker momentarily, and the alarm on my power systems sounded. Then Kat received a community alert from our local police department, saying that there was a utility pole on fire and that power lines had gone down just a block from my home.
In case you suspect that I'm exaggerating what happened with the power outage, here's the actual alert that Kat received. That power line that went down was mere blocks from my home, and seemed to affect everyone in the area except for me, personally.
Well, here's the weird thing: by all rights, I should have lost power completely and vanished from the stage as my computer and audio systems went down. My neighbors lost power. Kat's computer crashed so hard that it reinitialized her preference settings in SL when she got back in! But -- and I have no way of explaining how or why it happened this way -- all of my stuff stayed up and running. My computer, my mixer, my monitor, my audio interface... it was like the power outage never happened for me, and I kept on playing music with zero interruption. I told Meegan about this after my set ended, and she replied that Rachael was there holding the wires together. I can't offer any better explanation than that one.
Snot, Sweat, and Tears
I did more than my share of crying during the days following Thea's death, but I promised myself that at least while I was actually onstage and performing, I'd focus on the positive and leave the tears behind while honoring her life during this opportunity to do so.
Well, that didn't work. There was one particular moment where I started to mention how smart Thea was and how committed she was to wanting to help others, along with my ideas as to what she might have been able to do under other circumstances in her life. I don't even think I got these words out completely, but while I was talking to the crowd, I had this vision of Thea as a Congressional representative from Utah, standing next to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, and... well, that was it. I do recall looking down at my guitar during the subsequent song and realizing it was literally coated with snot, sweat, and tears (no blood, thankfully). I will say that I made it through every song, and while my vocal performance of singing while simultaneously weeping probably wasn't among my best, I think the crowd all fully understood how difficult it was for me to be onstage and handling these emotions while trying to do justice to the music Thea loved.
Playing this show was one of the most difficult and yet fulfilling performances I've ever done as a musician. Photo by Kat.
Kat and I stayed around after my show for quite some time, enjoying the music of my fellow SL performers. Thea had great taste and I truly enjoy the music of the artists that had been chosen to play the event. In typical SL fashion, both of us started having computer issues (freezing up and so on), and we popped in and out for the remainder of the day to check out the various people performing.
Goodbye, My Friend
One emotion that I hadn't expected but was definitely present throughout the "Celebration of Life for Thea Dee" was an intense sense of pride. Pride that I had been a beloved friend to this wonderful person. Pride that her wonderful friends had stepped up to organize this event. Pride that I was able to make it through the whole performance without being completely overwhelmed by my own emotions. Whether you knew her as Thea or Rachael, she was a remarkable woman whose strength and kindness and beauty were to be admired, and I have no problem saying truthfully that while I'll miss her for as long as I live, the larger and more important sense I have of her is that I was tremendously lucky to have had her as a friend for the time that I did. Life itself is finite and fleeting at best; the real secret to being successful lies in how you bring happiness and love to others. My friend Thea did that in droves. It was a life well led.
Celebration of Life for Thea Dee at Ground Zero set list...
All I Want (Joni Mitchell)
You’ve Got a Friend (James Taylor)
I Believe When I Fall In Love (Stevie Wonder)
Just Like Heaven (The Cure)
Sour Girl (Stone Temple Pilots)
Golden Years (David Bowie)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Half Moon Bay (Sun Kil Moon)
Time Stand Still (Rush)
*Shining Star (Earth Wind & Fire)
*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.