Sunday, September 1, 2019

Rachael Emborg (Thea Dee) - 1969-2019

Rachael in 2011. This is how I choose to remember her... happy and with a gleam in her eye.

Writing is something that usually comes easily to me. It's what I've done every day for my career in marketing communications and media for the past 25+ years. It's something I'm good at, and that I enjoy. But for this particular writing assignment, I've sat for a long time, staring at the cursor blinking on a blank page. I've also started this several times, only to backspace my way through multiple sentences. Some things are harder to write than others, and this is one of the most difficult grouping of words I've ever had to put together: my friend Rachael Emborg, known to many as Thea, has died. She was 49 years old.

I have the great fortune of having known Rachael over a longer period of our respective lives than many of our other mutual friends and acquaintances. We became friends in our early 20s while students in college, and then reconnected later on. Over the subsequent nine years, she has been one of my closest friends and confidants. And now, suddenly and unexpectedly, she is gone. I've not yet reached the point of fully accepting this fact. I can write it, I can say it, and yet there's still a part of me who thinks that it's all some kind of big mistake, a terrible but untrue rumor, and that somehow she's going to pop up at my next live music show in Second Life, or that any moment I'll see a new message from her in my email or Facebook messages. But I am, at heart, a pragmatist and a realist. Those things will not happen. It hurts to acknowledge it, but it's true.

As opposed to wallowing in self pity, which would be pretty easy to do, I am writing this piece about Rachael with a purpose. The aspect of her passing that angers me is that it was not unavoidable. While there were aspects to her long string of health problems that might have been different based on genetic and lifestyle factors, Rachael would not be dead today if we lived in a place where health care was accessible for all, and where massive income and wealth disparity was not an ingrained part of our lives.

But first, let me tell you my own story of Rachael.

October 2010
I could start this story at the start, but where's the fun in that? Might as well start in the middle, because that's the most crucial part of this story, for me anyway. I was perusing Facebook on October 7, 2010, when I noticed that a buddy of mine from college, Chris Norris, had posted a birthday greeting on the wall of someone named Rachael Emborg. I wasn't familiar with the name, but I knew the face. When I'd last been in touch with her, she was named Rachael Greenberg. We'd been classmates at Cal State Dominguez Hills in the early '90s, and we'd been great friends. Right away, I reached out to her to send my own birthday wishes, and she responded immediately. We started chatting and she asked if I was still being active as a musician. I told her yes, and that I was doing live shows in this online virtual world thing called Second Life, which she said she'd like to check out. But before I get to the rest of that part of our friendship, let's back up to the beginning.

Adorable little Rachael circa 1973. Note: I appropriated all photos for this piece from public posts on Rachael's Facebook. Hopefully no one will mind.

September 1991
I met Rachael at the start of the school year in 1991. While she and I were the same age, I was a little bit ahead of her in school; I'd been there for a couple of years when she started. We were both involved in the highly-regarded music program there... it was my major and her minor (with her major being theatre design and technology). Nevertheless, as music students, she and I were both required to have a performance class, and we both ended up in University Chorus. She was an alto while I led the chorus's bass section. If you're wondering whether Rachael could sing well, the answer is a wholehearted yes. She had a very pretty voice, clear and always on key.

This is Rachael (left) as I knew her in college at CSUDH. It's on her graduation day in May 1994. Yes, that's our classmate, actress Niecy Nash, next to her.

I liked her right away. She was this cute redheaded girl with a sharp wit and a healthy helping of sarcasm. We'd hang out before and after class, occasionally grabbing lunch or a beer together at the student union there on campus. The following year, I was required to have some independent study credits to complete my bachelor's degree, and I opted to teach the school's audio recording lab class. Rachael was one of my students, and I can tell you from that experience that she was outstandingly smart. Despite having less direct experience in recording studios compared to some of my other students, she locked into new concepts very quickly, and when she had a question, it was the "right" question.

I graduated from there in fall 1992, and started working in my career right away. Like most people at that stage in their lives, I was focused on moving on from my school years. Another four or five years would go by until one day, in a moment of bizarre randomness, I was driving back to my office from lunch when I looked at the car next to me on a busy street in West Los Angeles, and there was Rachael staring back at me. We laughed and pulled over, and I spent some time standing with her by the side of the road, hearing what she'd been doing with her life. It was great to see her. That brief moment in 1996 or so would be the last time I'd ever be in physical proximity to her. I'm glad, thinking back, that we ended that chance meeting with a big hug before we went our respective ways.

Diving Into Second Life
Let's get back to 2010. I'd connected with Rachael on Facebook and told her I was doing live music in Second Life. However, to be clear, I did not do anything other than that. I didn't say, "Hey, you should join SL and come see my shows!", or anything like that. I've been thanked many times by a number of people for having brought Rachael into SL, but the truth is that I really did nothing at all beyond letting her know that SL existed. 100% of everything that happened after that was Rachael's own doing.

I remember being somewhat astounded that just a few months after discovering SL, she had already voraciously devoured knowledge about the platform, how to build, how to do scripting and so on. Perhaps even more impressive was that she'd developed a diverse community of friends who shared her interests and outlooks. Again, I had nothing to do with that. She did start out in Second Life by attending my shows and getting to know some folks in the SL live music scene through that pathway, but all the other things in which she was involved happened completely via her own efforts to explore different scenes and and establish friendships with myriad people, most of whom I'd likely never have met except via her connection to them. She did tons of stuff in SL, from being a live DJ to running a live music venue to putting on artistic virtual dance performances and much more. For a really well-written and thorough piece on Rachael's involvement in (and impact upon) on Second Life, please read this memorial blog by her friend Cherryblonde Scribe.

Here I am on stage, performing at Rachael's Second Life-based live music venue Ground Zero that she ran with the help of some great friends including GMetal Svartur.

One particular moment, I think, helps illustrate the impact that Rachael had on her fellow residents of the virtual world. When she was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment, like many people, she was suddenly faced with the burden of extremely high medical expenses. In 2015, her friends put together a benefit concert event to help raise funds for her, calling it "The Road Forward". A number of SL's best live performers, including me, were thrilled for the opportunity to do something to help her. Hundreds and hundreds of people attended and donated to her cause. She, of course, was completely mortified and embarrassed by the whole thing -- she hated to be thought of as a victim of any kind -- while still being tremendously appreciative. The event raised over $4,000 USD (over L$1,000,000 in Second Life currency) in a single day.

Rachael's benefit show in 2015. Photo by Mat Powers Matlack.

Being Friends
As most people get older, the pure role of friends in their lives is often diminished, taking a backseat to family, coworkers, and the other people whose frequent proximity is based as much on adult responsibility as it is by choice. But in the case of Rachael, pretty much immediately after reconnecting in 2010, we resumed our friendship that had begun almost 20 years earlier. We communicated frequently via all manner of text messages and occasionally voice chats and in Second Life. It was pretty much part of our daily activity to at least say hello and hear a little bit about what was going on in each other's lives.

Much has already been written about Rachael's life and interests, so I'll just focus on one area that was meaningful to both of us: music. Her tastes were unusually broad. She was a huge fan of classic funk and R&B, and couldn't get enough of bands like Earth, Wind & Fire. At the same time, she absolutely loved technically-driven rock, and she was a big Rush fan. I remember how excited she was when she and her husband got to see Rush on their R40 tour. Rachael and I also shared a huge love for artists and bands like David Bowie, Prince, and the Police.

Rachael and her husband Taber at Rush's "R40" concert in summer 2015.

I always enjoyed sharing new music with her. While working on my own music, she was often a sounding board to give me her opinions as I was in the creation stage of new songs. Rachael attended hundreds of my music shows in Second Life over the years, and also was a frequent participant at Triana's Music Trivia in SL. I'll tell you, she was extraordinarily knowledgeable about music, and had a far superior awareness of certain areas of pop, dance, and R&B music compared to me.

The only other thing I want to note about Rachael as a person was that she was fiercely defensive of the things she found to be important to her. Despite going through serious illnesses, she was always there to step up and support her friends in time of need. She abhorred injustice and was never afraid to speak out about the issues that were important to her. We had many conversations about the state of the world and our country, and she had deep concerns about the current direction of the USA, with specific focus on issues like domestic terrorism, white nationalism, abuse of power, women's rights and much more. Had she been healthy, I can imagine that she would have wanted to be an even stronger voice for those in need.

While Rachael felt self-conscious about showing herself in photos after dealing with the results of chemotherapy and other cancer treatment, she'd still post occasional pics to let people know she was hanging in there. Fall 2015.

Why Rachael Should Still Be Alive
One of the final conversations I had with Rachael happened last weekend, and I wish it wasn't so goddamn depressing to think about. It was just a week ago, on Saturday August 24.

RACHAEL: Found out today my insurance will only pay for 5 days of in home oxygen per calendar year.

ME: What the fucking fuck? What does that mean? They pay for 5 days? What do they expect you would do for the other 360 days?

RACHAEL: I don't know.

ME: That can't possibly be right. If a doctor says that you need oxygen to survive, the insurance company can't just fucking kill you. There has to be some recourse.

RACHAEL: Not really.

She and I spoke again on Sunday, briefly. I asked her how she was feeling that day. She said she was doing okay. Four days later, she was gone. I'd tried messaging her each day in between and received no response, which was highly worrisome under the circumstances. I now know that she'd declined rapidly and that on Thursday August 29, after fighting so hard for so many years -- against cancer, against diabetes, against abject poverty, against a variety of other health issues, against political factors that went against every element in her soul she knew to be good and right -- she let go and was removed from the ventilator that had been keeping her alive. She was 49 years old. She would have been 50 in October. It should be needless to say that people in developed countries shouldn't die before their 50th birthday. No person anywhere should die that young.

Rachael's final photo, taken and posted on August 9, 2019. I love that she is smiling here.

The biggest factor that absolutely contributed to her early demise was that she and her husband were simply not capable of sustaining jobs that allowed them to live in reasonably safe and comfortable circumstances. During the entire time I knew her, she was on the verge of being homeless, or not being able to pay for the simplest necessities like food and utilities. I am purposefully not going into details on this matter because I respect their dignity and privacy. I will say that the world in which we live, where more and more people live in poverty and the quality of life of the former middle class has nosedived, while a tiny percentage of the population has more wealth and income than the huge majority of people, was one of the reasons that Rachael needlessly died at a young age.

The other factor is that while Rachael did receive health care, it was certainly not at the level that would have been the case had she been able to pay for better diagnostics and medical treatment. It was a constant nightmare just trying to pay for the insulin that she required to stay alive. And, as you can see from our conversation above, even had she made it through this most recent health emergency, there would have been a huge fight with her insurance provider to get oxygen so she was allowed the luxury of continuing to breathe. This angers me to a degree that few things in life ever have.

I could be bitter and self-pitying about Rachael being gone, and it's very difficult to not go in that direction. Instead, I want to redirect that negativity into something I know Rachael would support. Keep in mind that while she is gone, there are hundreds of thousands of people in similar circumstances who are still alive and still have the possibility of avoiding her fate. For Rachael and for those who are still among the living, I ask that when you look at political candidates, you find out their stances on matters like universal healthcare and wealth/income disparity. In a different world where all people are treated with dignity and compassion, she'd still be alive right now and I wouldn't have to be writing this memorial to her. It's a terrible thing to have to do.

There will be those who feel that it's not right to politicize Rachael's passing in any way, and trust me... I'd rather that not to have to be the direction I've taken. But I can tell you, were the roles reversed and it was me who'd died unnecessarily, I will clearly say to all: please, for the love of God, politicize the fuck out of my death. Make sure that people know that with their vote, they can have a hand in preventing similar tragedies.

That's All
I thought about Rachael often in the time frame between our college years and reconnecting in 2010. When you have a person in your life with a light that shines as brightly as hers did, it leaves an imprint on your soul. I was lucky enough to have spent a good chunk of the past nine years with her being part of my life, and for that, I am grateful.

Knowing that I won't have the pleasure of interacting with her again is a hard pill to swallow. I can say this: no matter how long I live, I will never, ever forget her. Any time that I have an opportunity to help someone in need, I will think of her and hope she would approve of my efforts. She was brave and strong. Proud and beautiful. Being her friend was a privilege and an honor, and I will never stop missing her, or loving her.

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