Seventeen years ago I went to a conference with my friend and colleague Jenni. We were both students, idealistic and outspoken, committed to making our society accessible to people with disabilities. We were making this happen by forcing the campus to comply with the ADA, and coordinating a task force for the Governor's office with the objective of reforming structural (translation: boring) policies.
The keynote speaker of the event was Paul Miller, disability civil rights advisor to the Clinton administration. I was sitting next to Jenni in the front row of the auditorium when their eyes met.
In the course of this crazy life I have never experienced the kind of electrical zap I watched fly between Paul and Jenni.
The event was in Olympia but our pals from the Governor's office had arranged a dinner at the creole restaurant staffed by deaf-mute folks in Pike Place Market, sixty miles distant. I didn't want to go but Jenni dragged me along, partly to accelerate my reluctant social acclimation, partly as potential chaperone.
They flirted mildly over dinner, then Jenni offered to give him a ride to wherever he needed to go. I found myself seated at a sticky table in a shabby bar next to the airport, observing them make goggly eyes and talk about art.
It is really boring to watch other people fall in love.
I let out a heavy, burdened sigh, then proceeded to interrogate Paul about his dating history. Once I confirmed that he was not a big STD risk I announced that I expected to be in the wedding party. Then I left them to it.
I was right: I had just inadvertently crashed the first date of a couple who would (and did) fall in love so hard nothing this side of death could stop the romance.
Paul was already a leading civil rights expert, a committed and reasoned insider activist. He was eminently honourable in every way, someone who made a real difference to the world through his professional work. He was a pivotal figure in my professional life, offering mentorship and entrance to the madness of Washington DC, laughing when I refused to go. My rambunctious daughter called him Paul Watermelon, and she was sad when we couldn't make it to the wedding - the first time I knew people who, upon such an occasion, appeared in the pages of the New York Times.
Paul became the husband of my dear friend, the father of her children.
Now he is gone. The nation is deprived of incomparable expertise. Jenni is widowed, their daughters orphaned.
Seventeen years is not long enough for an epic love story. My thoughts are with the family.