The Girl I Will Miss at Commencement

Robert Bookman only met his son’s first girlfriend, Olivia, once. But when the 17 year old passed away, he became determined to unlock the root cause of his overwhelming grief.

05.22.09 12:44 PM ET

The legendary musical satirist Tom Lehrer was 38 years old in 1965 when he famously declared, “It’s a sobering thought to think that when he was my age, Mozart had been dead for three years,” thus neatly putting in stark perspective the life accomplishments of even the most overachieving mortal.

Olivia Jane Cull was 17 when she died this January. There were many sobering thoughts, and more tears, which accompanied the news of her tragic death, but none more sobering to me than the realization that if she were my age, she would have been dead for 45 years. The death of any child is tragic, but to me, Olivia is a special case: emphasis on special.

I have sustained personal losses in my life of the expected kind. Yet none came close to affecting me as deeply as the death of Olivia.

I only met Olivia once. She and my younger son Brian had met at a Certamen (Latin for “competition,” which Brian explains as Jeopardy for Latin scholars) at the California Latin Convention last year. Olivia was one of two members of the Archer School team, and Brian one of four from Crossroads School. The subject was Greek mythology. When Brian stumbled on a question, Olivia pounced with the answer. Meeting later in the hall, she said to him, “Good match,” and they became instant friends.

Along with a common interest in mythology, Latin, and the Faust legend, they shared a passion for a kind of music called “symphonic metal.” It turned out that one of the subgenre’s two acclaimed practitioners, Nightwish, was scheduled to perform their one and only 2008 Southern California concert at the San Diego House of Blues, a venue not exactly around the corner from our home in Los Angeles. As a reward for Brian’s academic year of hard work and achievement, I sprang for four tickets plus a car and driver to transport Brian, myself, Brian’s friend Brett, and Brian’s first girlfriend, Olivia Cull.

My first impression of Olivia: serious, focused, determined. The three of them sat in back, inhabiting their own private world. We had a quick bite before the concert, where she impressed me with strongly formed and articulated opinions on a variety of serious topics. They returned to their private world for the trip home. After seeing her safely to the door, I never set eyes on Olivia again.

I would hear from Brian (and from his mother Amy) about their adventures together—notably honoring their shared love of Faust last Halloween by dressing for a party as Faust and Marguerite, being Olivia’s date at the Archer prom, and his pride at Olivia’s early acceptance at Smith College. But it also turned out that Olivia had a serious congenital heart problem and was scheduled to have surgery in June so she could finish at Archer and be ready for the start of classes in the fall at Smith.

I didn’t think any more about it until Brian mentioned that they were going to Disneyland with another couple and that he would be pushing Olivia in a wheelchair because walking for hours would be too great a strain for her.

That was over New Year’s. A week later, she went into the hospital for an outpatient procedure—the insertion of a catheter in preparation for her surgery in June. Something went very wrong. Olivia went into cardiac arrest and her heart wasn’t restarted until it was too late. Olivia Cull, this vibrant force of nature, suffered irreversible brain damage and died after several days in a coma.

Photo of Brian Bookman and Olivia Cull courtesy of Brian Bookman

I have sustained personal losses in my life of the expected kind: the death of my inspirational grandfather when I was 25, of my beloved grandmother when I was 39, and of my extraordinary father when I was 48. And losses of the unexpected kind: most profoundly the death from leukemia when I was 8 of the 11-year-old son of my parents’ closest friends. Yet none came close to affecting me as deeply as the death of Olivia. Amy observed, “As close as you were to your father, you weren’t nearly as upset by his death.” My gut response was that he was 81; he had lived a full and rewarding life, and died of lung cancer which was likely brought on by heavy smoking until he was 40. Olivia was 17, she had her whole life ahead of her, and she did nothing to instigate her own death.

But that explanation only scratched the surface. The deeper truth: I knew there was something present in her life that was missing in mine. Locating that “something” would unlock the root cause of my unique and overwhelming grief. To discover the code to the metaphoric keypad required a journey into uncharted territories of the heart, my heart.

The only recent personal touchstones I have for such deep grief were the bookends of my eulogy for my father at his memorial service more than 13 years ago. As I climbed the steps to the pulpit in the massive Byzantine-style sanctuary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, it immediately struck me that the only other time I’d stood there had been for my bar mitzvah more than 35 years before—my father stood on my right, my grandfather on my left: the two men who had the greatest impact on forming my life. It took me forever to start the eulogy. The connection between the then and the now, the once omnipresent and now forever absent father figures, the religious tradition with roots going back millennia but still so alive that day, combined to unleash a seemingly unstoppable flood of tears. I finally was able to regain a modicum of composure and begin.

I ended—or tried to end—my eulogy by quoting Rudyard Kipling’s epic poem Gunga Din. My father loved poetry and after his death I found several volumes, selectively dog-eared, with key parts underlined. He loved Kipling, especially If, but Gunga Din most of all. The final stanza was the most fitting tribute I could imagine for my father. Those final lines are:

Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

The last line was the killer. I all but couldn’t get the words out. This was deeper, more personal, less comprehensible. It seemed to come from a loving respect for my father, and that he set the bar impossibly high. These bookend moments unexpectedly gave me the code to the deeper source of my grief over the death of Olivia Cull.

Like a strand of DNA, there were two interlocking messages. The first was professional: My father and my two grandfathers were physicians extraordinaire. “First do no harm” was where their practice of medicine began. If Olivia had been under my father’s loving care (he was an allergist, not a cardiologist, by the way), no harm would have befallen her.

The second message was personal. I wanted my father to be proud of me.

I had the fortune to be born with natural intellectual gifts. I say this as a matter of fact, not vanity or ego. I had a photographic memory for facts and dates. I had endless interests, serially supported by my father. I could identify almost any well-known piece of classical music after a few bars; I knew all the presidents, their terms of office, and their years of birth and death; I knew the most esoteric baseball statistics and the starting lineups of every major league team; I knew the lyrics to the great Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and could sing them in off-key duets with my father. In short, I was the very model of a modern major Nerf ball.

Then puberty happened. Whether it was raging hormones, a sudden onset of a form of ADD, or social distractions, I can’t say, but suddenly it seemed I was no longer the straight-A model student. The defining moment may have been election night 1960. My parents are next door at the home of their friends, the Golds, witnessing JFK’s narrow victory, while I sit in their bedroom watching the returns on television, tearfully writing a letter to my father explaining why I was getting a mid-term "C" in algebra. A "C" was not a letter in my academic alphabet (except for handwriting).

I wanted my father to be proud of me and there was no way he could be proud of me getting a mid-term "C" in algebra.

For the next five years, I meandered through school, dashing my mother’s hopes for an acceptance to Harvard. Still, thanks to my natural standardized-test-taking skills and a transcript of mostly As and Bs, I was accepted at Berkeley. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that the hormones rebalanced or my ADD receded and I got my old scholastic groove back.

It’s a sobering thought to think that when she was that age, Olivia Cull had been dead for more than a year.

In the spirit of her beloved ancient Greeks, Olivia’s life was memorialized at Archer 12 days after she died. “A Celebration of the Life of Olivia Jane Cull” included a reading from The Iliad in the original ancient Greek, a Greek chorus from Euripides’ Alcestis performed by the school Classics Club and Latin Students, and an open forum in which friends and fellow students, including Brian, spoke about Olivia, among other organized festivities. The impact she had on others was preternatural.

My father, who urged me to take Latin, who gave me Xenophon’s Anabasis in eighth-grade, who sat in our sunlit backyard reading Will Durant on Ancient Greece, would have been proud to have such a daughter instead of a son who frittered his gifts away. If I had died at 17, what a disappointment I would have been. For all my eventual success in life, it took the tragic death of an inspiring young woman to finally come to terms with being satisfied with who I am, not with who I thought my father wanted me to be (and to be fair to my father, he only wanted me to be happy). I hope that Olivia has found her peace. She opened the door for me to find my own.

My 62nd birthday was a few months ago. My older son Gary, who is 23, sent me a loving note which ended, “I am eager to make you the proudest father, you deserve it.” I want both my sons to know that I am proud of them, always have been, always will be, and only want them to be happy, too.