Published on: June 14, 2013
As noted on MNB yesterday, Joan Parker, the widow of mystery novelist Robert B. Parker, passed away Wednesday at age 80, two years after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
I wanted to take a few moments to offer some thoughts about Joan, and maybe even some lessons from her life. Because as it happens, Joan Parker had become a friend of mine. Or, to put it more accurately, I was lucky enough to be her friend. This was an appreciation I was not looking forward to writing, because I felt that while she was alive, the friendship was personal and not to be shared.
While I had interviewed Robert B. Parker once and met him a couple of other times, I only met Joan after he passed away in 2010. As it happens, we connected through Facebook. Robert B. Parker was not a digital kind of guy, but after his death the family created a Facebook page where it provided news about the novels and offered fans a place to talk about the novelist's various creations. When I posted a piece I'd done about Parker back in 1985 on MNB, I re-posted it on RobertBParker.net
, and soon heard from Joan, who liked the piece a lot and felt that she'd learned stuff in it about his Spenser novels that she had not known. (I never quite believed that, but appreciated the sentiment.) We emailed back and forth a bit, and then, a year or so ago when I mentioned that I'd be in Boston on business, she invited me to stop by the house.
Then, as now, I was a little startled by that. She didn't really know me. I could've been a stalker, or worse. But I'm no fool, so I accepted the invitation.
I walked up the path to her door in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and rang the bell. She answered, with a big smile ... and because I was still a little in awe, I mentioned that she was inviting someone into her house that she didn't really know. She shot me a look suggesting that she was entirely capable of taking care of herself, and said, "You want to just stand out here?"
No," I said. And she invited me in, and escorted me to the office where Robert B. Parker had written so many of his books.
It was an amazing couple of hours. She was interested in what I did for a living, and full of stories about her life with "Bob." She told me about her lung cancer, and seemed mostly annoyed that chemotherapy was eating into her exercise regimen. We chatted for a long time about the challenges of, in essence, keeping the family business alive ... and she seemed intrigued by the perspectives of someone who knew something about the Parker legacy but had some objectivity. She swore like a stevedore, which somehow seemed endearing. And the coolest thing of all - I got a tour of Parker's office, as she showed me what she'd changed and kept the same, and I sat in the chair where he'd had a picture taken for the back of many of his books.
I was in geek heaven.
After that, we stayed in touch via email. I sent her a copy of "The Big Picture," and she was enthusiastic about it, and we went back and forth about the different authors who were taking over her husband's various series. And she was full of plans, and was especially rhapsodic about Boston University's archive of Parker's work. (I even got an introduction to the chief archivist, who gave me carte blanche to look through the files and boxes and exhibits-in-planning. Total geek heaven!)
Once, during another trip to Boston, we went to the Legal Seafoods in Cambridge, where she insisted that I sit in the seat at the bar where Robert B. Parker often sat. There was even a small plaque on the bar memorializing that fact. We sat for an hour or so, just chatting about her business and mine. She called me "Kiddo," the only person in my memory to do so. I felt like I had a new friend.
I last saw Joan for drinks just a week or so ago, at Rialto in Cambridge. She had vodka, straight up. I had beer. She gave me a hug and called me "Kiddo."
When I first saw her last week, she was immaculately dressed, as always, but she also seemed frail and a little unsteady on her feet. This is a woman who in her late seventies, despite her cancer diagnosis, remained fanatical about exercise. Joan mentioned that she was continuing to do Pilates and yoga, but she seemed a bit tired. She conceded that the cancer had worsened, but that she'd elected not to do anything invasive to slow its effects. She was going to live her life until she was done.
Still, she was, as always, a terrific conversationalist. I told her about my interview with Ace Atkins, who has taken over the writing of the Spenser novels, and she was unbridled in her enthusiasm for both him and his take on the characters. She told me that she'd still like to see a Spenser cookbook published, and told me that she'd found a list of writing rules compiled by her husband. I mentioned that novelist Elmore Leonard had published just such a list several years ago, and that she might like to do the same; as soon as I returned home from Boston, I sent her a copy. And she sent me back an email: "Thanks so much for the book...and for our visit ...I will be in touch soon."
In the Spenser novels, Robert B. Parker used to describe Susan Silverman, his protagonist's longtime life partner, as having a kind of intangible force of personality that took his breath away. And he never failed to note that he'd modeled Susan on Joan, and Spenser's passion for Susan on his passion for his wife.
While Joan wasn't always thrilled with being seen as a real-life Susan Silverman, I completely get the "force of personality" description. Life hadn't always been easy - in addition to the lung cancer, she'd already survived breast cancer - but she'd spent many years as an enormously successful philanthropist in the Boston area, turning her and her husband's celebrity into a force for good, raising money for charities that helped people with H.I.V. and AIDS.
I spent about 90 minutes with her last week. About an hour in, we were joined by three gentlemen with whom she had a meeting about one of her philanthropies. But after some more anecdotes and memories and laughter, I sensed it was my time to leave. Joan had work to do, and she wasn't going to stop until she was done. And so I leaned over, gave her a kiss on the cheek and a hug. "I'll see you next time, " she said. She may have even called me "kiddo" one last time.
Life lessons, and business lessons, never stop coming. If you pay attention.
I only knew Joan Parker for a year - we first met in May 2012 - but I feel like I learned much from her. If nothing else, our brief friendship speaks to the power of social media; without Facebook, it is unlikely we ever would have met. And it speaks to the importance of continuing to ask questions, to reach out to new people, to get outside your comfort zone.
At a time when so many of the people I know in her age bracket are retired, or beaten down by disease or dementia, or somehow seem disengaged from what is going on around them, or just plain cranky, Joan was none of those things. There was nothing retired or retiring or disengaged about her. She understood the role and importance of the past, but her vision was forward.
Robert B. Parker died while writing the next book. Joan Parker died while living her life. We should all be as lucky as both of them.
I only knew Joan Parker for a year. But I'm going to miss her.
That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.