Weeks before Lisa Shapiro left this physical plane in June of 2015, she lit up Gentle World one final time with a video call. It’s hard to believe that was only seven years ago, but perhaps that’s because so much has changed in those years.
The more I learn about Lisa, the more sorry I am that I didn’t know her well. Years earlier, we had met very briefly when she visited for the weekend in Mount Olympus, Gentle World’s summer campsite in the Arizona mountains. The community had spent 20 summers camping there, until the area was tragically ravaged by wildfires in 2005.
It must have been the year 2000 when Lisa showed up on the mountain top. I was brand new in Gentle World, and I didn’t know much about this person other than that she was a passionate vegan, an activist, and an ex-manager of a natural food store who had told Gentle World that when the store ran out of what they called “humane meat,” they would put ordinary meat on the shelf marked with the same labels.
I guess they knew better than their customers that there really ain’t much difference.
That weekend in 2000 wasn’t Lisa’s first visit to Gentle World. She had met the community before on Maui, and had forged friendships that almost (though not quite) married her to this vegan family for a time.
15 years later, a video call had been arranged because Lisa knew, at that point, that there was no further hope of recovering from the cancer she had been living with. It was no longer a question of whether she would die, but how soon… and how. She explained that the doctor had outlined various possible scenarios, and she expressed, through a thin veil of courageous grit, her concerns about how painful the end might be.
I hovered outside the office door, not eavesdropping per se, because I knew I was welcome to join the call. I was trying to be respectful of the sanctity of the room: filled with love and grief, and an outpouring of sorrow for someone I barely knew. And I felt very young in that moment: perhaps even unqualified to participate. I had never known someone facing the certainty of her own death.
I listened intently until I was eventually encouraged to enter the room. I didn’t realize then how close I had come to missing out on the privilege of laying eyes on this person so close to comprehending that which the living can never know. Larger-than-life on the screen, with her fear unmasked, her exhausted and tear-stained face was lovely still. All her goodness was visible.
To my surprise, she lit up when she saw me, and responded with enthusiasm when asked by Sun, Gentle World’s matriarch, if she remembered me. But it wasn’t so much our meeting on the mountaintop that Lisa recalled. It turned out that she had been reading faithfully the Gentle World newsletter since its inception, and had been using it as a touchstone of sorts.
As I’m sure many communicators do, I have struggled over the years with the effort it takes to keep releasing missive after missive, especially in absence of an effective way to measure the impact. But that day, Lisa’s spontaneous outpouring of appreciation galvanized me.
At the time of her death, Lisa was celebrated as a force to be reckoned with in the vegan movement. As a result of her tireless efforts, as well as her authenticity and candor, and her profound empathy for the animals enslaved by humans, she was known and loved across the United States as a formidable activist who had poured herself into her work.
On that call, she opened up about her fears that perhaps she had asked too much of herself. Perhaps, she said, she should have joined forces with Gentle World all those years ago, and found a way to channel her energies that wasn’t so much at odds with her need for self-preservation. Now she was being ravaged by a disease she described as the physical manifestation of all the emotions she had struggled with on behalf of the downtrodden she had so devotedly worked for. The rage, the fear, the sorrow, the horror, the terror. Perhaps, she said, it had been eating her alive from the inside.
What do you think it is, Light?
She wasn’t asking now about the cause of her cancer. She had turned to Gentle World’s founder to hear his thoughts about what she might find on the other side of death. She was only 51. Far too young to die, yet dying anyway, and the weight of her question filled the air in that small room.
His response, practical as ever, was that no matter how certain anyone might be, the truth is that no one can possibly know. It is The Greatest Mystery.
But if anyone deserves for it to be good, Lisa, it would be you.
At the end of that call, I knew a great deal more about Lisa, and what her brief time in Gentle World had meant to her, than I could ever have known by meeting her under any ordinary circumstances. And even though I had barely known her before then, her words continue to return to my mind during times when my own perseverance falters, becoming a reciprocal touchstone for me in return.
Some short weeks after those goodbyes were spoken, huddled around the computer screen, our little office filled with grief, and heartbreak, and the infuriating injustice that this should be happening to one of the very best people on the planet, we received word that Lisa had passed. In the mail, we were sent a framed photo that she had kept of herself with Gentle World, taken on that first visit to Maui. The frame was decorated with tiny hand-painted portraits of barnyard animals in bucolic landscapes — a touching salute to the shared dream of a vegan world.
Days after we received word of Lisa’s death, I was driving alone on the picturesque mountain road that leads from the Gentle World home in Kohala to a nearby town.
Over the car stereo, music was playing from a CD that had been gifted to the community by a friend. I was hearing the songs for the first time, and was suddenly struck by the power of an otherworldly sound that went straight to the deepest part of me:
There’s no pain in all the world, you’ve made it home…
It was a clear Kohala day, and the breeze on the hillsides was stirring up the green of the grass while the sun turned the sapphire ocean to silver.
Lisa hadn’t been on my mind until I heard those words, but suddenly I remembered something else about her exchange with Light about what death might reveal itself to be:
If there’s any way you can share anything with us, he had said. Anything at all, to help us understand what it is…
The Great Unknown.
If I can, I will, Lisa had responded.
Beautiful Lisa who, I have since learned, used even her death as an opportunity to advocate for veganism, pointing to her failing eyesight as a reason for her friends and family to read aloud to her from vegan publications, hoping to perhaps reach just one more person, even on her death bed.
Comes a time, comes a time… to sleep.
The world lost a great treasure when Lisa died. Her tributes are filled with admiration for this extraordinary woman who had joked with her friends that maybe even death wouldn’t stop her from advocating for our fellow animals. In more sober moments, she had also shared that her fear of dying was in part due to sadness that she would then be powerless to continue to fight against the injustice.
It’s a comfort to have learned that right before she died, with full knowledge that she had reached the threshold, Lisa woke briefly from her final sleep to tell her nurse that she was no longer afraid.
There’s no worry anymore, you’ve made it home…
It was 11:11 on June 11th when Lisa left this world behind.
Only peace is left in store, you’ve made it home.