Wednesday, April 19

My Real Job

I purposely named this blog Designing on the Side because I really, truly only design things on the side. My real job is fundraising and event planning. First for an opera company in Chicago, then for NPR in Washington, DC and then at the ripe old age of 29 years old, I had a baby and decided wasn't going to work anymore.

Three weeks into my stay-at-home motherhood, I was cursing out Elmo and wrapping myself around my husband's leg begging him not to leave each morning. Our daughter was the light of my life, but endless days in our tiny apartment made me want to scratch my eyeballs out with the bio-degradable forks I got at my daily, and expensive, outings to Whole Foods.

Thankfully, I got a call from my a friend who said that there was this really important guy looking for someone to plan a big event and he wanted me to meet him. I threw a bottle at my newborn, squeezed into a pair of pre-maternity pants and bolted out the door.

George Vradenburg was his name and he was a big-time lawyer, who in his retirement, was chairman of a museum called The Phillips Collection. He sat at the end of a huge and intimidating mahogany board table and grilled me about what type of gala I would plan for the return of a famous Renoir painting that had been on a world tour. I was out of practice and unprepared and muttered something about balloons and clowns and ran out of the building.

He must have had slim pickings because he offered me the job anyway. At first, he made me slightly terrified, but at some point in our regular meetings, I realized he truly valued what I had to say, and get this...actually did what I told him to do. Here was this hugely successful businessman, well-known philanthropist and admired political activist who empowered me. Trusted me. Believed in me. Whaaattt??? Craziness.

George and I worked together to plan that gala which raised almost $1 million for the museum. It was a huge success. Ran in all the papers. Brought together every well-known Washingtonian and was "the event" in town. At the gala itself, he thanked donors, sponsors, politicians, and at the end of the speech in front of 800 people, he did something no one had ever done before. He thanked me. Publicly. Repeatedly. Gushingly. Frankly, it was a little embarrassing. But also, amazing.

The Phillips Collection Gala 2006. George called it understated. 

For the next several years, we worked together until I got pregnant with my son and decided to retire. Again. It also lasted a hot second. I went on to work for another organization and when I called and asked George to support it, he did so without a moment's hesitation.

Fast forward to a few years later, and I retired. Again. I'm nothing if not consistent. I was burned out. Exhausted. My kids were old enough to feed themselves and I was ready to lounge the days away. The very first night of my latest retirement, I was out to dinner with my husband and kids when George's name popped up on my caller ID. I thought he was calling to wish me luck with my lazy days ahead. I should have known better.

He mentioned something about Alzheimer's and more events and raising lots of money and working together and told me to call him Monday. I protested and then called him Monday. I took that job too. But this was different. This one was personal. This one involved his wife Trish.

Trish Vradenburg. This is the picture she always made me use of her. 

Trish was a sitcom writer of some of my favorite childhood shows - Family Ties, Kate & Allie, Designing Women. Her mother had died of Alzheimer's and she and George had been working for years to advance a cure. Unsatisfied with progress, they started their own organization called UsAgainstAlzheimer's.  My understanding of this disease centered on my Grandmother's journey with what we called senility, but what we know now was dementia. She was 95 when she died and I assumed, wrongly, that it was just what happened when you got old enough.  I quickly learned otherwise.

Trish said her mom was fancy and funny and a rebel. She helped Kennedy win the state of New Jersey and was on Nixon's White House enemy list.

Bea Lerner, Trish's mom. 

Trish too was feisty and funny. So damn funny. She wanted a cure for Alzheimer's and she wanted it now. Not satisfied with the status quo, she pushed us all to work harder and faster before she got this horrible disease that robbed her of her mom. She and George were tireless in their fight and they made us all soldiers in the battle. 

We traveled across the country together producing celebrity readings of the first act of a play she wrote about her mom called Surviving Grace. Anyone who has ever traveled for work, or planned big events knows that it's a thankless job. At every turn, as we interacted with celebrities, politicians, even First Ladies, she could have dismissed me to the back of the room as staff. She never, ever did. She always asked me to sit next to her. Always.

One time she scolded me for working when I was sick. I said, jokingly, "Thanks, but I HAVE a mom, Trish" and she instantly responded "You might, but you don't have a JEWISH mom. You do now!" Through happy times and awful ones, for the last 13 years we have raised millions of dollars, planned countless events and most importantly, become family.

I took this picture of them at our holiday party two years ago. She approved it. 

On Monday, we lost Trish to a heart attack at 70 years old. As I write this, I am on a plane to her funeral in Los Angeles. It's hard to even write that. It's even harder to believe.

She was a sparkly light and her presence is already missed by the hundreds, if not thousands of lives she touched. She has taken a part of our hearts with her.

As I learned from losing my close friend Laura two years ago, life does go on. As it should. And Trish would want us to appropriately grieve (think devastated wailing) but then she'd want us to march on. She'd make a joke of all of this fuss, tell us to pull ourselves together and to get back to work. And we will do just that, in her name and in her honor.

Last Saturday morning as I was boarding our flight home from spring break, I got an email from her. It said, in giant blue font:

I miss YOU so much!!!!
xxxx Trish

I miss you too, Trish. And I always will.

Some press about Trish's passing: 

New York Times 

Washington Post 

Hollywood Reporter