It’s taken several days to be able to write a single word about my friend Bobbie Lautenschlager. That devil cancer got her. Fast, too. She was diagnosed with lung cancer early last spring, never smoked a cigarette in her life. She left us on August 18th. She was only sixty-eight. She leaves behind her husband John and her grown kids, David and Katy and five grandchildren. The last time I saw her was in the hospital at St. Anthony’s, where she was determinedly scrolling through photos on her phone looking for the most recent picture of the new grandson. Nodding off in between strokes of her finger across the picture window, she apologized, “sometimes I kind of trail off,” she said as John looked at me with fierce blue eyes and the painful wisdom, as a doctor, that this time, things would not turn out for the best.
Lest you think that Bobbie Lautenschlager was just a doting grandmother, not that there’s anything wrong with that, some of my best friends are doting grandmothers, she was far, far more. Bobbie was a life force. She was an absolute life force — the kind of person who is rare. She and John were medical missionaries, he a doctor, she a nurse, in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, from 1970 to 1989. Bobbie came home, with two kids who’d been born in Africa and a fire in her gut to write about her experiences. This would be the impetus for her drive to become a filmmaker. For more than a decade, Bobbie worked, promoted, tended to and never gave up hope on her screenplay, Joliba.
Enter Jean. I first met Bobbie in 1998, when I was a TV reporter for KDNL in St. Louis. I’d done a feature story on the St. Louis International Film Festival, in which Bobbie was heavily involved, which naturally I was attracted to like a moth to a light, since I was a closet screenwriter at the time, fresh from a separation from my husband and looking for something I could do which would exercise the writer angel/demons in me. After I interviewed Bobbie, with her stunning prematurely silver hair and shiny blue eyes, who exuded so much energy and enthusiasm about what was then a fledgling film festival, it was just contagious, I confided that I too had dreams of being a writer.
We set a lunch date, which was a luxury for me back then, with four kids and a full-time job and a crisis du jour it seemed, but I met her on my way to work one day and we sat the Bread Co. in Soulard and talked about writing. Hell, I wouldn’t have even needed to eat, it was so enriching, just sitting across the table from Bobbie, listening to someone who was so full of life, so full of encouragement and real passion, not only her dreams , but the dreams of other artists as well. Bobbie had a way of making you believe that anything was possible. She was herself, in fact, a reinvented women, before it became a buzz word. Our next meeting would be at her darling old house in Soulard, where we climbed up to the third floor garret and she sat down with me and patiently showed me how screenwriting software works and told me if I was going to be a real screenwriter, I’d have to bite the bullet and invest in some software and then promptly handed me a coupon. I got laid off a week later from my TV job, but the first thing I bought with my buyout package was a $300 screenwriting program. The lunacy!
Fourteen years later, dozens of film festivals, a trip to Sundance and many, many lunches and dinners later, with she and John coming to my house for Christmas parties and kids’ graduations, Bobbie remained my most steadfast fan and mentor. If there is one good thing about losing my brother Don to cancer two years ago, it’s the knowledge that when someone you love is diagnosed with Stage IV anything, you get your ass over to see them. I am blessed to have been able to spend some time with Bobbie and John and their daughter Katy and my dear friend Chris at Bobbie’s house. I had some alone time with her too. She was a woman of deep faith. She told me she wasn’t afraid to die, much in the same way my brother told me that. She did say she was sad. She said she was going to miss everybody, naturally, she wanted to stick around, but she wasn’t bitter. Here’s what she said, “you know, none of us are that special. This cancer deal just goes to show that none of us are immune, we’re just not that special.”
But Bobbie was. Sometimes in our lives we are so blessed to come across people who change them. Even in her declining days, even with what she called “chemo brain” she continued to encourage me to keep writing, keep going. She sent me an email in May, when I bailed on yet another job, so that I could devote ALL my time to finishing my book, she said, “This is absolutely the right thing to do, Jean.” Bobbie was genuinely excited at Memorial Day to hear that the first draft was done. Part of the reason I pushed so hard this summer to perfect it, was so that I could hand her a copy before she died. We knew things didn’t look good. I wanted her to read the acknowledgement of her. We almost made that deadline. The print version of the book comes out in a few weeks. I’ll give it to John instead. I have to think she’ll know, I just have to. In the absence of faith, what have we?
Here’s an excerpt from an email I got from Bobbie shortly after my brother Don died two years ago. In a weird twist of timing, I got word on the day of his funeral that I was a finalist in a national writing contest. It was the first time I’d ever received any attention for something I wrote other than from my small group of fellow dreamers. It was bittersweet to have my grief interrupted by something I’d sought for so long.
Dear Jean, Yes, this is a hard time to get some recognition–and have this huge grief to bear. But you are indeed a very strong lady–one I admire–and you will become a known writer–and that will be because of your courage. With love, Bobbie
When it comes to courage, Miss Bobbie, you wrote the book. I love you. I miss you. God rest your soul.