At the beginning of the month, I lost a professor who had meant so much to me while I was at the University of Montana. Now, I must say goodbye to another beloved teacher and mentor, my collaborator, Nicky Gray, who died this morning of a heart attack.
Nicky and I met because we were both working on a community-based participatory research project, the topic of which was ending violence against women with disabilities. Nicky blew me away with her C.V, she’d done so much, served under so many organizations, and done so much for so many people and groups. At first, I was kind of intimidated to be working with someone so knowledgeable and experienced, since this was my first time getting involved in advocacy. But any anxiety or intimidation melted away after spending a few minutes with her, she was very warm, understanding, and did something seldom few adults had done at that point in my life: She listened to me, actively, actually listened to what I had to say, and respected my insights and opinions. She also had a beautiful and strong laugh, which put me at ease almost immediately.
Nicky had an incredible history in advocacy and education. I can’t even begin to detail all of the projects, boards, and centres where she left her mark, but it probably is safe to say that if there’s a place or a person in Montana involved in some way in bringing about justice for women, the disabled, and natives, then Nicky’s presence can be felt in some way. She was a tireless warrior for a better way, and treasured her chances to make the world a better place tomorrow than it was yesterday.
Working with her on the CAB was among the happiest times in my life. The group of people I interacted with on that project are like a family to me. If I were to relate them to family archetypes, then Nicky would have been the auntie who always offered a bit of life advice served with a smile and a story. She and I had a variety of conversations about our lives and our experiences, and we shared a deep and heavy sadness during many moments, feeling the grinding pain of racism, discrimination, ableism, and the other horrors of the world. But we also shared smiles, laughter, and moments of connection. I can particularly remember her face lighting up with happiness in pride during particular moments, such as when she talked about all that we’d accomplished so far on the CAB, what our work meant for the future, and her joy in life, particularly in raising her two children, who were loved in such a way I never even thought possible.
I feel the exact same way now as I did when Professor West died. I’m thinking about what I can do so that Nicky lives on in me, so that her work and her spirit continue always in everything I do, so I can honour her memory and everything she taught me. This is something I am going to have to think over for the next week or so, because she had such a great impact on my life, my values, and the way I conduct myself as an advocate. But that’s about me, not her. No matter what I do, she will always be remembered for her courage, her tenacity, and her love for what she did.
Rest in power, Nicky. You meant so much to me and to everyone who had the pleasure of working with you and knowing you.