Almost fourteen years ago, I contacted a handful of children’s writers on or near Whidbey to form a critique group. Diane Johnston Hamm was one of them. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, as a newcomer to this career, to have a published author of both picture books and novels ferry over from Port Townsend to help start this group. Sally, Natalie, Diane and I met faithfully for several years. Natalie moved first, then Diane, off to Salem OR, then to Vancouver WA as she followed Jeff in his new positions. Sally is pursuing other dreams these days, but the group carries on with new members, though we meet less frequently now as a couple of us complete longer manuscripts. The picture above was taken by Diane and Jeff’s son Jesse.
Diane was our big sister, not so much in age as in experience. She counseled us on writing, group process, life. With her insight and leadership, we designed a protocol for our group that made our meetings efficient, supportive, and fun, with less opportunities for wasted time and hurt feelings. People came and left the group, but our guidelines remained intact.
Diane had mused about taking my friend Penny Cooper’s place when she moved to Salem. Penny and I met at the Port Townsend Writers Conference years ago, and Penny was in a writing group from Salem that eventually became Diane’s group. Penny, until her death from cancer, and then Diane, encouraged me and the rest of WOW (Writers on Whidbey) to attend the Silver Falls retreat sponsored by the OR SCBWI. Sally and I braved the bus, ferry, and train down to the retreat for several years. It was our chance to slow down, reconnect with Diane, and hang out with new writer friends. I haven’t been to the retreat in a few years now due to other book events, but Diane and I scheduled long phone chats to catch up. It didn’t quite replace our face-to-face times, but we’d talk for a couple hours at a time about our kids, adoption, writing and life discoveries, health and food, and what was happening in the lives of various mutual friends.
Last September, Diane was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She invited me down to stay with her a few days in April, but I was getting ready to leave for Japan, so we postponed our “retreat” until I got back. A week before I returned from Japan, I received word that Diane died. The final decline was quick, but Diane taught everyone around her how to die and live with grace and intention. Her family rose to the challenge she set for them, and they in turn modeled how to care for the dying. Whether you knew Diane or not, you can learn from this family’s journey on their blog, Our Diane.
A few days after getting home from Japan, with my voice just returning, I drove to Vancouver to speak at Diane’s service. It was an honor to be asked, and I was moved and humbled by the words shared by her family — both Diane’s words, and their own. Diane’s family possesses her same love of language, eloquence, emotional beauty, and wisdom.
Diane is still my cheerleader. I’m writing more these days, trying to let go more, to be present. I think of Diane when I see purple, or hear a laugh that’s similar to hers. I hear what she would say to me on those topics that were dear to us, and I give thanks for the time I had with her. And now, as I told her daughter Valarie, the Hamm family will have to keep me updated on their lives themselves.