Harvard student embraced, enjoyed life
She is sitting in historic Harvard Hall, where John Hancock once hosted Lafayette, and as autumn blusters in Harvard Yard beyond the auditorium’s large-paned windows, Emily Crockett leans into a dense vortex of mathematic formulas that swirl about her.
She is legally blind. She is partially paralyzed. Her genius-level IQ has earned her a seat in this hall. And she is smiling.
It is the enduring image of Emily that I have carried now for seven years - and it shimmers still.
It is an emblem of courage and hope, of tenacity and intellect. Of stunning achievement. And cruel challenge.
It is a story that never let go. Not after her freshman year at Harvard, which I chronicled for the Globe in a 2005 series. Not after the “farewell’’ dinner we shared in Harvard Square after final exams that next spring. And not in the years since. Because Emily would not permit it.
Emily Crockett, 26, died Sunday from complications linked to a childhood tumor in her brain. From her home in Worcester, from her college desk at Harvard’s Pforzheimer House, from her hospital room at Massachusetts General Hospital and finally from the hospice bed where she died this week, Emily presided over a constellation of friends, colleagues, caregivers, musicians, doctors, and family members who had charted, and cheered, her remarkable journey.
It was difficult not to.
Hers was the story of the little curly-haired girl who could sweetly sing herself to sleep in her bedroom, but would not tolerate a perceived injustice whether it be from a grammar school teacher or - much later - a college administrator.
When she was 6, doctors discovered malignant, star-shaped cells near her brain stem - a golf ball-sized tumor they removed in a five-hour operation that would change but could not define her life.
Before she was wheeled into surgery, Emily - in a direct and disarming fashion familiar to those close to her - wrote 10 questions for her surgeon, Dr. Alan R. Cohen, or “Big Al’’ as she unfailingly called him.
“How big a spot will thay cut off on the side of my head?’’ she wrote on lined composition paper she decorated with a flower, a heart and two stars. “Do you think I will need a wig?’’
Cohen operated on Nov. 13, 1991 - a date that Emily dubbed her “Al-iversary’’ and on which she expected and often received a telephone call from him. Or he got one from her.
In the years that followed, the Crocketts - her parents, Walter and Valerie, and her older brother Jackson - helped write a story of success and achievement against often brutal and depressing medical bulletins, which they buffered with goofball humor and the folk music they made in their kitchen.
When her mom and dad considered buying Emily a bicycle for her 10th birthday, they consulted another doctor about whether that purchase was prudent.
“My best guess is that her 10th birthday will be her last,’’ the doctor said, Valerie would later recall. “I think we should really think about quality of life and not quantity of life.’’
Emily got her bike anyway.
And for years, without complaint, she passed through a gauntlet of scans and pills and operations and procedures, and sped past all medical expectations.
That’s why when the thin, Cambridge-postmarked letter arrived in early 2004, Walter Crockett struggled to read Harvard’s acceptance greeting through tears.
And it is why Valerie Crockett stood in her family’s living room on Sept. 10, 2004 - a U-Haul truck parked at the curb - and prayed that her mascara was, as advertised, waterproof.
“I don’t know what I’ll do without her,’’ Valerie said as Emily packed for her Harvard freshman dorm, Thayer Hall. “She really is my good buddy.’’ There were no tears in Emily’s eyes.
“I’m looking forward to being in a place where everybody really enjoys learning and they enjoy thinking,’’ she told me then. “I’ve spent so much of my life just sitting at home and feeling terrible all the time. I want to be active and accomplish things.’’
And she did.
There is a temptation in stories such as Emily’s to see only greatness and bravery, and not the whole child - the whole young woman.
But Emily was no saint. She had no room for halos.
What she wanted was to be a college kid who did what all college kids do. And, until her tumors attacked again, she had some success.
She ate too much junk food. She was a master of procrastination. She had a guilty TV pleasure (“Jeopardy!’’). Few enjoyed a bawdy joke more. No one took more glee from executing the perfect practical joke.
She could be an imp.
Traversing Harvard Yard in mid-February 2005, a member of a Harvard a cappella group approached her and invited her to a concert that week in the university’s Sanders Theatre. She gleefully accepted and then, in a stage whisper as the young man retreated, said: “He’s got an incredible voice. The kind of voice that makes me want to quit singing!’’
And she could be introspective. “People ask me a lot: Do you ever think, ‘Why me?’ ’’ she told me over lunch one winter afternoon that year. “No. Because that would be saying I’d rather it be happening to someone else. That’s not right. I’ve been blessed with an incredible life. I just have a wonderful life. I mean, you’ve met my family. I have a really great family and I have so much to live for, which is mostly what’s keeping me going.’’
Weeks later, I interviewed one of Emily’s oldest friends, Elena Cordova, then a student at the University of Vermont. As first-graders the girls had played with Barbie dolls together. At Halloween, they dressed up and went trick-or-treating through their Worcester neighborhood.
In a Burlington, Vt., coffee shop, she recounted her friend’s worthy-of-Hollywood journey to the Ivy League: “I wish I could go up to everyone at Harvard and say, ‘Do you understand who is in front of you? This girl is not only one of the most amazing people who has been in my life, she is a testament to everything that you don’t think is possible.’ She’s it.’’
Emily’s close-knit group of supporters will surely nod their heads at words like those.
I was on assignment for the Globe, chasing a rascal through southern Florida in October 2009, when Emily called with word that her mom - her best friend and most dogged advocate - had died. Valerie Crockett’s three-year battle with leiomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer, took her life at 53.
At the memorial service days later, Emily chose to focus not on her mother’s death but on the remarkable life of this gifted musician and devoted mother who was relentless - a beautiful, smiling pit bull - in her advocacy for the disabled.
Emily Crockett, who by sixth grade had witnessed the deaths of 10 other young cancer victims, her fellow clinic patients, had mastered before most the lesson that life is fleeting and precious.
“I’ve learned a lot about life,’’ she wrote in her application essay she sent to Harvard. “I’ve learned that the future is completely unpredictable, and that we should never take anything for granted. But instead, we should embrace and make the most of whatever we are given because anything, including our lives, may be taken away at any time.’’
During our time together in the classrooms at Harvard, or having lunch at the Border Café in Harvard Square, or on the bus to a chiropractor appointment in Arlington, Emily sometimes would ask me if I would be there when she walked across the stage on Commencement Day to collect her diploma.
Wouldn’t miss it, I told her. And I meant it. But that was not to be.
But if commencement is a buoyant celebration of undergraduate grit, and overcoming long odds; if it is a time to reflect on a soulful journey that has shaped a student from uncertain teenager to impressive adult; if it is a time to take stock and swell with pride, I haven’t missed anything.
I’ve already witnessed all that.
Emily Crockett showed it for me - and all her classmates - during her time at Harvard like that brilliant morning during the lecture in Harvard Hall when she broke into a smile as numbers she loved danced through the air.
A memorial service for Emily Crockett is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at United Congregational Church, 6 Institute Road, Worcester.
Thomas Farragher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.