My website

My website

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The good they die young: my friend Liz Nickel

Elizabeth Ann Nickel, Nov. 22, 1953 - Feb. 17, 2013
You wonder about sayings like "The good they die young." And then you meet someone like Liz Nickel. And then she dies.

Liz's memorial was held last night. It was quiet and unassuming, like Liz. She would have liked it.

I met Liz ten years ago, when my husband and I fell in love with Cajun music. Our friendship with Liz and her husband Tom became linked with all things Cajun.

My favorite memories of Liz center around an old stove in an old schoolhouse at Folklore Village in Dodgeville, Wisconsin: Liz and I and a few other diehard Cajun-cooking-learners are taking turns stirring a big cookpan of roux. Despite our energetic stirring, the roux is remaining obstinately pale. So we stir some more, and talk. And laugh. And stir. And laugh some more. Finally the roux is good and brown, "Cajun fudge." Then our teacher Jackie Miller, from Iota, Louisiana, shows us how to use that roux in a gumbo or some other wonderful Cajun dish.

We eat. And talk and laugh some more.

After several years of meeting at Folklore Village Cajun weekends, plus dancing at Cajun gatherings in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and at Amana Colonies, Iowa, some of us from the Greater Milwaukee area began meeting to make Cajun music. We got together about once a month and spent hours playing almost-good Cajun tunes. I wanted to learn the triangle (the traditional Cajun percussion instrument), and I did, but I was pressed into service singing because I was the only who knew any French. Joke was on me. My French knowledge turned out to be a deficit because Cajun French is very different from the French we learned back in high school. I had to un-learn one to learn the other.

Tom was already an accomplished musician ("Big Nick and the Cydecos") on guitar and accordion, and he began teaching himself fiddle. Leslie played guitar and she started working on accordion. My husband Mike learned to tingle away on the triangle without breaking anyone's eardrums. Players came and went, the group stayed small, and ever so slowly, the music sounded better.

Liz was quiet at first. Very quiet. But eventually she started singing along. Softly, then with more vigor. She never got to the point of belting - and you have to belt in order to be heard above the accordion - but she sang.

I remember singing with her and looking into her eyes as we sang. For a few verses of a tune, all I could feel was Liz and me, and we were doing it by golly, even though we weren't doing it perfectly and we knew we'd never perform. There was a magic there. I'm sure she felt as happy as I did.

Once, at Folklore Village, I told Liz that I had spotted a church rummage sale sign. Next thing you know, Mike and I bumped into Liz at the rummage during a break from Cajun dancing and cooking lessons. We shopped side by side and laughed at ourselves. In Liz's obituary are the words "She was an avid thrift store shopper and collector of ensuing treasure." I suspect Tom wrote that. Ensuing treasure: I like that. I'll have to remember that next time I pick up something I hadn't realize I needed. 

Over the years at Cajun gatherings, Liz and I had a lot of talks. We bemoaned our fates constantly fighting the battle of the bulge. She talked about how important music was for Tom. She wanted him to keep making music because it's the thing that makes the world right for him.

From time to time, Liz complained about being not-this or not-that. She wasn't a good enough dancer or whatever. She was probably the most self-effacing person I've ever met. I assured her that she was just fine the way she was, but I think she kept her doubts. However, she never let those doubts interfere with her big smile and her big warmth. She always greeted me - and everyone else - with her smile and her warmth like a big blanket. I always felt so glad to set eyes on her.

At her memorial last night, I heard about a Liz I never knew. Liz's sister told about a young girl who was confident in her strength, a tomboy who was always "at the top of the tree." Liz loved nature and never met an animal she didn't find interesting.

It hurt my heart when I learned about Liz's natural athleticism, because that is the thing that was taken from her. A few years back, Liz told me that she was experiencing odd episodes of weakness. "It seems like M.S. or something," she said. She gradually found it harder to walk and harder to dance. I've had my foot in a surgical boot for a week now and can hardly stand my handicap. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for Liz to keep up her spirits when she had to use a walker, when she fell and had to get stitches in her face, or when she couldn't get out of bed.

It wasn't M.S. After many tests, doctors determined that Liz had Parkinson disease. My next door neighbor is in his 80s and has had Parkinson's for ten years. I anticipated a similar long struggle for Liz.

But her slide was precipitous. I saw her in living snapshots a year apart, because we only saw her at Folklore Village. She became a watcher rather than a dancer. I never saw Liz between big Cajun events because I had left the Cajun jam band. I had realized that I didn't have enough time in the week to dedicate myself both to being a good writer and also to doing the hard work of learning Cajun French well enough to sing it.

I should have made the effort to go and visit, but I never did. You know how you have friends in their own little niches? Well Liz was my Cajun-event-friend. She lived about 45 minutes or so away from me, and I'm sorry I didn't try harder to see her between Cajun gatherings. Who would have known the disease would take her so soon? Every year Mike and I got a Christmas card from Tom and Liz. There was always a beautiful personal note. I long ago gave up sending Christmas cards. I didn't send a card. I didn't call. I'm sorry, Liz. I'm sorry, Tom. I am a fair-weather friend but I did love Liz and I am so very sorry to have her gone from this earth.

Recently Tom joined The Cajun Strangers and wrote a beautiful sad Cajun waltz (there is no other kind) for Liz. It's called "Elizabeth." As she requested, he played it at her memorial. He provided a recorded version because, he said, "this is a tough room to play."

The waltz threaded through the air of the room, all sad fiddle. Images of Liz flashed on a screen as the waltz wafted. There was the young strong Liz, all muscle, with a stringer of fish. There she was wearing a long braid while she stood in the foreground of a mountainous terrain. There she was, older, at Folklore Village with some of the rest of those who love this strange Cajun music that doesn't flow in our blood but flows in our souls.

And there were Tom's words flashing across the screen:

"When God created us
He made people of every sort
But he never told me
that as I tread my journey
through life...
The very best people
that He created are not
nobility or "Movie Stars"
They are the quiet
and frequently invisible ones
who work hard and give
to others
rather than to take
for themselves
And Elizabeth
was one of them."

I heard Tom talking to Brian, one of his band mates in The Cajun Strangers. Tom was trying to put into words what it felt to lose his best friend and love who he'd had for what he called "the best 23 years" of his life. He said that it was like he and Liz had shared one brain. Now that she's gone, it's like a part of his body is gone. He kept trying to describe the feeling, but he couldn't. 

When words fail, music enters. Music will help Tom heal, and Liz will be smiling. She wanted him to make music.

This March, when we stir the roux at Folklore Village Cajun weekend, we will talk about Liz. We will laugh and we will cry.

Everyone at the memorial service talked about how Liz put the needs of others ahead of her own. She did anything to help anyone. That didn't surprise me. She chose to leave her brain to medical science for the research of Parkinson disease in the hopes that a cure may be found for others. That also didn't surprise me.

Liz's family is huge (nine kids in her family of origin). A very small girl sat in front of us. We learned that she bears an honor. Her parents named her Elizabeth.

Dance lightly with body so light, Liz.

Gail Grenier is the author of Calling All Horses, Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, and Dessert First, all available from


  1. Thank you for your support, Gail. I don't think that anyone at service didn't feel some sort of guilt for not having spent more time with Liz when they could have. No one knew it would end like this. Towards the end, it became very difficult for me to care for her. I admit, I'd get overwhelmed .. and make a shamefully selfish comment to the effect 'why am I going through this' to which Liz would respond; "You're being taught to love." Perhaps, that's why God sent her to us.

  2. Thank you for your thank you, Tom. And thanks for your kind words of absolution. I figured I already had absolution from the ever-kind "Phoebe"! How cool that she was sassy to you when she felt ill, enough to say "You're being taught to love." Wow. That woman was amazing. I decided today to add a mention of her donation to science into my blog post. I like how the blog set-up lets you add and change things. Anyway, I'll keep sending you "white light"!!

  3. To Tom Nickel
    So sorry to hear about Liz' death. I remember meeting her at a few Cajun things, a very sweet person.
    I followed the heartbreak of her illness through my close friend Leslie. Liz has found release from suffering. May your heart heal, though you will always carry her within it.

  4. Thank you Gail. When Liz had her first diagnosis (from Mayo Clinic) they diagnosed her as having "Multiple Systems Atrophy". This first diagnosis was perhaps more correct. Victims usually die within 6-7 years of diagnosis, and they die of the cause Liz did. There were several other symptoms she had that made me think MSA was the true diagnosis. A small detail, but another possible piece of the puzzle.

  5. Hi Linda. Thank you for that explanation. I still don't know the direct cause of her death. I think I was afraid to ask.

  6. Your blog about your friend has the power of 100 Christmas cards. Now Liz's lovely personality is known by strangers. I like to think that the world has many good people -- we're just not able to meet them all. Writing passes the word around.

  7. Pauline - I like that! The power of 100 Christmas cards! It must be so, because in the first day I posted it, the blog got 155 hits! That's a record for one day for this blog, I think. I'm glad that Liz's life will be inspiring others. Thanks for your words, Pauline.

  8. Gail, thank you for the lovely remembrance. I've known Tom for many years but haven't talked to him in a long time. I was not fortunate enough to have met Liz... I wish I had. Reading this remembrance made me feel like I knew her just a little and for that I'm grateful.

  9. To Mike Starr - Thank you very much for your note. You would have loved Liz. She was a perfect counterpart to Tom!