I can’t stop thinking about my friend Debi Keay, known to many as DK, who passed away suddenly in October. She was just 62. She left behind a 21-year-old son she adored, a family that loved her and countless friends.

In the video of Debi’s memorial service, the spot-on eulogy by an eloquent family friend covered so many facets of her life so well — her one-of-a-kind style, her big eyes, her creative drive, her always-on-call Texas accent. What else could I — or anyone — say? I’m not sure, yet I’ve felt called to share something more about my friend.

Debi Keay

Words haven’t really worked. Over the past few weeks, I’ve put my feelings into a painting. It takes courage to share my quirky little piece here. I wish Debi would have shared more of her own art — the handmade dolls and weird sticks that showed her darker, more mysterious side. Did she struggle to get past her own self-critique? Probably. For Debi, excellence mattered. Big time.

I first met Debi at RCI, a vacation ownership company. We shared a cubicle wall. Our boss called Debi a “great marketing mind.” DK’s big brand concept at Endless Vacation magazine — the “vacation self”— graced media kits, T-shirts and the heads and hearts of everyone on our team.

The fashion icon Diana Vreeland would have called Debi a woman of style. She had an aura about her that’s difficult to name. Petite, sassy and fashionable, her spirit and smile charmed everyone she met — and could alter the atmosphere in a room or even a corporate office. In her cubicle at RCI, Debi attached silk brocade fabric to the mauve walls, an idea I copied years later (I chose an antique crazy quilt). The closeness of our workspaces could be stifling to a free spirit like Debi, and she negotiated it honestly. I once hung an aromatic sweet Annie wreath on my side of the wall, which she gently asked me to take home (sensitive nose). At lunchtime, Debi often hummed adorably while eating her lunch, gourmet leftovers she’d brought from home — mmm, mmm, mmm. Sometimes she showed up to work in thousand-dollar dresses.

Debi Keay at the Ruschman Gallery
Debi Keay (right) with (from left) Nancy Ruschman, Melissa Egan, Mark Ruschman and me along with Lydia Egan, Alex Ruschman and Ria Rebein at the final opening of The Ruschman Art Gallery

Debi and I stayed in touch after the RCI years. I once hired her company, Skeleton Crew, to help with branding a campaign. And she was there when my career hit the rocks. After one painful layoff, she invited me to visit her house in the middle of the day, and she showed me the dolls she’d made. In muted colors, with a Native American vibe, they captured a feeling I can’t easily describe. Something feminine and feminist, too. They reminded me of totems — the Venus of Willendorf — with the essence of DK woven in. I encouraged Debi to put together a show of her dolls, and I even talked to a couple of friends from the Indiana State Museum about it, but the show never materialized. Like the spillover copy riffs she called a bone pile, Debi’s ideas sometimes stacked up like the paintings in her living room.

A great talent and a tough critic, Debi also had a huge heart. She could be vulnerable and generous. It was a kind of grace. She noticed other people’s strengths. Just thinking about her makes me feel more confident. A nod or word of encouragement from Debi meant so much more than the same words from someone else.

I wish I’d had more time with Debi Keay. Just to be in her presence to listen and watch. To go to an art opening, maybe. To know what she was growing in her garden. After she lost her husband, GP, I used to mail Debi packets of seeds and send little messages to let her know how much I thought about her. But did I do enough? Not really. Her last words to me, in a holiday message, referred to me and my husband, Rob, as “two of my favorite people who I never see.”

That card included a poem by Czeslaw Milosz, “On Angels.” I hung the vellum insert in my office for a while, then sent it to a poet friend who’d just lost her husband. Now that poem will forever remind me of DK — her inimitable style and talent, but more than that: Her huge heart. Her uncommon grace.

On Angels

All was taken away from you: white dresses,
wings, even existence.
Yet I believe you,
messengers.

There, where the world is turned inside out,
a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and beasts,
you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.

Short is your stay here:
now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,
in a melody repeated by a bird,
or in the smell of apples at the close of day
when the light makes the orchards magic.

They say somebody has invented you
but to me this does not sound convincing
for the humans invented themselves as well.

The voice — no doubt it is a valid proof,
as it can belong only to radiant creatures,
weightless and winged (after all, why not?),
girdled with the lightning.

I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:
day draws near
another one
do what you can.

—Czeslaw Milosz

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