A week ago I marked the seventh year since the passing of a friend of mine – Megan Owen Barry. Megan was one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met — and here’s where I’ll offer a pre-emptive apology as there is a very good chance I may not get all my recollections 100-percent correct, but what seemed so vibrant in my twenties is a little less so these days. Anyway, as I was saying, Megan was fascinating – smart, beautiful, ambitious, and possessing a sense of herself and her place in the world that was remarkable. I’m pretty sure that my first memory of Megan was at a statewide Young Democrats meeting in the late ’80s, and as I remember it, I saw her walking down a hotel hallway outside some hospitality suite – big blond ’80s hair and a black and white animal print dress, looking more mid-twenties than the 15 or 16 she would have had to have been.
And while she was very pretty (distractingly so for many of my fellow male Young Dems) , what seemed to grab and hold everyone’s attention was how amazingly cool she seemed. Like she did this sort of thing every day. Like despite the fact she was at least three years younger than the majority of us, she not only deserved to be there as much as we did, but heck, she probably deserved it a little more. And here’s where I’ll let you in on something that’s not really a secret to anyone who knew Megan – she did deserve it a little more.
You see, while many people’s first impression of Megan was that she was attractive and confident, to think that looks and confidence were the summation of her would be to grossly underestimate her. She was, and remains, one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. William & Mary undergrad / UVa Law School smart. If you had met her, you’d immediately start wondering what she was going to do, because whatever it was, she’d do it. You’d also likely not want to like her – someone that smart and that pretty can make enemies just by being herself. But you know what? Megan was nice! You could try and not like her, and hell, once you got to know her, you could try and be mad at her, but it just never seemed to work very well.
And with these skills and assets at her command, what occupied her focus? What captured her imagination? Politics. Starting at an early age, she proceeded to play the system with the same deft touch as a safe cracker. She served as a Senate Page in 1988 and in the Senate Clerks Office in ’95. She worked on campaigns and with local Democratic committees. And she was in the Young Democrats, which as you will recall, is where I said I met her.
Now the question is what could be the basis of a friendship between this scary-bright and beautiful young woman and myself? Honestly, I don’t really know. Back in those days I was just starting to get over debilitating shyness, was awkward looking at best, and altogether more the type of person whom you’d turn to and say “Oh, sorry, didn’t realize you were there.”
For whatever reason though, over a short period of months after that Young Democrats convention, Megan and I became friends. At the time, my mom was an up-and-comer as a State Delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates, and some warned me that Megan was obviously just being friends with me because of that (which is pretty insulting to me when you think about it). Nonetheless, we became friends. Best friends? No, I wouldn’t say that, but we were close. She introduced me to another friend of her’s and we’d all go out to movies or you know, normal friend stuff – eat pizza, talk, drive to cities all over the state going to Young Democrat meetings (everyone does that at that age, right?). I had the pleasure of introducing her to the old Frozen Dairy Bar and frozen custard (can’t be called ice cream because too much butterfat!).
It was a friendship that lasted for a number of years and initially survived Megan and I being on opposite sides of issues and campaigns from each other a number of times. Hell, she was a “grooms-maid” at my wedding — not having a lot of guy friends, I’d decided to not even try and be conformist and instead had my best man and two of my two best female friends on my side of the wedding party.
Back to the source of that friendship: looking back now I think what I offered Megan was a certain type of insight. As I said, I was generally pretty shy and while smart, Megan already had all of that she needed; so what type of insight could I provide? How to persuade. How to convince. How to argue. Especially with the fiery idealism of youth (and in spite of my social anxiety), I spent a good part of my time in the Young Democrats having discussions (
some many would say arguments) over the issues of the day. I was anti-capital punishment, pro-labor, pro-choice, and had very strong opinions on pretty much everything – something that has obviously not changed one iota since then <grin>. Anyway,point being, if you didn’t agree with me, I’d verbally brow-beat you into submission or go down in flames trying.
So what leads me to conclude that this is what initially made Megan decide “Hey, I think I’ll hang out with Jason occasionally”? In all the years I knew Megan, I think I could count the number of times I heard her get into an ideological or issue-focused discussion on the fingers of one hand. At heart I think she was a pragmatist, which is fine if you want to govern, but not so good if you ever want to get elected — Megan had plans. I honestly think it may have been the first conversation she and I ever had – she asked me “So, do you think you’re ever going to want to run for office?” As soon as I mentioned that I might run for the House of Delegates some day, she’d already moved on to planning when we could both run for the House of Delegates in the same year. I laughed, but she just looked at me.
She was serious. She was not even old enough to vote, and she was already planning to make public office her life’s work – and not in a daydreamy way, but in a very practical and pragmatic way. As I mentioned, she had a plan. And I think what intrigued her about me was how, shy and awkward as I was, I still tried (and occasionally succeeded) in persuading folks to my point of view on something. That’s not to say that Megan wasn’t passionate about politics or ideas or didn’t know how to argue — far from it. She was fascinated by the machinery of politics and governing, she was deeply interested in the politicians themselves and what made them tick. But she was not an ideologue, and she knew she had to at least be able to talk like one to get elected someday. Also, I think for a number of reasons she disliked conflict. I remember talking to her once about it and having to explain how I could argue for hours with someone and not take any of it personally.
For various reasons, mostly extremely stupid now in hindsight, Megan and I had a falling out in the mid-’90s, which means that just as she was coming into her own and becoming whom she was meant to be, I was no longer in contact with her.
It was just after Valentines Day 2003 when I got a call from a friend letting me know that Megan had ended her own life. In some ways, my life has never been the same since. I know that may seem overly dramatic, but it’s true. If Megan, who had been planning and working towards some future she envisioned her whole life, could decide to end it all, what kind of sense could the world every make to the rest of us?
I’ve had relatives die and other friends gone well before their time, but Megan’s death more than others I’ve faced made me realize that nothing is certain in this world. Since then I’ve come to terms with that fact and even to welcome the random nature of the universe – if for no other reason than trying to fight the good fight is its own reward; not the accolades that might come later or the fact it gets you one step closer to a goal. It’s doing what’s important now that brings you satisfaction and happiness, and if you do it right, that “now” extends endlessly in front of you and takes you where you need to go.
Sadly I was unable to attend her funeral, and between the nature of her death and the falling out we’d had years before, I’ve always felt that in many ways I failed her as a friend. Of course, I also realize that nothing I could have done would have changed what happened, but that doesn’t make it easier.
Throughout the years since her death, I’ve thought about her and wondering where she would have been on her path if she was still with us. By age thirty, she’d become a lawyer, a lobbyist, a wife, and a step-mother (all of which she worked as hard at as ever). She would now be closer to 40 than 30 – a seasoned veteran in the halls of power. She would have absolutely loved the 2008 presidential election, and I wanted her there with all my heart to see it, even though she would have certainly backed a different candidate in the primaries than my own 🙂 In this age where we have Sarah Palin (looks + confidence) and Hillary Clinton (intelligence + confidence) whom have had so much success, I have to believe the world would have been beating a path to Megan’s door (intelligence + looks + confidence ). I’d like to think that by now, she’d be using something she picked up or learned from me in a candidate debate and wiping the floor with her opponent.
And now that I have my own daughter and am casting about for positive role models for her, I miss Megan all the more. She wasn’t perfect, and there were times when she drove me crazy, but she was the type of person who changed the orbit of other people’s lives for the better and I can think of no better goal for anyone than that, and I can think of no better thought to end this on.
Miss you Megan!
I’ve been meaning to write this piece for awhile. It’s been repeatedly written out (or at least outlined) in my head but then always erased – probably a sign I shouldn’t even try, but it reoccurs to me often enough that I thought it only fair I see where it takes me. For those of you who also knew Megan, I hope you are like me and will enjoy the memories of her life. For those of you who didn’t know Megan, I hope you just take this as a reminder to value those you love and never take them for granted.