Death of 34-year-old Laura Levis reaches far beyond friends and family
We never know when a conversation with a loved one will be our last, and there was nothing momentous about that final phone call between Laura Levis and her husband, Peter DeMarco. They had been planning Friday night nachos, a Saturday picking apples.
Only later did he realize her closing words — “I love you” — were the last he’d ever hear her speak.
Laura was 34 when she stopped breathing during a severe asthma attack. Paramedics revived her strong heart several minutes later and she lived six more days before dying on Sept. 22. “I am trying to keep my head above water in an ocean of grief,” Pete texted me from the hospital a day after she collapsed. “I am shaking as I type this.”
If we’re lucky our lives are love stories – poems that never end. Often only those close to us see what’s in our hearts and share tender moments, but after Laura died, millions caught a glimpse of her last days with Pete, her final hours alive. He wrote a heartfelt letter thanking those in the Cambridge Hospital intensive care unit who took care of her, and when the New York Times posted the tribute, it went viral online and was featured on the NBC Nightly News.
There is more to Laura’s life than the aching tragedy of that final week, though, and since then Pete has posted thousands of words on Facebook — a growing biography in social media-sized chapters.
In the letter and posts, he opened a door to her life and their marriage. Laura was an editor and a wise friend, a writer and a weightlifter whose arched eyebrows saturated selfies with mischievous irony. A couple for 12 years, and married the last two, Laura and Pete forged a romance in words and deeds, through world travels and work.
Laura had just become editorial production manager at the Harvard Gazette, after five years at Harvard Magazine, and for her, even love was wrapped up in words. Pete is a freelance writer, and sometimes they sat together at home in Somerville, reading aloud what each was writing. When they first started dating, “I said, ‘What’s he like?’ And Laura said, ‘I can’t really tell you, but I’ll show you what he writes,’ ” recalled her mother, Georgia Barnett Levis, a neuro-immunology researcher in New York.
Precocious verbally since infancy, Laura “wrote poetry and wrote in her journals — she wrote every day,” her mother said. “It wasn’t like a diary. She wrote little essays, even in the second grade.”
Laura met Pete in the Globe newsroom in 2003. An Emerson College student, she was a Metro Desk co-op. He was a Globe freelancer who went on to write the “Who Taught You to Drive” column. I was among their editors then and for a time a neighbor, too — a short walk from their top floor apartment in a three-decker overlooking the bike path to Davis Square.
Even at work, “it was Laura’s personality that made the deepest impression. She was both tenacious and tender. I quickly learned that behind that bright smile was a spine of steel,” said her boss, Terry Murphy, managing editor of the Harvard Gazette.
“In the beginning Laura would pop her head in my office and ask me what we had on the agenda for the day. Within a few months, I was popping my head over Laura’s cubicle wall and asking her what plans she had for me that day,” Murphy added. “The tables were turning. Laura was taking us down a new path and we readily followed. As others noted, Laura was a flower ready to burst open. She was on the brink of taking us where we had wanted to go.”
Laura Beth Levis was born Jan. 2, 1982, and grew up on Staten Island in New York City. Her father, Dr. William Levis, is a dermatologist and, like her mother, a researcher. Laura was talking and singing “Happy Birthday” by the time she was a year old, he recalled.
Though short — maybe 5-foot-3 — Laura was a fierce point guard, playing basketball for years in New York, where she swiped the ball from girls who towered taller.
While at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, N.Y., she found a new passion when she began working on the school newspaper. “She always had a thirst for knowledge,” said Stephanie Fox, Laura’s best friend since school days. “If she was experiencing something she didn’t know about, her first instinct was to educate herself.”
At Emerson, Laura was editor-in-chief of The Berkeley Beacon, the student newspaper. “Being around Laura was the most empowering thing. She made it look completely effortless,” said Melissa Kaplan, who then was the managing editor. “She had a vested interest in empowering women and helping them to make decisions. She really had a gift for empowering people, for making them feel good, for bringing out their strengths.”
After college, Laura worked in communications and publications at Buckingham Browne & Nichols School for five years before moving to Harvard. And in the past few years, she took up weightlifting, bench pressing barbells that dwarfed her. “She wanted every woman she met at the gym to give treadmills and elliptical machines a break in favor of bench presses and squats,” Pete said. “Hundreds of women followed her daily workouts on Instagram.” Laura had also begun volunteering at The Women’s Center in Cambridge, giving a class on resume preparation.
In 2004, she and Pete first decided to meet for a meal — to discuss journalism, he thought. He was waiting outside a North End restaurant when Laura arrived. “She turned the corner and had on this stunning green dress, and the moment I saw her I thought, ‘Oh, this is a date,’ ” he recalled.
Almost a decade to the day later, on Aug 16, 2014, they married on a gently sloping lawn overlooking the water in Bar Harbor, Maine. They were travelers at home and abroad, and the ceremony was part of their journey, too.
On Sept. 20, the night before Laura’s final neurological exam to determine if there was any hope of recovery, Pete held a different ceremony in the hospital’s intensive care unit. For days her closest family had gathered, but for that evening he invited friends and colleagues from all parts of her life. His friend Brian Anderson, an opera singer, reprised “Unchained Melody,” which he sang at their wedding reception.
This was not goodbye, Pete insisted, it was good luck for the next day’s exam. He had decorated Laura’s room with photos of their travels, of relatives and friends. “All she has to do,” he said, “is open her eyes.”
In addition to Pete and her parents, Laura leaves her half-brothers, William of Manhattan, N.Y., and Rob of Colorado Springs, Colo. The family will announce a celebration of her life, but for now the grief is still palpable.
“Sometimes it’s hard to even take a breath,” her mother said.
Laura was an organ donor and the strong heart that brought her back for a few days has given new life to a woman in her 20s. “They’ve shown that people get a little bit of personality from the donor,” Laura’s father said, but that’s not something Pete can think about. Not yet.
“I wish everyone in the world could feel the way I felt, especially that first day, for just one day of the year,” he said as we talked in their apartment a few days after Laura died.
“One day every year, just feel what I was feeling — this loss, this tremendous pain and loss — and I think people would love each other more, respect each other more, embrace each other more, appreciate their partners, their lovers, their wives, their husbands.”
On Sept. 22, Pete walked alongside Laura as nurses brought her to organ donor surgery, all the way to a final set of doors through which he could not pass.
“I knelt down on one knee and held her hand,” he said. “I told her we were soulmates and we would meet again, because that’s what soulmates do. And I ended by reminding her of what the last words she ever spoke to me were, on the phone, and they were ‘I love you.’ So I said to her I want the last words I say to you to be ‘I love you.’ ”
“And I kissed her,” he said, and then he let go.