How do you measure a life?

One of the most moving parts of this year’s Tony Awards telecast was when drama students from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sang “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent.” The lyrics ask the rhetorical question: “How do you measure a life?”

That song has been playing in my mind a lot lately. A good friend died recently, and I am the executor of her estate. She had no children, no partner, no immediate family.

Her estate will ultimately be divided among a number of charities that help people and animals.

Over the last month or so, I have gone through everything in her house, deciding what to donate, give away, sell, trash or recycle. As I did so, I often felt as if I was throwing away her life.

Renee was an anthropologist who studied the lives of Hausa women in Niger and northern Nigeria. She lived there for over 15 years, becoming fluent in the local language, and eventually teaching at Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University. She was one of the founders of the feminist group WIN: Women in Nigeria. She also taught for nearly 15 years at a university institute in The Hague, Netherlands, initiating and coordinating research and capacity building projects throughout western Africa.

Her passports, which I unearthed in a file cabinet drawer, were full of visas and entry stamps from all over the world.

After retiring from teaching, she returned to the Bay Area. She loved walking with her beloved Chow, Rosie, at Fort Funston. When the National Park Service unexpectedly started to close areas and restrict dog-walking access there, Renee leapt into action. She marched, attended nearly every public hearing about dog walking, sent letters and emails to elected and appointed officials, and submitted eloquent and informed public comments whenever needed.

Her advocacy led her into local politics, and she got a job with then-Supervisor Leland Yee, following him to Sacramento when he was elected to the State Legislature. After a few years, she grew dissatisfied with life there, quit her job, and returned to San Francisco.

But she was bored at home, so she became a paralegal, and volunteered at the San Francisco SPCA. While there, she worked on a Pet Trust bill with her former boss Yee.

Before their bill, if you put instructions in your trust to take care of your pet after you died, the law allowed the executor to ignore those wishes. Renee’s bill removed the executor’s option, making clear that pet instructions had to be followed.

Renee loved the Giants, especially Buster Posey, NPR’s weekly quiz program “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink. She had the largest vocabulary of anyone I ever met, and would scold me every time I split an infinitive in a column.

Renee was a bit of a pack rat, however. I had to wade through box after box of clothing and tchotchkes that came from her mother’s and her aunt’s estates. I don’t know why she kept them — likely sentimentality — but it made my job a lot more tedious.

Give whoever will go through your stuff when you’re gone a break, and get rid of the things you don’t need now.

As I tossed out hundreds of photos and old lecture notes and journal articles, it felt a little like I was erasing her. I was, after all, throwing away the physical manifestations of her life.

But all the “stuff” you accumulate during your lifetime isn’t what really matters. The song “Seasons of Love” concludes that you measure your life in love.

The measure of my friend’s life is in the women in Africa with whom she lived and worked, and her research into how women optimize the social and economic opportunities open to them that is still widely cited.

It’s in her love for her dogs and her advocacy for continued recreational access at Fort Funston, Ocean Beach and city parks.

It’s in her friendships and the memories we carry of shared laughter as we played board games, political discussions over dinners, and walking on the beach with our dogs running circles around us.

By these measures, my friend Renee had a good life.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

Sally Stephens
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Sally Stephens

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