San Francisco writer Cordelia Brown knew she was gambling with death when she stopped taking her epilepsy medications two years ago. But she told her mother she had no choice.
It was for her art, she said. She wanted her head clearer for poetry.
“Sharpen yourself like a knife and plunge into the sky,” Ms. Brown wrote in her 2008 book of poems, “Asylum.” That perfectly fit her approach to life: from overcoming a childhood automobile accident that nearly killed her to later journeying to India to teach English to Tibetan monks and living in a remote artists colony in the Venezuelan Andes mountains.
On May 1, at age 29, Ms. Brown faced her own apparent premonition of the nearing end with a peace beyond her years.
“Starting over – sinking into the night – my slate is clean,” were the last words she posted on her Facebook page before going to sleep.
And then, sometime that night, she died of an epileptic seizure.
The epilepsy was the only holdover effect of the accident in 1994 near Cloverdale, when a car driven by a 13-year-old girl slammed into the Brown family Ford Explorer, injuring six family members on their way to a Christmas vacation. Cordelia, then 14, was the most seriously injured, and was hospitalized in critical condition with head injuries.
Her gentle spirit, which shone through in her probing brown eyes and easy laugh, will be missed by not just her family, but poets and other artists through Northern California, friends and relatives said.
“My daughter was a stunning, beautiful woman, inside and out,” said her mother, Josie Brown of Petrolia (Humboldt County). “After the accident, she had to learn everything all over again – how to walk, how to swallow, how to do her studies. But she did it all.”
What Ms. Brown came away with from the experience, other than the epilepsy from injuries to her brain, her mother said, was “a quickening sense of living. She felt like she had a lot to do.”
And she did.
Ms. Brown was born in Homer, Ala., where her parents, Josie and John Brown, raised cattle and ran a travel guide business. When she was 6, the family moved to Petrolia, where the Browns still raise cattle and organic vegetables – and where Josie Brown runs the nearby Lost Coast Camp summer program for children.
After graduating from Mattole Triple Junction High School in Petrolia one year early, Ms. Brown first went to Spanish language school in Costa Rica and then worked at an orphanage in Nicaragua. She took to traveling and teaching English all over the world, and between jaunts she came back to San Francisco long enough to earn a bachelor’s degree in linguistics at New College of California in 2004.
In 2005, by then fluent in Spanish, she earned a certificate at UC Berkeley for teaching English as a second language. She went from there to the artists colony in the Andes, and when she returned two years ago she devoted herself to producing her only poetry book.
“When she came back, she had such a strong passion to do a lot of writing that she stopped taking the series of epilepsy medications she was taking,” her mother said. “She thought they were clouding her brain and she wanted to concentrate.
“I think she knew her life wasn’t going to go on and on,” because of her condition, Josie Brown said. “Cordelia wasn’t thinking about that accident any more, it was all behind her. She was doing her art.”
David Ulansey, a friend and professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, said he wasn’t sure whether the last words Ms. Brown posted on her Facebook site were “premonition or synchronicity, but they have been very healing for us.”
“Cordelia was a real force of nature,” he said. “She and her poetry radiated sensitivity and insight about the details of things that in the end make all the difference.”
Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009