Two weeks ago, I packed a bag and boarded a plane to go to New York City to do some work. Midway through my journey, the flight attendant leaned over to say, “Miss Cabot, I just have to ask—”
Am I the same Meg Cabot who wrote The Princess Diaries? Why yes, I am . . .
“—where did you get your bag?”
“My friend Sophia gave me this bag,” I told the flight attendant. “It’s by Betsey Johnson. Sophia said she got it at TJ Maxx.”
“That’s fantastic!” the flight attendant said. “There’s a TJ Maxx near me. I’m going there after work to see if they have more bags just like it.”
“Great,” I said.
The flight attendant went away, smiling happily, the way everyone does who sees the bag Sophia got me — even all the tired business men I meet standing around the baggage carousel. They always laugh when they see my bag pop out, covered in roses and festooned in hot pink ribbon and metallic gold trim.
“Nice bag,” they say to me.
“I know,” I say. Because it is a nice bag.
I was complaining about the mind-numbing boredom of business travel to my friend Sophia five or so years ago. She’d asked me what it’s like on book tour.
“Well,” I said. “It’s really fun to meet all the readers and booksellers, of course, and glamorous to stay in nice hotels and everything. But the travel part sucks. Everyone has the same exact same black wheelie bag! The only way you can tell them apart in the overhead bins or when they come out on the baggage carousel is by the different colored ribbons on the handles.”
Sophia — whom I’d known for over twenty years — said, feelingly, “That is disgusting.”
I knew Sophia would understand. Sophia just got things. She was a classically trained musician (Interlochen/Indiana University Jacobs School of Music) who wrote and played hauntingly beautiful songs. Some of my favorites include “Honeymoon”, “She Hates To Drive”, “Sweet Talk”, and “Wingwalker” (found here).
Sophia and her harpsichord
When I first met Sophia, she was working part-time in a popular Bloomington, Indiana deli, while also playing in a band with some mutual friends. Later she would go on to play with so many different bands and artists — including Michele Shocked and John Mellencamp — and write so many songs and put out so many albums, I lost track of them all. But I never lost track of her.
Sophia loved music the way I love writing. People who feel passionately about something are usually way more interesting than people who don’t feel passionately about anything (even if what they feel passionate about isn’t the same thing you feel passionate about). But that isn’t why Sophia and I connected.
Sophia felt so passionately about so many things that her father nicknamed her “Taisto-Tytär,” the Finnish words for “feisty daughter.”
Sophia felt especially passionate about helping to make the town in which she lived a better place, from adopting animals she found abandoned by the side of the road to running for public office. This passion – tempered by her charm, her love of music, and her great sense of humor – was what made Sophia so beloved to so many.
Sophia ended up going out with – and then marrying – Greg Travis, a friend of mine from high school, who’d also become a friend of my husband’s. As a result, the four of us packed a lot of bags, and visited a lot of places with one another — Martha’s Vineyard (a place Greg felt very passionately about). Castelfidardo, Italy, home of the world’s largest accordion (something Sophia felt very passionately about). Key West, Florida (a place we all felt very passionately about, enough so that my husband and I later moved there, and Greg and Sophia often visited).
After they were married, Greg and Sophia moved to a beautiful historic farmhouse in Bloomington. She applied her passionate feelings to many other things besides music, including but not limited to:
Her Korean-Finnish ancestry (she became president of the IU Asian Pacific American Alumni Association); renovating her home; fundraising for local food pantries; rescuing numerous abandoned dogs and cats that showed up on her doorstep; acquiring what may be Indiana State’s largest hedgehog figurine collection; advocating for women’s issues (she was founder and chair of the Monroe County Commission on the Status of Women); acquiring numerous locally made harpsichords; and finally, motherhood, when she and her husband added a son, Finn, four years ago to their menagerie of rescued dogs and cats.
This year, Sophia decided the time was right to run again for public office (she’d already served on the Monroe County Council from 2004-2008).
The only problem was that in the past few months she hadn’t been feeling like her normal energetic herself. None of the many specialists she and her husband consulted could say exactly what was wrong.
I saw Sophia at her house this past July at the end of my most recent book tour. I gave her a hedgehog family I’d bought at my signing at Schuler’s Bookstore in Lansing, MI. The minute I saw the tiny plastic figurines, I knew Sophia had to have them for her collection.
I was right. Sophia loved them.
Sophia had looked great when I’d seen her. Everyone was excited about the upcoming election in which she was running, but feeling a little blue because Lucy (one of the rescued dogs who’d loved to lick people), had passed away. Lucy had been quite elderly, however.
Two weeks ago, when I arrived in my apartment in New York City to do some work, I unpacked the bag the flight attendant had complimented me on, the one Sophia had given to me as a surprise five years earlier as a surprise for my 40th birthday.
“Now no one will ever mistake your bag for theirs,” Sophia had said, as she’d presented it to me. “This bag is sparkly, so I knew you’d love it.”
Sophia was right. I do love it. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. Weirdly by the time Sophia had given it to me, though, I’d forgotten all about our bag conversation, and given up on ever finding a bag I could tell apart from everyone else’s.
Sophia hadn’t forgotten or given up on the problem, however.
So when the opportunity presented itself one day at TJ Maxx, Sophia solved it . . . the same way that she’d given a home to Lucy and all those animals that had been abandoned by the side of the road, the same way she ran for public office (and won) when she felt the issues in her town might be dealt with more efficiently, and the same way she’d had a child after being told it was probably never going to happen.
Just hours after I got to NYC, unpacked my bag, and went to sleep, the phone rang. It was my husband calling to tell me that he’d heard from Greg. He had come home from work late the night before to find Sophia on the floor of their bedroom. EMTs had been unable to revive her. She had passed away only a few weeks before her 47th birthday.
I didn’t know what to do. Like everyone else who knew her, I wanted a do-over. I wanted to go back to sleep, wake up, and have it not be true.
But the next day, it was still true.
So I packed the bag Sophia had given me five years earlier, caught a flight, and went to Indiana.
It was so strange. Sitting on a shelf in Sophia’s dining room, exactly where I’d last seen them, was the hedgehog family I’d bought at Schuler’s Bookstore and given to Sophia in July.
Also in the house were Sophia’s husband and four year old son, parents and friends, my husband, myself, and all the animals she’d rescued (minus Lucy).
The only thing missing was Sophia herself. Or was she?
What caused Sophia’s death was most likely a very rare ailment of the heart.
As anyone even slightly acquainted with her knows, Sophia did suffer from a very rare heart ailment, but maybe not the kind the doctors think she had:
What Sophia had was a heart that was constantly overflowing . . . with love, with good humor, and – as her father predicted when he nicknamed her “Taisto-Tytär” – with passion.
Whether it was playing beautiful music, preparing a nice meal, giving a home to an abandoned pet, getting funding for programs for people who needed it, or even finding a funny bag for a friend who felt a little lost at the baggage carousel, Sophia always knew just what to do make others feel better.
And she never hesitated to set aside her own baggage in order to help others with theirs.
As I spoke to the many people gathered in her home in the days after her death, I realized they each had a story about Sophia helping them in some way that was very similar to my own.
It’s clear to me now that because of that, Sophia will never be gone. She’ll always be right here with us, alive in our own hearts and memories.
So if you want to live forever, figure out what it is that you feel passionate about, then follow that dream. Your passion could help make the world a better place, and go on to help others with their baggage, the way Sophia Travis was always so willing to do – and did – for so many.