Sandrine Pecher: 1970-2006

My great friend, traveling partner, and constant source of encouragement, Sandrine Pecher, died Tuesday morning after a nine-month battle with lung cancer.

Sandrine had valiantly accepted whatever treatments the medical community could offer, including several different chemotherapies and radiation. Just last week, she told me that new lesions had been detected on her liver, but that she was determined to begin another regimen of toxic infusions and carry on the fight. She never resigned herself to death. She never acknowledged that she wasn’t going to get better. She loved life, and she wanted to live, no matter how nauseated and achingly painful most days were. “I don’t want to die,” she said. “I’m not ready.”

This was a woman so filled with vitality, with that thing we call a “beautiful spirit,” that even while the insidious disease attacked her organs she was continuing to bring joy to those who knew her. There is no sensible way to comprehend the death of someone only 36, someone with a glorious life ahead of her. It is cruel. It is heartbreaking. And that’s all that can be said.

But while she was here on Earth — what a life!

Sandrina Brigitte Pecher was born in Belgium, and spent her early years in the charming port city of Antwerp, where she grew up speaking three languages — French, Flemish (Dutch), and English — and playing numerous musical instruments. After several years in European conservatories, Sandrine fulfilled a lifelong dream and matriculated to the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, where she earned a degree in film scoring. Her specialty was classical music. She loved Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss, Schubert and Verdi. Her own compositions, people often said, recalled Prokofiev; her music was melodic and fun, but with an undercurrent of quirkiness that seemed to reflect Sandrine’s playful personality. After working on several independent films — the best aspect of which, it must be said, was her original scores — Sandrine got her big break: she landed a job in the office of the Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. As an assistant composer there, assisting Ramin Djawadi, her “cues” — the incidental music that flashes throughout a movie — were heard in movies like “Batman Returns” and “Blade, 3.” When Sandrine learned that she had Stage IV lung cancer, she was furious; she was finally doing exactly what she wanted with her talent, and to fight the illness she’d have to give up her job. The indelible orchestral music she has left us, though, music that is so clearly Sandrine’s, will never quit.

Sandrine was a magnetically attractive person — and not just because of her physical beauty and statuesque figure. Her kindness, the utter absence of cruelty in her constitution, drew people to her. Animals, who perhaps understand this kind of thing better than humans, could sense in her a nurturing and loving spirit, and so Sandrine was always surrounded by dogs and cats, many of them rescued from shelters. During the time that she battled her illness, Sandrine adopted a traumatized white kitty and gave it a safe home. Donnatella — or “Donna” — was always by her side. In Sandrine’s final days at home, Donna never left her bed, lying on the pillow beside Sandrine’s cheek and covering Sandrine’s neck with her tail, like a furry stole.

Sandrine’s greatest animal exploit, though, is known to thousands of readers around the world: She’s one of the main “characters” in a book I wrote called “Ella in Europe: An American Dog’s International Adventures.” The book is dedicated to her, for without Sandrine’s language skills — in addition to her original three, she also spoke Italian, Spanish, and German — and her fluency with European cultures, a monolingual oaf (me) and his hairy mutt would never have been able to visit nine different countries together, making a multitude of canine dreams come true. I’m proud that long after she has left us, long after all of us are gone, readers will be able to “know” Sandrine Pecher, the patient and helpful companion who ushered the author and his dog through their continental odyssey.

Sandrine was a great encourager. She always urged friends to do what they really wanted to do with their lives, even if it seemed impractical or silly. Sandrine was the one who gave me the courage to pursue my musical passions, in the form of the Tasty Band. She was the one who answered an ad on my behalf to join the jazz vocal harmony ensemble Crescendo. She was the one who got me to audition for a musical improv group at Second City. Without her gentle prodding and confidence, it would have been easy to put aside these aspirations. How terribly unfair, how infuriating, that so many of Sandrine’s aspirations were preempted by her illness. There was so much more she wanted out of life. And she deserved everything.

Sandrine was a great and good friend. A giant friend. Indeed, she is the only woman I’ve ever known with whom genuine friendship was possible in the absence of romance. To lose her is heartbreaking. We can only pray that the beauty, the real and genuine beauty that she brought to all our lives will continue to shine within us, the lucky people whose lives she touched.

Sandrine is survived by her parents, Yves and Janine, a brother, Thierry, and countless friends and family. In lieu of flowers, the Pecher family request that donations be made in Sandrine’s memory to the American Cancer Society.

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