Emily Crockett, at 26; had lasting impact, fought disability
As a little sister, Emily Crockett learned early that she must speak up to address life’s inequities. And when she insisted that she and her older brother get equal treats, her mother used pieces of cookies to teach the young girl fractions.
Just when those lessons opened Ms. Crockett’s mind to the playful subtlety of math, her family learned she had a large brain tumor. The diagnosis included a calculation that suggested her life would be a fraction of what it might have been: She was 6 years old and given six months to live.
“I remember lying there thinking about it a lot,” she told the Globe in 2005 for a series about her first year studying mathematics at Harvard. “I knew what cancer was.”
For 20 years, Ms. Crockett outlived almost every prognosis and overcame nearly every hurdle in her path. When the tumor partially paralyzed her left side, she learned to play piano with one hand. When cancer curbed her eyesight until she was legally blind, she learned Braille and listened with a precision few achieve.
Ms. Crockett, whose creative talent and soaring intelligence lifted her to heights few reach, died Sunday in the Rose Monahan Hospice Home in Worcester of complications from five glioblastoma brain tumors. She was 26.
“She gets painted as ‘Emily, the poor angel,’ but she was much more human than that,” said Ms. Crockett’s father, Walter, who now lives alone in the Worcester home where his daughter spent most of her life. Ms. Crockett’s mother, Valerie, died of a rare cancer two years ago.
“I think the quality that people really seemed to care about was that Emmy didn’t give up,” Ms. Crockett’s father said. “She did not quail in the face of the odds. She had this fierceness, but she was also extremely kind.”
Those traits in equal measure defined Ms. Crockett’s life. As a friend, she inspired others with her optimism.
“She never dwelled on her disability,” said Sergio Martinez, who was one of the first Harvard classmates to volunteer to be one of Ms. Crockett’s readers and study guides several years ago.
In her application essay for Harvard, where she studied on and off for several years as health permitted, Ms. Crockett wrote that she wanted to make a lasting impact.
“I’m not looking to do something to make me famous,” she wrote, “just to help make the world a better place.”
“At the end,” her father said, “I think she took some consolation and some quiet pride that she had been a success and a good force on earth.”
Before and after the diagnosis that shaped her life, Ms. Crockett was unusual for her precocious intellect. A psychological exam administered before her first brain surgery pegged her IQ at 161. Years later, she posted SAT scores of 770 in math and 710 in English.
Illness, meanwhile lent an octogenarian’s perspective on mortality to a young woman who could take an adolescent’s delight in an off-color joke.
“I wasn’t expected to live this long, but I don’t think about it all that much,” she told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in 2004. “I don’t see my life as, ‘I might die.’ I see it as, ‘I’m living, right now,’ and I don’t expect anything to change.”
A big part of living was laughing.
“The laughter, it seemed very much to us, was critical to her survival,” her father said.
So was music. Ms. Crockett’s parents were popular folk musicians, and their daughter wrote songs, too, some of which are posted on YouTube.
Family was always a key part of Ms. Crockett’s life. Her father, a cancer survivor himself, kept her intellect and sense of humor sharp. Her older brother, Jackson, moved back to Worcester after her glioblastoma tumors were diagnosed.
The relationship Ms. Crockett and her mother shared was particularly strong, however.
“She was the single biggest reason I survived my disability in school,” Ms. Crockett told the Globe two years ago for her mother’s obituary.
In addition to her father and brother, Ms. Crockett leaves her paternal grandparents, Walter and Helen of Lawrence, Kansas; and her maternal grandfather, Carlton Orchinik, and her stepgrandmother, Beth, of Drexel Hill, Pa.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in United Congregational Church in Worcester.
“She had almost a month from the time she went into the hospital and hospice,” her father said.
“Friends and people from Harvard came to see her and talk to her, and it was almost as if she was at her own wake. I believe Emmy came to realize that she was widely respected for her courage and for the calm and optimism with which she faced her situation. People deeply respected that. They loved her as a person, but the word most used was amazing. They thought she was amazing.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.