"And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over."
(John Masefield, Sea Fever)



For My Friend Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson,
Wherever She May Be

A cool Michigan summer morning. An awkward group of people awaits a ride to their first faculty retreat. The 7 a.m. sun slants gently towards, squinting its way into the day, as much as the young people attempting conversation. All of us are new Ph.D's and all of us have been hired for a year by Michigan State University's James Madison College. The drive to Leelanau is long and could be really boring, but for me, it will be the morning Ronie and I met and became friends.

Friends, co-conspirators, colleagues, fellow-sufferers and most of all, comrades-in-laughter. I think of Ronie, and my most vivid recollection is of laughter. We did have serious discussions. We did have intense conversations. We did discuss the dry, dull business of teaching-grades. We did share horror-stories and tales from fieldwork. But most of all, Ronie was the friend I could laugh with, in the loneliest year of the loneliest three years of my life. And I treasured this friend, treasure this friendship, which wove together uplifting levity with concrete, everyday sharing and caring.

Can this be fair?
Do something, do something!
Can this be just?

I cannot place disease, death and Ronie in the same sentence.

Notwithstanding her penchant for designing stylish black clothes for herself, the word that comes to mind as I now think of her is 'exuberance'. Her energy for life was unbounded. I see her eyes widening with delight as she went about every little task.

Take our offices. Both of us were in tenuous temporary positions. But Ronie cleaned out her allocated office space, put up pictures, brought in her books, brought in rugs and potted plants and a tea-cup for herself. She invested herself in her space completely and chided me gently and lovingly to give myself the comfort of feeling settled…for a moment. I was not easy to persuade. I did not unpack most of my boxes in my apartment until almost six months after I moved to Michigan, afraid to settle in a place from which I must move.

Ronie never judged me, although she did her best to help me get comfortable. She brought me chairs from a dinette set that her mother had got her and I can still remember carrying them into my building from her car. She couldn't fit the table into her car, and then couldn't fit the chairs when she left Michigan, so I still have them. Tangible reminders of a good friend saying, "Swarna, be kind to yourself, make yourself at home."

Both of us loved Pier One, and for my birthday, she bought me these beautiful canisters and candles. We were both in the same tenuous position, professionally and financially, but her generosity was undiminished in spite of it. With her hectic interview schedule, she was constantly holding class on weekends and would bring in food for "her kiddies." And let me tell you, this was serious food: bagels, cream cheese, orange juice, coffee. She would also do this for her early morning class from time to time.

As we came into James Madison College for that one year, she decided she was going to love it and so she resolutely did. I let my heart reflect completely, as I saw and received, the ambivalences and ambiguities with which the world presented me. I hemmed, I hawed, I reserved judgment, I held back my heart.

The reason I brought up those canisters was to contrast our approaches to life. I still have not used the canisters. Over the years, I have learned to postpone living. I don't use the canisters because my kitchen is not nice enough, because my counters are not empty enough, the food I would store there is not chic enough. Ronie knew better. Whatever is, was, was stupendous enough for her to enjoy it in the moment.

Why must I use the past tense
for a woman who appreciated
the gifts of the present
with all her heart?

I can see her face now, lit up with excitement about something or the other. Every moment was a celebration.

Wow ! I am so excited to work with you
and to have an excuse to have tea with you.
Won't this be fun! …. My best as usual
--fun talking to you for two seconds today-R
(Email dated 30 Nov 1998)

We were delighted to have a chance to work together on the Intro to Public Affairs course in our second semester at JMC. As I re-read old messages from that time, I am struck by how I now remember that as a dull, gray, unproductive time of my life, and how, in fact, my exchanges with Ronie on what we might do in our sections of that team-taught course are anything but dull, gray or unproductive.

That semester, the course was structured so that half-way through the term, we had one extra hour with our sections. Ronie and I had been itching to collaborate on something and here was our chance. We put our heads, hobby-horses and hours together and held eight joint sessions on human rights.

When we entered James Madison College, a concatenation of circumstances had prevented me from attending the new faculty orientation. Ronie had been and she had taken all the teaching technology workshops offered. As a result, she was the high-tech pioneer of the human rights sessions, suggesting a web-site and discussion board. The sessions reflected our politics and our interests and we enjoyed them far more than some of our students did.

Ronie's energy inspired and exhausted me at different times. In retrospect, I am even gladder that I spent so much time with her that year. Left to myself, I would have sunk much further into a morass of negativity as one thing after another went wrong with my visa, my job prospects, my visa, my job prospects… essentially, survival was proving very taxing and I was not bouncing through that time unscathed. Ronie's presence in my week as she drove indefatigably back and forth from Ypsilanti, was a gift to me in that very hard year.

Dear Dr. R.,
I would really like to meet you for a cup of tea today.
I just heard that a dear friend of mine is no more.
She did not tell me she was ill. I did not think to ask.
And it would be great if you could stop by
for a chat
this afternoon.

I am reading these old e-mail messages from Ronie (Dr. R., in response to her 'Ms. S' or 'Dr. S'). I cannot stop because they are so real and so full of her life. From being snowed in and unable to leave Ypsilanti for campus to working on her book manuscript and as we got to know each other, family news on either side, they recapture a moment I would bring back only because it would bring my friend back.

I am reminded of things she did. Ronie designed and sewed her clothes. In the middle of commuting to teach, applying and interviewing for jobs, taking time for family and friends, working on her book, she made clothes for herself and her beloved daughter, Maddy.

She talked about 'Davey' and 'Maddy' constantly, and the first time I met Madeleine, she was either wearing or trying on the Halloween costume that Ronie had made for her. It was the first Pokemon character I ever heard of and the name bore such a strong resemblance to the scholar whose complex book we were asking our students to read: Todorov.

Dear Maddy and Soleil,
your mother was my friend and wanted us to be friends too.
Maddy will not remember me
and Soleil does not know me
but wherever I am, there is a plate of
an aunt you can talk to.

I am not sure how to write this. Both Ronie and I treasured our friendship. And to both of us, this friendship naturally included our families. In this moment, I face with regret and awkwardness the fact that letting time slip away without email and phone calls means that as Dave and Maddy and Soleil face life without Ronie, I write this, hesitant to intrude and conscious of the great gulf of time and distance and memory between us.

It is hard for me to understand how and why more than two years passed without contact between us.

Ronie and I were supposed to share a room at the International Studies Association conference in 2001. The last email we exchanged was on the 19th of February that year as she got ready to leave for Chicago. I called her cell-phone or the hotel a couple of days later to tell her I could not come because I had the flu. We never spoke after that or exchanged email.

Which surprises me. Sanguine as I was that we would be in touch always, I could not have failed to send her my change of address two years in a row. Not when I did think of her often-every time I sat at my dining-table, in fact. I could not have failed to pick up the telephone, when so often I reminded myself of where her phone numbers were in my email inbox. And what is the probability that both of us failed to do this, in spite of our best intentions? Theoretically, insignificant, I would guess. How much we take for granted!

Ronie dear,
I don't really worry that I will lose touch with you and
perhaps that makes me a little lazy.
I have this conviction that we will always be in touch
and will pick up where we leave off.
Love, Swarna
(Email dated May 25 2000)

In my mind, it seems as if I tried to reach you a couple of times, Ronie, but the email bounced. I thought I had written to you, but here is the evidence of my outbox. I did not. I searched for you online, I am sure, and at Duke, but could not for some reason, find you. Knowing you-your intelligence, your energy, your enterprise, your charm-I was actually quite sure you had been hired away from Duke. I would think-tomorrow, over the weekend, next month, during the break-I will call her in-laws or see if her cell-phone works. I will track her down.

I did not think for a moment that you could actually be ill.

I am now thinking about moving back to India. And I have your chairs, and I have thought that I should track you down and offer to return them to you. I have thought that is probably more trouble than it is worth to you, but I should track you down. See if you want them. I have thought about what I should do if you don't. But I meant to call and I would have soon.

I did not think for a moment that you would actually be this unreachable.

Ronie, we were going to be friends for life. I just did not know your life was going to be this short.

So soon? So soon?
It cannot be that time yet.
We have not done all the things we could.
We have not said all there is to say or
written all that we have to write.
There is still a life to be lived and a lifetime of living
I thought.
But I was wrong.

What is hardest for me to imagine or bear is how much you must have suffered towards the end. You surely did not deserve that.

Yesterday, I heard you had passed away, and I moved through the afternoon, numb and silent. I browsed through your old messages, and found this one in reply to a half-depressed, half-self-deprecating one from me:

Dear Swarna,
Don't let any of this bother you.
You can't. It is all terrible, crappy stuff.
Taxes, death, job searches.
The worst part is, I think, that
one does not have much choice
in dealing with any of them,
death, taxes, job searches.
The only thing you can do is let it go...
I wish you would feel better.
You are such a dear friend to me!
I understand the grumbling,
and I don't mind it at all.
But I do wish you would feel better.
It is so nice out!
Love, R
(Email dated April 10, 1999)

Ronie, I cannot let this go. It cannot be your time yet. And yet it is. In your short life, you have done more than most, made more people happy than most do in twice as long and you have had a small taste-much shorter than you deserved-of many kinds of happiness.

Since yesterday, many analogies, many clichés have crossed my mind. "The brightest stars are those that are about to fade." "She loved life and lived every minute fully, as if knowing her days were short." "She moved with so much energy, as if in a hurry to pack everything in." "She grasped at life and its gifts with both hands." And I have remembered a line from another John Masefield poem: "Laugh, for life is short, a thread the length of a span."

As your vivacious face dances before my eyes, laughing at some secret joke, the poem that seems most appropriate is John Donne's "Death, Be Not Proud."

DEATH, be not proud, though some have callàed thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.
From Rest and Sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go-
Rest of their bones and souls' delivery!
Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!

We are still friends. Forever.

April 18, 2003