Two vibrant and productive friends of mine died at ages 55 and 56. These women, Gay Wilentz and Ana Sisnett, leave powerful legacies as scholars, writers, and activists. Gay’s dates: 1 September 1950 – 6 February 2006. Ana’s dates: 5 November 1952 – 13 January 2009. Gay died of ALS with bulbar complications, and Ana died of ovarian cancer. Both of them dealt with dying in their own ways, both with much courage. Gay was a full professor of English at East Carolina University, where she headed the Multicultural Literature program and instituted an exchange program with a university in Belize, where she had a home — she died there and is buried there, next to the ocean where she swam every day. Ana fought ovarian cancer for three years before she died at home after a short hospice stay. She was executive director of Austin Free-Net, a CTC, or community technology center. She was a poet and artist, a community and global activist.
The three of us spent many hours in graduate school discussing the issues we studied — feminist literary theory and criticism, women writers of color, postcolonialism and multiculturalism. We brought our own multicultural perspective — Gay was a Jew from New York City, Ana was an African Panamanian who immigrated to southern California when she was thirteen, and I am a Palestinian American WASP. In that last sentence, I write “I am” and that’s the problem — for Ana and Gay, I use the past tense. I am 56 years old and wondering why they’re gone and I’m still here.
My sister has been reading Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Death and Dying to my brother-in-law, who had open heart surgery in September. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for decades. So I’ve been reading it, too. And Kübler-Ross discusses the guilt we all feel when someone close dies. Guilt seems to be a strange emotion to associate with death, but it’s tangled all up with grief. I begin this new year with a resolve to investigate my own guilt and deal with it. I want to do this so I can more fully honor Gay’s and Ana’s lives. My guilt is not productive–except as I can learn from it. They both deserve more from me.