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.
It’s been a little over eight months since Ana died. Lately, I keep wanting to call and check in. Have one of those long rambling conversations that traveled from grandkids to politics to ceramics to misbehaving friends and family shenanigans. Twenty-five years of friendship — that’s almost half my life. Hard to keep missing such a loving friend, a sister.
This past Monday, Friedo Sachser died after being in the hospital for several months. He was at home and at peace. Friedo was the father of the German host family who took me in as an American Field Service exchange student in the summer of 1971. Then, I lived with Gertrud and Friedo Sachser (parents) and Ralf and Gert (two sons). The last time I visited Friedo in 1984, he and Gertrud were divorced and Friedo and Boike Jacobs were together. This picture is from that visit.Last October, Gertrud passed away, and I’ve written about her on this blog on 16 Oct. 2006 and 14 Oct. 2006. Perhaps the best memorial for Friedo I can offer is to reproduce a bit of the journal I kept that summer. Here’s an image of that battered book: On June 30, 1971, I recorded a typical Friedo statement: “1945 was the most exciting year of my life. I had my first encounter with the Americans — they almost killed me.” Here’s a selection from 5 July:
I always feel like writing after a discussion — which brings us to the topic of discussions. Thurs. nite, Fri., Sat., & tonite Papa and I have had at least one-hour discussions at the dinner table after dinner. We have many ideas in common. I keep on thinking that what we talk about & theorize about is just middle-class liberal morality — but what is that? I think that what I think about men is universal, but I don’t know, because I have never known anything but middle-class all my life.Among other things, Papa & I talked about Viet Nam tonight and he said one thing that made a particularly strong impression. It is that the Viet Nam War has shown the Europeans what America has become — it has unmasked her imperialism or whatever derogatory name you wish to use as a lable. Papa said that America’s democracy was always thought as an exemplary gov., but now, thru such things as the Calley affair and the Pentagon Papers, people are seeing that the Am. gov. can commit as many atrocities & inhumane injustices as any other “normal” government.
It’s difficult to measure the effect that Friedo’s discussions had on me, except to say that I was irrevocably changed. The sixteen-year-old American student who went to Germany for the summer returned to the United States a seventeen-year-old young woman who had learned from firsthand accounts how war cripples land, nations, individuals.I celebrate Friedo’s fierce pacifism, his wide-ranging mind and gifts for other languages, his photographic mania and artistry, his love for writing and challenging talk, his dedication to long bike rides and a good sauerkraut, and his honesty of vision. May he rest in peace. My love to his family and friends.
My nephew, Nathaniel, is in Tokyo promoting his music (TaxDAY), learning Japanese, and getting what I consider an invaluable education. He’s posted this amazing video of his friend Kochan spinning lights. I tried to find out about “spinning” but haven’t made much progress. But the video is mesmerizing — two lights swinging around in poetic, martial-arts ballet at night somewhere in a park.
The day after Christmas we had to euthanize Jumper, who wasn’t quite four years old. He’d been suffering from a bladder infection for two weeks and wasn’t getting better. The last checkup showed he had a ruptured urethra and needed either an emergency surgery called a perineal urethrostomy or needed to be euthanized. My son and I got to be with him when he was put to sleep. The vet did surgery after and found that a 2 1/2 millimeter bladder stone had embedded itself into the side of Jumper’s urethra. So this blog posting is for Jumper who made us laugh by tunneling through warm laundry as soon as we brought it up from the laundry room, who fetched cloth balls as if he were a dog, and who had the loudest purr of our pride of four cats. He ate wet cat food like a vacuum cleaner, sometimes drank out of the toilet (definitely part dog), and manicured his own claws with a very loud biting and pulling routine. I miss most how he climbed up on the bed and prowled back and forth, purring at the top of his lungs, until he finally flopped against one of my sides and fell asleep getting his ribs scratched and petted. I miss this kitty with the big personality.
I can count on my astute writers in ENG102 at Calhoun to keep me on my toes. Toni D. let me know in her comment to my previous post, that I need to write more about Gertrud, and so I’m going to take Toni’s advice and use this space to remember and pay tribute.
The last time I saw Gertrud was August, 1984, near Dusseldorf. This picture shows Gertrud, her youngest son, Gert, and me. My stay with the Sachsers during summer of 1971 changed me irrevocably; I became a more conscious citizen of this world. Here’s a one-paragraph excerpt from an article I wrote a while back called Guided Floundering:
Then I spent the summer after my junior year as an American Field Service exchange student living with a German family, and my world tilted. I learned that my book knowledge about war paled next to the stories of my host parents, who had dodged American and English bombs. European media in summer 1971 showed me pictures of the Vietnam War and the People’s Republic of China that were unavailable in the States, and I learned that our freedom of press was partial and biased, not absolute and objective. And because many people told me that the words they connected with my country were “poverty,” “racism” and “ghettos,” I also learned that others did not see us the way we saw ourselves. When I returned to Connecticut at the end of that summer, I jettisoned all plans for college and worked as a waitress so I could save enough money to travel. I left for Berlin at age 18, and I didn’t know when, or if, I would return.
In 1971, World War II had been over for just twenty-six years. Not enough time for decimated cities to recover entirely, not enough time for forests to repopulate fully, not nearly enough time for Gertrud to stop flinching every time a jet flew overhead while we picked gooseberries in the backyard. If anything taught me the psychological, physical, and spiritual costs of war, it was Gertrud’s reaction to the sound of a machine overhead. Gertrud lost most of her immediate family, and when we visited the graves in Wuppertal, and when Gertrud talked about being sent with other children by train to Austria, I learned even more about the irrevocable scarring war incurs.
I remember Gertrud as a big-hearted and ethical woman. She fussed when one of the kids did something silly, but she always looked as if she enjoyed the silliness. You can tell this by the two pictures I’m posting here. The last time I saw Gertrud, she was very involved with the Evangelical Church (Evangelische Kirche) and she had given some guest sermons, I believe. Faith enlivened her.
Moments I remember from that first summer: Gertrud showing me the house, explaining the bathroom, introducing me to Lutz the cat. Every morning, the family ate a kind of oatmeal-milk soup that got cooked overnight. Finally, Gertrud noticed I never ate much and told me I really could have an egg or something. Second or third week of my stay and when Mama came upstairs to change the bed, I finally got the courage to ask her if all Germans always slept at night with only half their body covered up. I had not yet figured out the complexities of a well-made German bed, which takes the cover, folds it in half, and lays that across the bed. I had been simply getting in between the cover and not unfolding it. Mama Gertrud got me straight. Every once in a while, Gertrud gave me change and Ralf and I or Gert and I would bike to the ice cream store, buy cones of hazelnut ice cream that got wrapped up in white paper, bike like mad to get home, and then we’d sit around the table and cool off with the treat. I was always amazed the ice cream never seemed to melt on our ride home.
I know Gertrud is at peace, and I thank her for her generosity and her love, both of which helped a naive sixteen-year-old American girl grow up a little bit more in a home three thousand miles away from her family’s home.