Monday, April 25, 2011

He is Risen, and Others Have Fallen Asleep

Happy Easter, my friends. The tomb is empty.

But no joy in this life is without its shadow. This past Monday, the first day of Holy Week, my college roommate and dear friend, Nammon, passed away at the age of 28.

I don’t usually mention others by name in this blog, or post their pictures, but I hope Nammon wouldn’t mind if I bend my rule this once. She’s actually made an appearance here before, when I wrote about my visit to her in Santa Barbara in March. In our little roommate joke about the Buddhist, the Lutheran, and the Catholic who walked into an In-and-Out, she was the Buddhist.

We knew then, when we visited her, that it would be the last time al three of us were together; Nammon had been fighting cancer for some four years already, and in February she had told us that she was stopping treatment (which had produced no results) in order to “choose to live” for the rest of the time she had. I will always be grateful that the three of us were able to be together again when we could all still fully enjoy it.

Nammon passed away in Santa Barbara on April 18, peacefully from what I hear, spared from the long and slow decline in condition and faculties that we all feared she would suffer toward the end. She left us sooner than we’d expected, in fact. You could never tell Nammon she had to do something a certain way; I think, ultimately, she went when she was ready.

But I don’t want to talk about her passing; I’d rather talk about her life. This collection of memories and trivia is my tribute to one of the best friends I’ve ever had. It’s small, but it’s all I can give her now.

*Nammon loved ice cream. She always used to say that if her PhD in Physics didn’t work out (which, by the way, it did, despite all obstacles), she would open an ice cream stand and probably make more money that way. She also loved Piglet, for reasons that I never really understood.

*We had two running jokes in our room in college, among us three roommates. The first was that if Nammon didn’t want to do work, all she had to do was ask our third roommate (then a Southern Baptist, now a Lutheran) a question about God, and she would be set for a multi-hour conversation that would give her a perfectly good excuse not to do her homework. The other joke was that when I was putting the final touches on my paper, it was time for Nammon to start writing hers. (She was an excellent student, but also a very creative procrastinator.)

*She and I once took fencing together as a P.E. credit. She was much better at it than I was. After each class the two of us would go to Food Court just as it was opening and be the first in line for dinner, which we would eat in the nearly-empty dining hall while we chatted about classes and movies and all the things that friends chat about.

*We also took translation theory together, where we discovered a shared (strong) dislike of anything written by Walter Benjamin. We would sit in our room working on our respective translations (she translating Thai, I translating Spanish), and while I pondered the profound implications of various rhymes for “shore,” she would ask perplexing questions like, “What’s a poetic word for cow?” Apparently Thai has several. English is sorely lacking, we discovered, in poetic words for practically everything.

*Nammon was terrible at answering emails, and she got one of her favorite professors addicted to Diet Coke.

*Her English was almost flawless, though she always pronounced “jealous” as “jeelous,” and the word “caffeine” had three syllables (“cafĂ©-een”). She had a very distinctive way of saying, “Hello?” when she answered the phone, and I hope I shall never forget the way she used to inflect her favorite phrases, “How should *I* know” and “Point taken!” She taught our other roommate to say “hello” and “bathroom” in Thai (the first two words you’d like to know while traveling in a foreign country), but in practicing them, the two always turned into one phrase, so she ended up saying, “Hello, bathroom,” as if she was pleased to meet the lavatory.

*When the three of us first started rooming together, we all had very similar blue jackets, and we joked that we were triplets. Then Nammon went through a very girly phase in which she wore beautiful skirts and heels even in the iffy New Hampshire springtime. The last time I saw her, in California, she was back in the sweatshirts and jeans we all used to wear when I first met her; she’d gone full circle, while I’d never left it. But one of my most vivid memories of Nammon is when she got a new skirt that swished around at the hem when she twisted her hips; Finding Nemo had recently come out in theaters, and she called it her octopus skirt because it reminded her of the baby octopus that was one of Nemo’s friends.

*When someone told her to strike a pose for a picture, Nammon would always puff out her cheeks and stare placidly back at the camera. It was endearing and self-deprecating, and I sorely wish I had a picture of her in that pose.

*She loved teaching. She volunteered with the Thai Scholars Program (the foundation that brought her to the US from Bangkok) for something like 10 years running, helping new generations of exchange students adjust to life in the chilly hills of New Hampshire. They all called her “Pi-Nammon”—something like “Aunt Nammon” from what I can gather. When she taught physics to undergraduates in Santa Barbara, she jumped up and down and bounced back and forth in her enthusiasm.

*Nammon loved her closest friends with a dedication I’ve never seen before. I knew her to pull all-nighters making pop-up cards and hand-knitted scarves for one of her friends, she cherished singing the duets from Moulin Rouge with another, and the only time I saw her deeply upset was when someone she loved inadvertently hurt her feelings. Nammon knew, even before she got sick, that heartache is worse than bodily pain, and I never knew her to inflict it on anyone else.

The strange thing about Nammon’s death is that, after the initial sadness, I started to feel so very alive—as if knowing that she was no longer seeing sunsets and watching spring arrive and eating chocolates made me suddenly appreciate that I was. I hope she wouldn’t be offended that that’s the feeling I take away from her passing. Somehow I think she’d approve; she was a vivacious and spirited woman and even when, as she put it, she and her body were no longer on speaking terms, she faced life—and death—with the resolution and good humor with which she faced everything from physics exams to knitting.

Nammon’s legacy will be the changes she wrought in the hearts of those who loved her. In honor of my dear friend, I will endeavor, as best I can, to live with the gratitude, humility, affection, and joy that she left as an example—and a challenge—for everyone who knew her.

May the One who conquered death find a place in paradise for this beloved young woman, and may He grant consolation to those of us she left behind.

Happy Easter, my friends.

Friday, April 8, 2011

April is the Cruelest Month?

I don’t often have an occasion to quote T.S. Eliot, and if I happen to agree with his assessment of April, it’s for a very different reason than his. This year, for me, April is one of those months which, when you look at your Google calendar, sort of makes you want to cry. Or breathe very quickly into a bag, one of the two.

We started off the month with a bang in the English Department, with a weekend-long grad student conference. It was a wonderful hit, but everybody who was involved in organizing it (of which I was one) needed another weekend to recover from the excitement. It didn’t help that I also went to Cirque du Soleil on Sunday night, which was amazing (a dazzling adaptation of medieval mumming, acrobatics, and grotesquerie!), but see again my comment about the excitement.

Next week I have a dissertation chapter due as well as an important public presentation of my project (the last mandatory event before the dissertation defense, actually—though that’s still a long way off, thank goodness). On the same day as my presentation, I have not one but two choir concerts. That’s in addition to two other singing engagements for church, plus all the dress rehearsals. And then the week after that is Holy Week, which I don’t think I ever considered a time-consuming event—until I joined the church choir. I might as well just bring a sleeping bag and live at the church from Thursday through Sunday, for all the time I’ll spend at home. Gives one a better appreciation for how busy priests and pastors are during the high holidays of the liturgical year.

Not that I’m really complaining; I like being busy, and I certainly brought this all on myself. But if I don’t post on my blog again for, oh, another month or so, let the preceding paragraphs stand as my excuse. Before my enforced hiatus, though, I wanted to post some pictures of the unseasonable snow showers we got a few weeks ago, just when we were thinking it was about to be spring. And here are two fun little “bloopers of the real world” that I’m so fond of. I encountered them just recently, and if the pictures aren’t great quality, it’s because they’re from my phone.

First, a statuette in an antique store labeled “White Horse.” WHAT kind of creature is this exactly? Animal identification failure much?

Second, a lost and found notice in a local high school’s choir classroom. In case you can’t read it, it says: “Found: Black Womens Sock/Hose/Foot Cozy: 3.” (We’ll turn a blind eye to the lack of apostrophe in “Women’s,” since no one is ever sure which side of the s to put it on.) Somebody instead has helpfully added a little comma in between “Black” and “Womens.” I like how the punctuation is supposed to fix this whole strange sentence.

The grammar police seem to have been concerned with political correctness when really they should have been asking themselves the much more important question: under what strange circumstances could one contrive to lose not one or two (which would make some amount of sense) but exactly THREE footies?