A surge of heat courses through my blood as soon as I see the email with a simple but foreboding subject line.
‘Elaine’, it reads.
Warily, I open it and take in its words, my body quickly collapsing into disbelieving heaves and sobs.
“No, no, no.”
I repeat the word as though a chorus of my protest will undo what I am reading. As though I can defy the will of the universe in this way.
Not Elaine Rosa Salo. Not Elaine.
You came fully into my world, over the past few months, at a time of personal upheaval. We’d never met before, my interactions with you over the years mostly via Facebook and through your published works. But you gave me your number and told me to call you about some of the ideas and thoughts that I had swirling in my head, telling me you had plans to be in New York, where I was at that time, for Memorial Weekend late in May.
Tentatively, we planned a meeting for that weekend. But your plans soon altered; you wouldn’t be coming to New York anymore and would be staying home for the holiday.
“You must book a bus trip to Delaware and come over. And I really mean that, Fungai.”
I didn’t take the offer of your time and personal space lightly. You were a mother, wife and academic, probably with many things to get done over the long weekend. But I could hear and feel it very clearly in your voice that you meant it. You were genuinely invested in being of help to me.
And so I booked my ticket. In response to the email I sent you with all the details of my itinerary, you wrote back;
“Sounds good. Bring a swimsuit – we may go to the spa.”
What a beautiful and amazing gift of a weekend you gave me, Elaine. You’d been unwell a few days before my arrival, visiting the hospital as a result of heat stroke. You were taking things easy but still insisted that we do as many fun things as we could. I remember so well that first evening in the back garden, the conversation we had taking us from race to gender to class to citizenship to religion to sexuality to Africa to capitalism to academia to watching a slow Summer evening change the colours of everything around us. As we sipped on our drinks, I couldn’t have felt more affirmed, more reassured that there was space for the way in which I see and interact the world.
You were a kindred spirit in a time that had had me doubting if my world views and values were worth the struggles and pain they took me through.
You listened to the myriad thoughts racing through my mind, assuring me that they were natural to have at such a time, that life sometimes threw these spanners at our rotors, but that we’d always find our natural rhythm once again.
We baked a chocolate cake together the next day, a slow Sunday afternoon. The cake was a gift for your neighbour’s surprise birthday party which you and your family had played a large part in helping organise. Also, you were trying out a flourless quiche recipe. As the kitchen filled with beautiful baking aromas, the sun slashing patterns of light onto everything it touched, you said words to me that I have since replayed many times in my mind.
“Everything is going to be fine, Fungai.”
I don’t know what you saw or sensed in that moment. But those words had both a weight and lightness to them; a conviction and a comfort.
I took them in and basked in the goodness that I knew they came from.
I had been struggling to read for pleasure for a while, but something about the warm space you had invited me into opened my mind up again. As Colin played his guitar in the background and as you worked on grading your papers late into the afternoon, the family beagle pattering excitedly about the house and yard, I found myself lost deep in the pages of a book, finally freed from my restless distractions.
Everything was going to be fine.
On our last day together, we had a slow breakfast and more conversation. A soft thrumming rain had fallen overnight making the air cooler and the sun a little more forgiving.
We would write an academic paper, we said; we’d see how to bring together some of our incomplete feminist articles into something collaborative and intersectional. We’d try to see if we could get another meeting in after your trip to South Africa. We’d be in touch.
On that morning, the sauna at the recreational centre where you’d wanted to treat me to a spa therapy wasn’t working. So we went for a swim instead. I hadn’t been in a swimming pool for years and the sensation of the water, warm and cool at the same time, was welcoming as I waded into its depths. You swam laps, stopping every now and then to find me and remark at what a beautiful day it was. Many times, I simply submerged myself beneath the surface, holding my breath – floating – the world sounding pleasantly foreign when listened to through this different medium.
Somehow, we’d lost track of time.
I had a bus to catch by lunch time. But you still insisted on buying me a quick meal before we left the pool, your calmness reassuring me that we’d make it on time. You even took a few swimming pool selfies as we waited for the food to be ready, which I am so glad now to have as part of my memories of you. As we sat eating and drinking, you told me more about your cancer. About life and the struggles that we had to keep fighting; because things weren’t always going to go the way we wanted them to.
Fear and self-pity did not visit your voice. Beneath your gentle tone, I could discern quite clearly your grit and endurance. You spoke with hope about all things to come.
Within days of my return to New York, you sent me a call for papers for a journal that was accepting late submissions. It was a journal I knew well. A journal I read as much of as I could during my Masters dissertation research and thereafter. What an honour it was to have you show full faith in me to deliver something to its standard, especially within such a tight deadline.
I worked flat out, borrowing books from the different libraries I had access to, printing journal articles, reading and researching, not sleeping enough as I formulated my arguments. Within a couple of weeks, I had somehow gotten to an edited 4 000 words and submitted my paper.
Elaine, I never got to tell you that I received an email informing me the paper had gone through the first peer review process and is now onto the second. I was going to say thank you when hopefully, it reached the final hurdle and was published.
I thought there was time to tell you this and other things.
Throughout July, I read your Facebook posts and your profound and eloquent musings about radiation and cancer. Some of them made me burst into uncontrollable, inconsolable tears. I hated to read of you going through so much pain, but you had a certainty that everything was going to be fine. The same grit I had seen in you before was working once more, and I thought there was more time.
But you are gone now, Elaine. So suddenly.
I will no longer see your reflective posts come through my Facebook newsfeed. You will not send me another email of encouragement, or forward me something you think might interest me. We will not write that paper together.
The human manifestation of your beautiful, kind, loving being has left.
But you have left me, and many others, with so much of your love. I can’t begin to express just how blessed I feel to have spent quality time with you, to have talked and laughed with you. To have experienced some of this life in your calming presence. I know that the small window of time in which our worlds overlapped was a part of the plan of life. And I am both grateful and sad for this.
You were a gift to me, Elaine. A gift that came to me when I need it so dearly. A sister friend to love and be loved by.
But as suddenly as you came by, so you have left, your body setting you free to your full light and love.
And now, I weep again; not for your pain, but my own.
Rest in love, dear Elaine. Rest in the love of all who send you off with the deepest gratitude for your being.
Thank you for touching my life.