I’m certain it was late March 1975. Or perhaps early April. My certainties are increasingly uncertain with each passing year. Whether late March or early April, I saw her for the first time at a nearby table in the university cafeteria. She was so lovely and animated that I could no longer hear the discussion going on at my own table. No doubt my friends were discussing some serious matter of state, but all I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears watching this strange creature at the neighboring table talking so expressively. She seemed strange to me at that time because she was so well-dressed. Not at all like all of us around her. For God’s sake, I thought to myself, why on earth is her hair so neatly brushed and her clothing so prim and perfect. And her posture! Doesn’t she know how to slouch? I wondered. I wanted to go up and introduce myself, but of course lacked that much courage.
A few days later, I saw her again in the cafeteria and this time she was sitting with some students that I could barely call friends. I knew better than to think too much about what to do next and promptly went up to greet those I knew. I then turned to her and casually introduced myself. She smiled a smile that seemed all sunshine and goodness and said her name was Penny. The accent was so strange, but the English was crisp and perfect. I asked her where she was from and she proclaimed proudly that she was Canadian. Somehow, inexplicably forgetting that I had approached her in hopes of dazzling her with my charm, I immediately, reflexively, retorted: “Oh, I’m sorry. Don’t you wish you were a real American.” The sunshine and goodness evaporated from her face in a flash, her smile taking on a more demonic aspect and brimming with outrage she replied that she would rather be dead than be an uncultured, uncivilized, unsophisticated barbarian from the States. Her fury was captivating and I burst into laughter. Here, I thought, was a woman worthy to do battle with, to shoot her through with reckless arrows of sarcasm and lob at her pride outrageously groundless insults. My laughter probably took her by surprise, but from that moment onward we were fast friends, nearly inseparable in heart and mind, regardless of the distances in time and space.
I graduated a few weeks later and reasonably thought our budding friendship would come to a natural end as I headed off to law school and she packed her bags for exile in Saskatchewan. I asked her only half-jokingly how could people be so upset over prison camps in Siberia and not complain at all about stranding people in Saskatchewan! She smiled, only half demonically, and reminded me that even the desolate tundra of Canada was preferable to the foul air and fouler citizenry of New Jersey. I saw no other recourse but to laugh again at her cruel insult and kiss her.
She came back the next summer to visit and again the summer after I graduated from law school, helping me move and traveling all over foul New Jersey with me. My fondest memory of her was leaving her off at JFK airport very late—I, of course, had gotten lost several times and she just good-heartedly taunted me without ever worrying about missing her flight. Finally, we arrived and as we rushed to the gate, she eyed a woman with a placard saying that she was deaf and needed money. Off she veered toward the deaf woman at full tilt, leaving me mumbling that this was no time to be altruistic because she was about to miss her damn plane! From a distance, I watched the interplay—Penny had been a teacher of the deaf and knew sign language as well as she knew English. The hand gestures started off gently enough, but before long her arms were flailing and she was extraordinarily animated, indeed, she seemed more agitated than animated. Then the deaf woman also began to gesticulate violently and it seemed as if they were having a fight. When Penny turned around and stormed back toward me, I knew I had read the scene correctly. She was furious. “I thought you were going to give her some money,” I said, bewildered. On her face she had that sort of righteous anger you sometimes imagine Jesus had on his face as he drove the moneychangers from the temple. “How dare she, how dare she, Joe!” Completely confused, I asked, “How dare she what?” Now looking at me like I was a complete fool, she sighed and explained: “How dare she use her impairment to get money. How dare she slander all those hardworking, proud deaf people who want to make a living and not live off others. How dare she insult them and betray them like this!” Somehow, she did make it to her gate on time.
I also traveled out to Vancouver with her and we drove to San Francisco, savoring each other’s insults all the way, but never once in all those miles and all these years did we ever have a single argument or say a serious word of reproof to one another. When she forgot the stakes for our camping tent, I teased her mercilessly and laughed. When I ran out of gas, she teased me mercilessly and laughed—especially when I almost gulped the gas I was syphoning out of another car! When my friend in San Francisco was not home and she found out that I hadn’t bothered to call him because I wanted our visit to be a surprise, she just smiled, kissed me, and stoically spent the night at a truck stop, shivering with me in the back seat of her car.
Then the visits stopped. I went off to travel the world in service to my country and she went off to Japan to teach English and fall in love with a man far better than I ever could be. But the letters never stopped. And when the internet got going, the emails never stopped. Only once did I see her after 1979, when she and her Japanese husband visited us in Cambodia when I was our ambassador to that kingdom. That was sometime in 2007 and seeing her after almost 30 years was remarkable in that there was nothing at all remarkable about it. Within minutes of the customary hugging and kissing, the insults were flying fast and the ground was soon soggy from bloody jousts of unrestrained sarcasm. Taking no prisoners was our sacred rule of warfare. We visited orphanages, missionaries, and I recall that she wept as she saw how the destitute children live literally atop a mile-wide garbage heap, eeking out a living surrounded by the raw refuse of the richer class. We had to put on knee-high rubber boots and gloves and masks before entering into that Dante-esque daymare. She was shaken, but never allowed herself to forget the suffering she witnessed there.
It would be another 12 years until I saw her again—this past November. She had snidely offered me political asylum in Canada after Trump had won the presidency three years ago, but now she was asking me to come see her, although she never actually asked me to come. Penny would never want to impose on anyone, even her closest friend, so she just wrote an almost casual email, informing me that “tumors are growing in my body like dandelions” and she had decided to stop the chemotherapy. I had not even known that she had been suffering through ovarian cancer for the last several years. I arrived two weeks later on Vancouver Island on November 19. We had camped there exactly 45 years earlier—without those tent stakes that she had forgotten. Now she lived in a lovely house overlooking the Pacific. It had always been her dream of moving back to Vancouver Island with her husband after retiring from teaching. She had fulfilled that dream, but now it was being taken away from her before she could really savor it.
I took her in my arms and she apologized for not telling me sooner. “You were the last I told. I just couldn’t tell you. I don’t know why, but telling you was the hardest thing for me.” We spent that night talking until she was exhausted and then again the entire next day as her extremely understanding and patient husband cooked for us and left us mostly alone, as I massaged her feet for hours and we babbled for many hours more. She confessed to me that she had had a boyfriend for years before we met. She said she had never thanked me for helping her escape him. I was confused. She explained that she had never realized that men could actually be affectionate, that they could carry on a real discussion, that they could really appreciate a woman, until we had become friends. Exhausted, she asked me to take a nap with her. Holding hands, we fell asleep, listening to Leonard Cohen’s last songs. She remembered that I had once told her that Cohen was really too good a songwriter to really be Canadian.
Long ago, we had tried to be lovers, but we faltered. The passion just wasn’t there. We liked each other so much, our fondness for one another was so deep, and our mutual affection so overwhelming that perhaps there just wasn’t room leftover for that sort of passion. It didn’t matter. Neither time nor distance, neither marriages nor children, not even jobs and careers, diminished in the least the bonds that bound our souls and entwined our hearts. As I bounced from one fruitless relationship to another, from one heartache to another, always I would remind myself of Penny, that one woman who never fought with me, who always laughed with me, and who never could stop loving and liking me. In one of her last emails to me she apologetically announced that she thought we were true soulmates, though she was quick to add acerbically that she didn’t like at all “that sort of new age crap,” but she couldn’t think of a better term to describe her sense of well-being and unconditional affection whenever we thought of each other. We were pals, buddies, that most rare and most over-used of words: we were friends.
She died yesterday, December 18, a month since I had left her on Vancouver Island in the loving care of her amazing sisters and devoted husband. She had confided to me that she was no longer afraid of dying. She was sure she would be going to a better life, but that she was worried about dying before Christmas. “I don’t want to disappoint my sisters and husband,” she explained. “I don’t want to ruin Christmas forever for them.” I told her that was not possible because at every Christmas they would remember her even more and those memories would brighten the celebration. As I left her, she had one final message for me to bear and to sustain me. I could not breathe when she looked at me as I was leaving and said quietly: “Your visit is the perfect ending for my life.”
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The featured image is “Still Life Of Flowers With a Butterfly” (1677) by Willem van Aelst, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.