I’m not sure why I remembered her today. Maybe all the Facebook posts of friends having friends who passed away triggered it.
I met her way before the Facebook age and in a lot of ways I’m glad we did. At the time, writing real letters was the only way to keep in touch without spending a ton of money, and I remember how I eagerly awaited all her letters and postcards from a place that seemed so alien yet so fascinating to me.
Her name is Ivy. I met her in 1992 when I was a sophomore in the university and I had just shifted majors from Molecular Biology to Sociology. I didn’t know any of the other students but Ivy took it upon herself to be my ‘buddy’. She was very friendly and I just remember her making me feel at ease. As the semesters passed, we would always find ourselves in the same classes and we’d always sit together, mostly in the front row. We would share notes, be project team mates, review buddies during exams and whenever I had to miss class due to illness or for whatever reason, she would always be there for me to tell me what I’ve missed and let me borrow her notes so I won’t fall behind. She was that kind of person—very helpful, accommodating, reliable, and highly intelligent.
It did not take long for us to become friends. Sometimes we would hang out in campus or even go to the mall to catch a movie during our long breaks. I later found out that she had a Japanese boyfriend ("T") at the time and that things were pretty serious. Soon after our college graduation, she got married and I was one of her bridesmaids. It was a quiet yet meaningful ceremony.
A part of me felt it may have been too early. She was fresh out of college and she could still do a lot of things and accomplish much. Was she ready? But at the same time, a part of me knew that she was a mature person, strong and capable of whatever life threw at her.
She migrated with T to Japan after getting married. T’s job was there and of course it was the practical choice. When Ivy moved, our correspondence began. I’m pretty sure she was the one who sent the very first letter. She would send one, I’d reply and send one out. Then I’d eagerly await her next letter, telling me of her new life in a foreign country. It was helpful for her adjustment to be in touch with me and it was a wonderful experience for me as she opened my eyes to a bigger world filled with possibilities. I was a curious and indulging friend and audience and I was always thrilled to learn about her adventures. We were both in our early 20s yet I knew how vastly different our paths were. I have always found living abroad on my own a seductive thought, attending a foreign university an exhilarating possibility, and there was my friend living all that. The choice to live vicariously was a no-brainer for me.
Her earlier letters were mostly about adjusting to a foreign culture (language, customs, religion, etc). Then there were letters about adjusting to married life and it did not take long for her letters to then shift to motherhood. Eventually it became about balancing family life and career as she found work as a teacher and writer and I am certain she excelled in both. At the time, these were not my realities. But now that I am also with family and living in a foreign country, I realize that I can find a wealth of wisdom in her letters. I read her words now and they might as well had been written by me! Her angst, her struggles with motherhood and its rewards, issues with her spouse, all seem like my own echoes, only these echoes preceded my realities.
In late 2004, the same year I migrated here to the U.S., a devastating tsunami hit various countries in Southeast Asia. Ivy, with her husband and three children were vacationing in Phuket, Thailand at the time. It was around Christmas when all this happened and by the New Year, I received news that she died when the tsunami hit. Her husband and three very young children were never found and eventually presumed dead.
None of this made sense to me. How can this happen? She was so young, had so much promise, was just starting out, had such young children. How can this wonderful, almost magical human being leave this earth so soon, so tragically?
Still, none of this makes sense and eleven years after the fact, I still feel my insides grieving for her and her lovely family. I now imagine how it would have been if we were both on Facebook, constantly sharing our writing online, pictures of our children, and inviting each other’s families to visit. I’ll never know, will never find the answers. All I am grateful for is that in the short time she lived, I knew her and was touched by her beautiful spirit and wisdom she always so selflessly shared. She may be physically gone, yet her presence, her mark, lives on in each life she has touched along the way. That, I am certain of.
In one of the science shows I watch, where the topic was the possibility of life after death, someone suggested that this merely refers to the legacy we leave behind after dying. An idea was proposed that each life can be likened to a mosaic, an image made of tiny pieces, details put together in a beautiful way. While we are alive, those we touch around us, those special to us or to whom we are special, are able to make a ‘copy’ of that mosaic. Though the pieces are much larger, less complex, less intricate, and therefore more blurry and less precise, what results is still a copy of the original, albeit less perfect.
I find comfort in this idea. Now that Ivy is gone and I read her words as she shared her life as a mother, wife, writer and thinker in a foreign country, I realize that she has been living within me and through me all this time. She died young but I could never say that her life could have been better, could have been fuller or more meaningful. She took great risks, loved deeply, thought profoundly and lived passionately. Is there really anything to regret?
She continues to inspire me, nudging me to do my best to try to make as many worthwhile copies of my own mosaic while I still have time. And the numbers don’t matter as much to me as the quality of these copies. I wish them to be as intricate and as pronounced as they could possibly be. After all, life is indeed measured not by its length but by its beauty, by how you touched others' lives and the value you have added to the world during your borrowed time. In the end, it boils down to love—how much and how deeply you knew love and never feared to live it and be in its presence in all that you do.
Thank you, my friend. Thank you, Ivy, for loving life and allowing me to witness how gracefully you did it.
*This essay was previously published on Catharsis on 8.5.2011 under the title Her Vibrant Mosaic. It has been modified for this current publication.