Agnes Weiyun He
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
--Shakespeare, As You Like it
Sally loved Shakespeare. On top of her bookshelves, she kept a bust of Shakespeare, one of the few physical items she said she ever begged from her parents. She told me she shared the same birthday with Shakespeare.
Sally made her final exit on July 27, 2007. The day after she left, her mother called me. I was in Beijing with the children. Jackson answered the phone and then passed me the news. It was too late… I found myself crying and cursing, crying because I felt my world has dimmed, cursing because I felt so very helpless, and very angry too. Jackson asked if I would want him to go up to New Hampshire to attend the funeral on my behalf. I said no. Had I known what was to happen, I would have wanted him to go up there to say good-bye to her for me. But she had already gone. It’s too late. 2007 was such a very dark year: in May Jackson was diagnosed with leukemia. The shock, sadness and fear brought about by Jackson’s diagnosis incapacitated my communication with anyone, especially Sally, as from her I could not hide the truth and to her I did not wish to add any more suffering. Since May, I stopped calling her altogether. I kept my own sadness and fear to myself, not knowing that she was leaving so soon… I cried and cursed more.
Emails from Patsy [Duff] about Sally brought more tears and memories and regrets. And then in October 2007, a lady by the name of Dale Ervine got in touch with me. It turned out she was the friend Sally used to speak to me about, who would visit with Sally each week and do various house chores such as cleaning and sewing together with her. Dale was with Sally till the very end. A very long phone conversation with Dale filled me in with details about the last few weeks and the very last moments. Dale and I have never met, but we talked on the phone with such empathy and familiarity as if we had known each other for a long time. I’m grateful to Patsy and Dale. They helped me complete the picture of Sally.
In January 2008, Richard [Young] told me that Tim McNamara was organizing a memorial for Sally at AAAL in March/April. I love the picture of Sally that Tim put on the memorial flyer. I have seen Sally’s photo albums with pictures dated back to when she was a baby; but this is the very best picture of her that shows her truest, finest qualities. When I first saw that picture in her apartment many years ago, I asked for it but she didn’t give it to me, saying that that was her only copy. I emailed Tim and told him that I’d be there. Tim asked whether I’d like to say something at the memorial. Well, I know so much about her and feel so deeply about her that I wouldn’t know what to say… So, I ended up just sitting there, next to Sally’s parents, listening to eulogies by Tim, Patsy, Elinor [Ochs], Marianne [Celce-Murcia], Antony [Kunnan] and others, all the while making sure that my tears did not make a sound.
As time goes by and as Jackson’s condition becomes gradually stabilized, I have come to feel the strength and wisdom to think and talk about the unpredictable and the unimaginable, and to remember that Sally would want me to enjoy the drama that is called life, of which death can be a beautiful act.
Sally and I cannot be more different from each other. She is very many things that I am not. She is big, tall, red curly haired, and almost always vivacious. She is brave, and bracingly honest. She dances and sings. She is Jewish and proficient in Hebrew. She has been long divorced and lives alone. She has a brilliant mind but refuses to be dictated by “writing” and “publishing”. She has lived several professional lives across several continents. She believes in psychotherapy. She loves audacious colors. She is also 16 years my senior.
But somehow, just somehow, we clicked, and bonded. We shared a long, firm friendship that was rather unlikely and in retrospect quite unbelievable. For many years after we left UCLA, we kept saying the same things to each other: “I have not found another friend like you!” With Sally, I could share just about every domain of my life, be it academic, professional, or familial, marital, or interpersonal, emotional, or spiritual, or ideological. She and I could talk about just about any topic under the sun, from the mundane to the philosophical and the nonsensical. Conversations with Sally were always long, very long. Visits with her were always filled with talks, and more talks. Whether it is I going up to New Hampshire, or Jackson and I visiting her parents’ home in New Jersey, or she coming down to meet with me at Harvard University during a conference, to Boston to meet with my family when we were on vacation, or to our home first in Atlanta and then in Long Island to spend Chinese New Year with us, we didn’t have to plan any other activities besides talking. For all these years, whenever both of us attend AAAL, we would share a room and talk more. She and I are each other’s sisters, sisters that neither of us could find in our own blood sisters.
Sally and I entered the doctoral program in Applied Linguistics at UCLA the same year—1988. I first got to know her as a classmate. She and I were in the same courses: Syntax with Hilda Koopman, Phonology with Rene Kager, Interlanguage Analysis with Roger Andersen, Theory and Methods of Language Teaching with Donna Brinton, Research Methods with Evelyn Hatch, and of course Conversation Analysis with Manny and Discourse Analysis and Language Socialization with Elinor. Sally and I learn differently. While I need to pay attention to all the details in all the lectures in order to have firm grasp of the contents, she focuses on the gist and the spirit of the materials and her mind takes flight from there. I still remember in Hilda Koopman’s syntax class, Sally was one day sitting next to me, and dozing off. Then suddenly she woke up, and within a few seconds, she was asking a brilliant question about theta role (or something like that). I was amazed! In both syntax and phonology (required courses), we were given the option of either writing a term paper or taking a final exam. I opted for exams; Sally wrote papers. From the very beginning of our UCLA years, while I was still very impressionable, Sally clearly set her mind on discourse and interactional studies. That’s why when I decided to try Lexical Semantics (as an elective) with Igor Melcuk, Sally said to me, “No. I’ve had enough at Campbell Hall (where the (formal/non-applied) Linguistics Dept. is located).”
And in discourse and interactional studies, Sally is a genius. She just seems natural, completely, naturally gifted with aesthetic sensitivities, rich descriptive abilities, and elegant and poetic writing styles. Given the same language data, whereas I tend to focus on linguistic forms and conversational structures, Sally sees action, interaction, drama, choreography, script, stage management, color, texture, rhythm and musicality. She, for example, not merely notes breathing and voice quality in telephone conversations, but also notices whether the caller sounds like s/he is in a vertical or horizontal position! With her, the data transcripts would become alive. As she delves into data turn-by-turn, TCU-by-TCU, her eyes would glitter and her face radiant with the excitement of discovery. Conversation Analysis is the most satisfying thing she has found in her intellectual life. It gives her a language to describe and make sense of life as performance and a lens through which to observe and appreciate its beauty and complexity. She lives and breathes CA and ethnomethodology.
Our in-depth friendship began around the time the UCLA graduate-student-run journal Issues in Applied Linguistics was launched (1989). Anthony and Sally were the core members of the editorial team. Sally suggested that I be the Review Editor. Being the most junior (in terms of both age and professional experience) in the graduate program, I didn’t think I could do the job. But Sally convinced me otherwise. She sat me down and told me the qualities she saw in me that I didn’t believe I possessed. In a similar spirit after I received my degree, Sally urged me to publish my first book; she said, “People with brains much smaller than yours did it; of course you can do it!” And again when I was wavering about my first grant proposal to the Spencer Foundation, she took it upon herself to read it and said it’s brilliant – I believed her as I knew she does not say anything just to please.
Sally is my mentor and my coach in life. I was getting married in summer 1990 in Tucson, AZ. Sally drove me to LAX, as she had done many times before (Jackson and I were dating long distance for a long while and I used to fly every month). Before she dropped me off, she said to me, “Have fun and enjoy it. Don’t worry. If things don’t work out with Jackson, you can always come back to us!” When I returned to UCLA after the wedding, she and Maria Egbert hosted a wedding party for me in LA. It was a big party, with friends from both applied linguistics and L&S (College of Letters and Sciences, where both Sally and I worked as part-time academic counselors). Sally made a speech, about me. I remembered her opening sentence, “When I first met Agnes at the graduate student orientation, she was wearing two pig tails…” April-May 1992, I stayed with Sally in her apartment for one whole month, to get ready for my PhD colloquium. She was my coach, literally, and helped me rehearse a couple of times. We worked on all the details of the big talk, from its overall structure down to which syllables should be stressed, from the handout to video clips to what I should wear that day. When the day of the colloquium finally came, she said, “Now, yunyun (she likes to call me by my Chinese name), it’s show time!” In the same way for all these years, she has given me tips on how to face and communicate with the world-- how to pursue a reply from a publisher, what to ask a doctor, how to reframe relations with parents, what I can say when others are surprised by my English…
Sally taught me important lessons in life. The biggest challenge that she knew that I have had was that I had to quit my tenure-track position at SIU to be with Jackson. It seemed a suicidal move career-wise. Sally not only fully understood my decision but also firmly supported it. Throughout the eight years during which I was outside the tenure track and focusing on my children and my writing, Sally repeatedly told me stories of Gail Jefferson and of intellectual wives of diplomats, who though without permanent paid positions led intellectually productive and satisfying lives. She adamantly affirmed my view that life is far larger than any tenure track. She never saw me any differently, whether I was a stay-home mom or I became a tenured professor at a Research I university. We once went to see the comic operetta Candide together. And we both laughed at the belief that "Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles". But Sally does have a way to peel away the superficials in life and look at the crux of the matter, which, when revealed and examined, is often not that bad after all. Sally also showed me genuine kindness. At one point, she and I were competing for the same tenure-track job at SIU Linguistics. I had taught there in a previous year as a lecturer. Sally was one of the finalists they interviewed. SIU gave the job to me. Sally was genuinely happy for me. There was not a faintest hint of resentment or jealousy. She even said that she went there and checked things out for me and decided that she agreed with my impressions from the previous year—it’s a nice place; go for it!
Sally truly sees persons’ qualities and characters beyond the skin color. She told me of anecdotes of her inviting black school friends to her home way back in her high school years. She genuinely enjoys meeting people from different backgrounds and her circle of friends come from all corners of the world. Once she remarked that she never expected to find such a close friend in a Chinese, and then she added that most of the time her mind does not register that I am Chinese. For the same reason, she does not have any problem whatsoever with persons with different sexual orientations or linguistic backgrounds. I vividly recall the following incident: some academic counselors at UCLA L&S were complaining about the thick accents of international graduate TAs and about the difficulties in communicating with international students in general. Sally stood up, literally, took a deep breath, and retorted, “I think these students are doing remarkably well! Let me ask you this: how many of us are capable of working on a degree in a foreign language in a foreign country?”
After I became a mother, Sally cheerfully took on the role of Luran and Yiran’s “Auntie Sally”. She sent them clothes and books and another time a big piñata. Luran got his first hongbao (red envelop) and Yiran her first (and so far only) musical jewelry box from Auntie Sally. Because I have a boy and a girl, our frequent discussions of genders and gendered differences took on an added ontogenetic dimension. The very last time we saw her was August 2006, two months before her lung cancer diagnosis, in Boston. She drove down to have dinner with the whole family and she and I talked in our hotel lobby until late at night. Yiran asked her if she can do a cartwheel. She thought for a while and grinned, “Hmmm, I haven’t done that for a very long time. But if I try, I might be able to.” When I became a US citizen in 2000, she sent me two books (Words That Built A Nation and Encyclopedia of Women in US), both of which are now also enjoyed by my children. She attached to the package a post card with Einstein’s picture on it; “Yunyun, you are now in good company!” she wrote.
I just made chicken schnitzel for the children yesterday; Sally taught me how to make that dish. I still have the make-up kit she gave me on my dresser and her note on the sequence of medications to take for asthma (Sally and Luran both have asthma). I was looking forward to discussing with her Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation (I sent her a copy soon after her diagnosis but never knew if she read it) and to hearing from her about the latest Gong Li movies (she is a huge Gong Li fan; whereas I never seem to have time for any movies, Chinese or not). I wanted to show her my new book that just came out. And most of all, I wanted to tell her that regardless of Jackson’s prognosis we are determined to live fully and live well. But she’s not here anymore.
Over the years, phone conversations with Sally were always hard to close. But when they finally do close, this is how our closing sequence usually begins: “Well, yunyun, I miss you!” I put an exclamation mark here because this is what it always sounds like. There is no detectable sign of melancholy or bereavement in her tone. She makes it sound like missing me is part of her joy. Well, in the same spirit, Sally, I miss you.