On July 31, my friend Jane Light Raser passed away from complications of Parkinson’s disease. Even though I was not able to attend the memorial service which was held on August 15 in Claremont, California, where Jane lived, the family asked me to write a tribute to Jane to be read at the service. I was honored to do so, and here’s what I wrote.
Jane and I first met when we enrolled at Messiah College in 1964. We both changed our majors to English at some point during our college career, and so, since Messiah was very small in those days, we had many classes together and began to forge our friendship there. Still, Jane was not in my closest circle of friends at Messiah. Our friendship solidified in the months following graduation in 1968 when we both went off to “remote” places—she to a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer assignment in Flowers Cove, Newfoundland, and me to graduate school in Moscow, Idaho. We were both extremely homesick and lonely, and letters back and forth were our lifeline to the familiar. Also, Jane was already dating Carl who was in voluntary service in Zambia, where he roomed with Dale who would become my long-distance boyfriend and then husband. When Carl and Dale returned from Zambia, Jane and I were at the airport together to meet them—although Jane and Carl’s meeting was far less awkward than Dale’s and mine because they had a romantic relationship that pre-dated Zambia.
Dale and I were married three days before Jane and Carl; Jane was a bridesmaid and Carl was a groomsman in our wedding, but we missed their wedding because we were on our honeymoon. Then they moved to California, and Jane and I didn’t see each other very often after that. Ours was a friendship sustained by voluminous letter-writing and then email. Jane wrote the BEST letters—long, chatty, funny, detailed, supportive, honest, dramatic, revealing, informative. And she was always very prompt in writing back when it was her turn; it would sometimes take me 2-3 weeks after getting a letter from her to respond, and then I would get her next letter in just a few days! I wish I had kept more of those letters. I have a few, in Jane’s familiar and impeccable cursive handwriting, and I have emails dating back to about 2010. Reading back over them again reminds me how much I valued our friendship, and what a gift Jane was to me.
One of the letters I saved is dated September 4, 1968, about a week after Jane arrived in Flowers Cove, Newfoundland. I remember receiving it at my lonely outpost in Idaho and being cheered by it, because even though Jane’s account of her new life in Newfoundland was kind of grim, she tapped into my own need for someone with whom to commiserate. A few lines from what I consider a classic Jane letter:
If I don’t soon get some mail from somewhere, I am going to dry up completely! I really don’t see how I’ll ever survive here for a whole year! So far every minute has been a life and death struggle… Flowers Cove can easily be described in a few words: cold (no higher than 30 degrees since we got here), ignorance, poverty, and germs by the gillions…. I really hate to go into the gory details of our survival here, but in case you‘re also longing for those good ol’ Messiah days, I’m sure you’ll find my plight in life amusing…. A bit about the place where Frieda and I are living—the heating in the house consists of one wood stove in the kitchen—and the fire goes out every night. Our bedroom is on the second floor—it is about two inches bigger than our bed which is the lumpiest thing you could ever imagine! We have one pillow between us. They do have running water—i.e., one faucet on the kitchen wall with cold water…. They have electricity—i.e., one light bulb hanging from each ceiling. No light switches.
When I first read that letter from Jane in the midst of my own (albeit much less primitive) circumstances, I could laugh with her and know that I was not the only one feeling isolated from everyone and everything I knew. Over the years, Jane’s letters sustained me many more times. We shared our lives with each other—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The daily routines of life, news and questions about mutual friends, our mutual struggles with depression, my cancer, Jane’s Parkinson’s disease, family conflicts and heartaches as well as family joys and successes, career quandaries and changes, and political, social and religious commentary—nothing was off limits.
The last emails I have from her are from this past February and March; they are vintage Jane as she wrote about her visit to Baltimore for a “grandbaby fix,” what Sarah and Ben and Andrew were doing in life, and asking questions about my life and mutual acquaintances.
I regret that I wasn’t as faithful at communicating with Jane as I could have been over the past couple years, but she was never far from my thoughts. I grieved with her and tried to support her when her Parkinson’s was diagnosed and when she spiraled into a deep depression several years ago. The most recent handwritten letter I saved is dated July 7, 2011, when she told me she was finally emerging from that depressive episode, thanked me for my support, and said, “Your friendship is special.”
The feeling is mutual, Jane; you were a very special friend, and I will miss you a lot!