Wednesday, December 22, 2010

for Judy

Judy Orpen was a giggly, intensely serious anthropologist and player of the Celtic harp who studied with me at Rhodes University. It might sound strange to call someone both very serious and full of inescapable giggles but in Judy's case it was true. We were both in Music I and II together in the tiny Rhodes Music Department, and we would often sit on the bench that circled 'round the Jacaranda Tree while she planned practical jokes or poked me. She was incredibly mischievous and loved playing practical jokes, but would immediately become contrite and truly concerned if she felt there was any chance of anyone being the slightest bit hurt.

I hadn't seen her since graduation this year where we had both been at the same restaurant on the outskirts of Grahamstown for a dinner with the proud parents and extended family members. There was a buffet at a restaurant called Yellow Piano, run by a wild-haired German man with tiny dogs and a huge Zebra as pets. It was a beautiful evening, and the kind that one can enjoy nowhere else except for Grahamstown in all its unexpected beauty and eccentricity.

I am friends with her on facebook, however, so I figured I would hear all her most important news. But then Gwynlyn called me, and told me she had heard Judy had died. She had gone into hospital to have some bunions removed from one of her feet, so it didn't make any sense that there were messages all over her wall from people saying how shocked they were, and that there was a facebook group in memory of her.

As I heard many days later, she had an embolism (a clot that can stop your heart) and had died completely unexpectedly. I wasn't one of her close friends in the end, but I truly am honoured to have come into contact with her.

The best way I can explain why is to tell about one of my last encounters with her. One Saturday morning between 7.30 and 8am, I was on my way to Opera Company rehearsal. I always made my way to the Music Department past the Jac Labs and past the little gap in the wall that leads from Drostdy Hall to the road past the Clock Tower and main admin building. People are not exaggerating when they tell stories of how much drinking goes on at Rhodes, so Saturday early mornings are deathly quiet and deserted. I was thus pleasantly surprised to run into Judy, standing next to the wall with a huge brown box on it. I stopped to have a good catch up chat as I thought she was waiting for someone to pick her and her huge box up.

It eventually transpired that she was just resting as she had carried the box (full to the brim with Maths textbooks) from her residence to the wall, and was only half-way there as she needed to get it to the dictionary building. She was giving extra maths lessons to local, under-privileged matric students a little later that morning (As well as studying Music and Anthropology, Judy had also done Maths at the beginning of her BA). She had requested a lift, but no one arrived, so she was calmly carrying them there.

The two of us then continued together, both holding the box. Even with the two of us carrying it, it was slow, heavy work. We had to keep stopping - amidst a few more giggles and many straining noises - to rest because the box was really heavy. I enjoyed being able to help, but I was inwardly astounded at the strength of will and thoughtfulness that evidently came to Judy thoughtlessly.

Eventually we made it to a few metres from the door and some boys took over and we said our good-byes. I have never forgotten it, though, because it was quite extraordinary.

Judy lived and breathed Christianity. Her faith sustained her and gave her an unwavering sense of the urgency of doing the right thing for people: whether it was guarding against saying harmful things to her friends or doing everything in her power to uplift her community. She considered everything and everyone with such care that I think it was often a heavy burden to bear: striving for goodness in a world of fallibility and incredible cruelty is the heaviest burden anyone can carry.

I send many prayers and thoughts to her family and close friends who feel her loss keenly. I know that everything she did will continue to resonate with the many people with whom she came into contact and - this is inevitable for Judy reached out to everyone - helped. I hope that now she is truly happy in the blissful sense we cannot comprehend.

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