In December of 1991 I went to Conway, New Hampshire. I attended a five week integrated emergency medial technician (EMT), wilderness emergency medical technician training. All of the students lived together in a dorm. I believe there were sixteen of us. Over the course of those five weeks I made two significant friendships. One was Laura Lee. The other was Joyce Manzella.
Joyce was a little prickly. A little arrogant. She looked about my age. She was in fact twenty-three. I was eighteen. The prior spring she had graduated with her PhD in Biochemistry from Duke. She was brilliant. Loved the outdoors.
Sometimes after dinner wed gather and study in the main building. If you were to imagine a 1960s version of the Hogwarts School for Wizardry, built by rock-climbers, youd have a good idea what this place looked like. The massive wooden door snapped open when you pressed the nose of a large dragon that curled around in the door-frame.
Joyce was very focused, and a bit distant. One night she opened up. A year earlier some friends of Joyces had arranged to go on a two-week trek in Nepal. Last minute one of the friends got sick. On two days notice, Joyce filled the empty spot. Most of the group hiked around a base camp at 16,000 feet, but some of the group were trained mountaineers, and they would leave camp for days at a time, and summit peaks in the vicinity (K2 and Annapurna were both accessed from the camp.)
Three days into her trip, an unrelated mountaineering party came through the base camp. They were led by a Nepalese Sherpa named Pemba Sherpa. I learned from Joyce that many of the Sherpas take the last name Sherpa. She explained that the locals make money carrying all of the gear for the tourists/mountaineers. As Sherpas get older, they end up going higher and higher on the mountain, and make more money for this. While the Americans, or French, or Portuguese, are struggling up the mountains with small backpacks, sucking oxygen, the Sherpas are hiking behind with massive bundles, unaided. Some Sherpas actually even summit with their employers – at this point, they become guides. The most talented and experienced Sherpas eventually become head guides, organizing the other sherpas, and leading the foreigners from bottom to top and back. This is what had happened with Pemba. Joyce said that by age sixteen he spoke six languages, all learned while carrying bags up and down the sides of the Himalayas.
Pemba and Joyce fell in love. When I met Joyce, it had been a year since they had been together, which was also when they had met. Joyce was troubled by their lack of communication. Its hard to communicate with someone who spends most of his time between 16 and 23,000 feet. She had spoken to him by phone, briefly, twice. She had written letters and gotten few back. She was scared, and was wondering if she was being played. She was questioning her judgment. She told me in years to come that I was the only person who counseled her to believe. To stay. I still feel very good about that.
Over the next two years Joyce and I hiked together a lot. She introduced me to the Western United States. Joyce didnt mind driving huge distances, so we would take a week or two and go where-ever, starting in Salt Lake where she had taken a job as a bio-medical researcher. She didnt mind being in the car for twenty hours to get to a place that would be lovely to hike in for three or four or five days. I was sort of along for the ride with Joyce, and I didnt mind. She was my friend.
One night Pemba called Joyce, and apologized to her for not being in touch. Then he asked her how far it was from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. He was in the San Francisco airport. They were married that spring in Arches National Park. I visited them once, shortly after the marriage, in this little apartment they had in Salt Lake. They moved to his village in Nepal a few years later and I havent heard from her since.
Laura Lee was actually my roommate at the EMT School. I arrived the day the training began, and we were supposed to be there the night prior. Each room in the dorm had four bunkbeds, and all of the rooms were full except for the one on the end of the hall on the 2nd floor, which was totally empty. As I was unpacking, Laura Lee showed up. She had driven directly from base, having been discharged from the Army less than 24 hours earlier. She had been in the Gulf War (Desert Storm.) She did not mind sharing a room with a man. We got along well, but retained a distance even as we grew more familiar with each other. Laura and I were from very different worlds. I had just graduated from a prep school outside Boston. She was from Alabama, and had just gotten out of the Army.
Laura was amazingly strong. Every morning she got up at five am and went running. And were talking New Hampshire in December. The rest of us were just exhausted from studying. When a mutual friend called and told me that she had killed herself nine months after our graduation I was black in a way that I had never been. Lauras suicide was the first time I experienced that kind of depression.
She had really loved these jeans I had when we lived together. She had indirectly asked me for them. When we said goodbye I had not given them to her, but had felt badly about that, and meant to send them to her. At the time they were only pair of city pants I owned. The night I got the call that she was dead, I had written her a note. It was really a follow up note to the note I had written months earlier that was in an unsealed package with the jeans. I can remember when I packed for college just not finding the time to actually send the package. It lived on my desk in my dorm room until I got the call. I still feel sadness, and some shame, about that.
Fifteen years have passed since I met Joyce and Laura. I still think about them, and wonder about the differences in their lives. The songwriter Josh Ritter says we need faith for the same reasons that its so hard to find. I cling to that, and the memories of my friends.
“Fate to Love” Copyright Robert Bettmann
Original May 20, 2006, this edit Sept 18, 2008