Yesterday, we held a memorial for Stephanie and my stagmates asked me to write something about her. This is what I came up with and thought I’d share it in case any of her friends found this blog.
In Memory of Stephanie Michelle Chance
Read at the Peace Corps Niger memorial October 10, 2010
By Heather Mangan
It takes more than a month of friendship for me to reveal my secret fantasy of becoming an author to someone, but, for some reason, I just blurted it out to Stephanie one day.
“You should write a book,” she suggested.
“About what?” hoping she would have a good idea.
“My life is not exciting.”
“Well, you could write about my life. The strangest things happen to me.”
Stephanie is the comic and I am the writer, so we figured that the two of us could combine forces to put out a pretty good book. With assignments in the Zinder region, we’d have two years of hostel time to craft this, what we’d assume would be, a best-selling novel.
Stephanie Chance: the autobiography as told to Heather Mangan.
This idea was drafted with intention of including several yet unlived stories, but, unjustly, her story ends on Oct. 7, 2010. And, without the excessive interviews that would help me tell Stephanie’s tale from all angles, I can only piece together the memories and moments I have of her in the three short months we spent together in Niger. I made a promise to write Stephanie’s story, so here is it through my eyes.
The moment the email came about a comment on my new blog detailing my Peace Corps adventure, I squealed. The reader was a fellow Peace Corps Invitee, a Phoenix native named Stephanie, and she left her email address for me to contact her. We sent a few emails back and forth about packing lists and travel arrangements. I didn’t know anything about her beyond her status with the Peace Corps, but she brought reassurance as I prepared for this big jump in life. I hadn’t left home and I already had a friend in America.
At staging in Philadelphia, I only had the chance to pass a few greetings and introductions to her, but I was already drawn to her magnetism and vibrant personality. At the airport in Paris, she told me about cutting ties with her friend, Pedro. Pedro was the nickname for her stomach and she was determined to lose him to the Nigerien rice and millet cuisine. She even brought her skinny jeans – the pair every girl owns.
This girl is funny, I thought to myself as we stood in line to board the plane to Niamey. I should get to know her more.
Her humor was comfort a few hours later when, like the kindergarteners on the first day of school, we had arrived to the airport without a clue as what to do next. A large Nigerien man, dressed in a dark blue bubu, came to rescue, and comfort, us.
“I like Dad,” Stephanie said as this strange man took our passports and told us to wait. She was right, Tondi was our dad and took care of us like any dad would and the two developed a daughter-father relationship throughout the 11 weeks of training. Her jokingly complaining, him jokingly telling her to get over it.
As we were thrusted into close relationships, I found myself lingering around Stephanie. Her outlook on life intrigued me and I wanted to be around when she delivered a zinger, such as nicknaming training site America. This humor and her small obsession with celebrities brought me comfort in this strange land.
Many of my conversations with Stephanie often lead to food. She threatened us that if we let her early terminate at any point, she’d take daily pictures of the chocolatey, fruity, fried food she ate and send it to us as torture. She promised to make us breakfast burritos on News Year’s Day and we all laughed when she told us her favorite restaurant was Chili’s. I don’t eat at Chili’s because their food isn’t vegetarian friendly, but every time I see one, I’ll think of her. And that baby back ribs jingle.
Stephanie could ignite many mundane situations. On a typical sweaty, harsh bush taxi ride from Niamey to Hamadellye, she decided to broadcast the music on her iPod with her voice and a game of iPod karaoke emerged. The songs came from several different genres, but she insisted they were all good ones. Her, Casey and I giggled in the backseat of a station wagon until the car broke down and we had to walk the short distance into town. She admitted that was one of her favorite moments of Niger.
It was one of mine too.
During the chaotic hustle of training, there were simple moments with Stephanie that drew me closer to her, even if it was just another minute of her day. During a session, her phone rang and she left to answer it. Although far enough away for the lecture hall not to hear her conversation, I heard high-pitched gulps of air, like those that come from sobbing. Leaving our lives back home was trickier than we all thought, and Stephanie was reminded of how hard it can to be to focus on here and not there that day. When she returned to her seat, I gave her a hug. I wanted her to know that she always had my shoulder to cry on, during this moment and any.
But this underlying care wasn’t one sided.
One night, while we were staying at site, I crossed paths were her in the refectoire as I was headed down to village to buy phone credit. She told me not to go alone, but I insisted I would be fine and it would only be a few minutes. She gave in but refused to move from her seat until I returned and threatened to come after me if I wasn’t back in 20 minutes. I came back fine and she got up from her seat, claiming she was now allowed to go on with her night.
When we endured the 14-hour bus ride to Zinder, our new home, for installation, Stephanie morphed into more than a good friend. She, along with the other members of Team Z, became family. We started plotting a new life together – team videos, How I Met Your Mother Marathons and Halloween costumes. She promised to watch the mail for my packages and shap-shap me if I ever ran low on credit in my bush village.
I imagined, and really hoped, that Stephanie and I would have those till 4 a.m. conversations about relationships and friends. Maybe I’d visit her in Phoenix after our two years were up, and I had guessed, with enough coaxing, she’d come to South Dakota, but only when the weather was behaving.
Stephanie is gone now, and these stories and small but significant moments are what I hold on to when I see her face or hear her voice in mind.
And still looks out for me.
Because of poor cell phone reception in my village, I was told the news late in the morning. Not knowing much about my transportation system other than it’s sketchy, I ran home, packed a bag, sat on a log and prayed for a car, a miracle. If I couldn’t get to Zinder that day, I’d have to go the next day and leave for Niamey the following day, arriving on Monday – a day behind of everyone else. I couldn’t be alone that night, I had to get to Zinder.
The time passed with every memory of Stephanie playing in my head. The last day I saw her we had walked to the post office to get packages before installment. I was expecting three and she was expecting one, yet none arrived for me and two for her. I’d have to wait for my goodies a month while she was packing hers up to take to her new home. Of course, I was happy for her, but I was envious of the luck she had working with her that day. She always seemed to have luck, I decided as I came to the conclusion that this was not the end of the world.
It was nearing 2 p.m., and with a four to six hour bush taxi ride ahead of me, I doubted that I’d make it out of my village before the next day.
Then a car came, one that was going to Zinder and would take me the whole way before sundown. I made it there so that I could be here today.
It was pure luck, or borrowed luck. It was a friend from above watching out for me like she’d always done, beginning with an email.
For the next two years, Stephanie will be watching out for us. She’ll be there on our good days and bad days. She’ll be rooting for us from heaven’s grandstands as if she were here in Niger. And, if we let her down, she’ll probably torment us with pictures of sweet, delicious food.