Eulogy for Bonnie Johnson
by Eric Dishman
Bonnie and Daniel have been my adopted "west coast parents" for a long time now...almost 20 years. My real parents, who live in Charlotte, are okay with that because they know how much love and support Bonnie and Daniel have given me these decades, and they figure "the more the better."
"Parent" isn't really the right word to describe their relationship to me; it's just the closest word I can come up with because I don't know of any other categories or words that accurately reflect the amount of love they've given to me. Words like "colleague" or "friend" just don't come close--so I've stuck to "west coast parents" to signal to people their importance in my life.
Words meant a lot to Bonnie. Wielding words to do things in the world...that was part of her being, part of her being a scholar. Speech acts. Speech acts upon the world--this is a key notion to the communication training that both Bonnie and I undertook earlier in our lives. That is, the things we say--and how we say them--act upon the world to create our identities, values, and legacies. The words bring forth our being in the world.
But at the end of the day, we struggle--I struggle--to find words adequate enough, expressive enough, to act the way I want them to...to bring forth how I really feel. For some weird reason, I've always struggled with saying "I love you" to people I love dearly. In fact, I don't know if I ever used the words "I love you" with Bonnie. I probably didn't. The phrase feels too easy to say, too trite, too inadequate to express how I feel...those often-used words felt so cliché and empty as ways for me to give love to Bonnie. Yet, I wish I had said them. And I pray, at least, that my actions showed love to her along the way. . . . . .
It was sort of love at first sight when I met Bonnie on a steamy Texas day in 1992. We met through an amazing, miraculous even, string of events when I was a Ph.D. student in Austin. I had stumbled upon a book the day before the second semester started--a book called Computers as Theatre by a woman named Brenda Laurel, who was a famous artist and designer in Silicon Valley. In fact, I stayed up all night reading her whole book, and the next day I was walking to my first class when I saw a poster advertising a talk on virtual reality that very day by Brenda Laurel in the student union.
I couldn't believe it! So I blew off my class and went to her amazing talk.
Afterwards, I went up to meet her--sharing some names of friends we had in common in Chapel Hill from my undergraduate program--but Brenda gave me her card and hurried off to some other meeting. I then walked out of the union and bumped into my professor/mentor, Lynn Miller, who had brought me to Texas. She teased me for missing the first day of her class, and then told me about a friend of hers who was in town to hire interns for the upcoming summer at Paul Allen's think-tank in Palo Alto, called Interval Research.
I desperately wanted to escape the Texas heat come summer, so I went to the interview room at 3:00pm, and there was Brenda Laurel again...and this vibrant soul named Bonnie Johnson. Somehow Bonnie and I started talking about a scholar named Erving Goffman and sharing stories about our communication upbringing, and the next thing you know, she and Brenda are arguing about which one of them was going to hire me as a summer intern. Bonnie won. And both Bonnie and Brenda became friends and mentors who set me on a different path and helped me launch my career in Silicon Valley on healthcare technologies. . . . . .
One of my favorite memories of Bonnie was Smashing Pumpkins. No, not the destruction of large orange gourds on Halloween, but the pop band the "Smashing Pumpkins." At Interval, Bonnie had come up with a project for her team--we were called "Explorers"--to go study the future of digital technologies by traveling around with the Lollapallooza outdoor concert all summer with sweaty teenagers swooning under the sun and the influence of loud music (and other stimuli). It was really a groundbreaking study to go explore--in the wild--what teenagers think and feel about their world, their music, their technologies, and their hopes and aspirations.
We had a reserved parking spot for our bus filled with technologies that we unpacked at every concert site, and one day in Las Vegas, I find Bonnie "having words" with the punkish lead singer [Billy Corgan] of Smashing Pumpkins. He's this fierce looking guy with piercings and tattoos everywhere--long before those had gone mainstream--and Bonnie just lit into him for parking his van in our reserved spot. He was normally pasty and pale, but today he was two shades whiter, and much cowed by the force that was Bonnie, stumbling upon himself to find the adequate words with which to apologize to Bonnie.
So I go take one load of gear into our tent, and when I come back out, there's Bonnie and this rock star still standing there, his van has been moved, but now they are laughing, deeply engaged in a conversation about philosophy and this famous (to obscure scholars like us) cultural theorist named Martin Heidegger. I mean, how does she do this? One minute, world war three over a parking space; the next minute, laughing about obscure German philosophers with a punk rock star.
But then I think to myself...that was everything about Bonnie in one quick moment: She was clear about what she wanted. She was brave enough to demand it. But did so with love and laughter as much as possible, always finding the best in people. And at the end of the day, she was an explorer of ideas, of peoples' souls, of what made them tick...she was a deeply engaged, and engaging, explorer of the human experience. . . . . .
I ended up staying at this think-tank, Interval, for almost 8 years, working for Bonnie most of that time, though she was more than a "boss" or "mentor" from the very first day. You all here need to somehow understand the legacy of her work at Interval, at Intel where I work now, and beyond. I could tell you stories for hours (but don't worry--I won't!) about how she helped to pioneer a whole new field and new techniques and methods that we, her Interval children, have carried out into the world.
In my own case, I took these methods and teachings to try to reinvent healthcare, particularly for seniors and chronic care patients. One of the first projects I had worked on for Bonnie was something called "Elder Space" where we set out to use new technologies to help build a better nursing home, but ended up deciding that the real question to answer was: How could we use technologies to get rid of the notion of a nursing home by letting people age-in-place in their own homes? Almost twenty years ago today I worked on my first remote patient monitoring and elder care technologies for Bonnie and Interval, and to this day, even as I work on prototypes and health reform bills around the world, that question guides my mission and purpose in life.
Bonnie gave me the opportunity and the skills to find my passion, my purpose in life, and even set me on a course to get paid to do those things. How can words like "I love you" and "thank you" respond appropriately to these gifts she gave to me? But then, as the consummate scholar and the constant explorer, Bonnie goes off and gets these horrible diseases and conditions herself. I swear, sometimes I think she put herself through this just to learn what it's like, so she can reinvent what it means to "be a patient" for the rest of us!
She became, in every sense of the phrase, a "role model" on how to deal with disease, suffering, life, and death. And along the way, Daniel--her engaged, empathic, exploring partner--reinvented and revolutionized what it means to be a spouse and a most amazing and compassionate caregiver!
While I wish I could take back some of the unimaginable suffering she went through these past nine years, I wouldn't want to take those experiences away from Bonnie because, as an explorer, she is helping the world to discover new ways to be, to be a human with disease, to love. And these, too, in the book she was working on with Daniel and in the powerful blog they have left us of their experiences with cancer, show the intrepid explorer bravely finding her way and showing the rest of us how to do it. What great gifts she has left all of us in this room!
What powerful ways she has wielded words to teach us, support us, comfort us, and ease our way through our own illnesses and impasses. So, in the end, dear Bonnie..and dearest Daniel who so rightly asks us today to celebrate her life...I'm left with these oh-so-impoverished, oh-so-inadequate words to express the loss--and gains--that we face from Bonnie's life and her death. From her engaged explorations of the human experience.
In the end, cliché phrases will have to suffice (and I wish I had used them more often when she was alive!). "Thank you, for all your gifts." And, too simply, "I love you."
Eric, Bonnie loved you right back. You are an extraordinary human being, from whom we learned patient advocacy and how to live a full life while fighting for one's existence.
Daniel for BanD