I wanted to share the words by which I opened my presentation on No. 5 Road while at the recent Se faire une place dans la cité conference in Montreal. My collaborator on the project, Claire Dwyer, passed away in the summer, just as I was moving to my new post across the Pacific from where we had done our project in Richmond, British Columbia. When the illness that took her was in its advanced stages, a few colleagues of hers at University College London had contacted me to be part of a small project honouring her for her promotion to Professor. I was not able to come through for that venture. I also thought we’d have more time with her; she even emailed me from the hospital about our project and had the joy to discover that the last letter that she had written last year while I was on the job market was the one that got me my position at Singapore Management University.
And then, she was gone. I did have the words to grieve, and as I told my colleagues at the time, I did not know how I would find them. But Frédéric Dejean and Annick Germaine invited me to Montreal to talk about our project and said that they would say a few words about Claire. It was this conference that thus forced me to stop avoiding my grief and stare it in the face.
These, then, are the words by which I began my talk. Having said them at the conference, I feel it is only right to make them public here:
I want to begin by thanking the conference organizers Frédéric Dejean and Annick Germain for this kind invitation to speak here in Montreal. I have been on an academic job market journey of sorts over the last few years, so it has been difficult to pin down exactly where I have been: Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago, and now, of all places, Singapore. It is an honour to be brought in from so far, to a place that is almost entirely run en français. I have not spoken French with any semblance of competence since I learned it in a high school in California fifteen years ago. Apologetically, I will have to speak in English today. I do, however, know what people are saying, not just words, but almost full arguments. The problem is that my incompetence lies in retaining what you say. If you ask me what it was you said, I will have forgotten by the time you have uttered it. This means that I can probably participate in some discussion in French. But I will not dare to speak it myself, unless we have another cocktail tonight.
In this morning’s presentation, I come in the memory of my colleague and dear friend, Professor Claire Dwyer. I understand, when Frédéric first invited me, that Claire was supposed to give the talk that I am now about to give. With some shock, we probably learned around the same time that Claire was too sick by late last year to work, much less travel. It is poetic that the final job reference letter that she wrote for me was for my current position at Singapore Management University. I had the opportunity to tell her this news when she emailed me to discuss — from the hospice, no less — our collaborative project on what is known as ‘the Highway to Heaven,’ the stretch of road in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, British Columbia where there are over twenty religious institutions within three kilometers.
She was also well-loved in Singapore, especially at my university — Singapore Management University — where we are informally forming a small hub of cultural geographers of religion, with our president Lily Kong and my colleague Orlando Woods also there. Lily and I especially have tried to work through our grief together. I recently told her that I did not know how to grieve Claire. How do I even begin to grapple with the person who came all the way from London to Vancouver to mentor this kid in qualitative research methods because our department did not have such a course and then proceeded to work tirelessly to make sure I grew up and got a job that I could hold? I learned how to do research through this project on No. 5 Road. In fact, I even met the woman I married on the Highway to Heaven while doing this project. I do not know how to grieve Claire, and I hesitate from saying that this presentation in her memory is my public expression of grief because I do not know if that would cheapen it. But I am spending all of this time at the front of my presentation commemorating her because it was she who was supposed to give this talk. I hope her spirit is here. It would give me some confidence. In comfort, Lily told me that this is why we must hold our loved ones closer to us now, always.
Still, three months after the news, I am now here, on our behalf. In fact, the last time I gave this presentation, it was also in Montreal, in St Joseph’s Oratory. I find that it is poetic that I get to revisit Montreal with this work, holding Claire in my heart. I certainly hope that my performance will not be as disappointing as the last time.
Memory eternal, Claire. With the saints, grant her rest, O Christ. Memory eternal.