Lonnie Wu: 1942-2018In Memoriam | Thu Nov 08, 2018 | 12:00am
Lonnie was my oldest and very best friend, but I would not be surprised to hear other people make the same claim. I am as happy to share her with others as she was to share herself. She was generous like that with her attention and her love. This remembrance is only one view of a remarkable human being, who was such a gift.
She was born Mary Lon Wu. Her father came to New York on a “paper uncle” visa, with no immediate family in the U.S., having bought the contract of “Jesse Chan” from the Chinatown house that held it. For a woman who came to hold so many people’s health in her hands, Lonnie was tiny and underweight when she was born. Her father enlisted in WWII to earn his citizenship, and since Lonnie’s young mother assumed that going off to war meant dying, she married another man before William Wu returned. Lonnie spent her early years in the Chinese immigrant community, where her father was a prominent restaurant owner and community leader. These early years gave Lonnie not only great culinary skills but also cosmopolitan tastes.
Not long after I met her in 1979, Lonnie asked me to proofread her résumé. We added a few things, and then, looking at her history, Lonnie sighed and said that she hadn’t done much with her life. I was speechless; her résumé was already three pages long, and she hadn’t yet finished acupuncture school. This wasn’t a case of false modesty; she simply had no idea how she compared to other people. This could be partly due to her discouraging experiences in public school. Her first language was Chinese, and her teachers assumed her silence signaled a developmental problem and seated her in special classes. But on more than one occasion, I heard older Chinese speakers comment that though her Chinese vocabulary was a child’s, it was unusually cultured.
When Lonnie was old enough to wonder where her mother was, her father said she had abandoned them both. It wasn’t until years later that Lonnie heard a different story from her mother, that her father had kidnapped Lonnie from daycare.
William Wu was too busy to keep as protective an eye on her as he wanted. So, he sent her to live with the Wolgemuths, a Conservative Mennonite family in Pennsylvania. The rural culture and environment was quite different; here she found a sheltered, stable place to bloom — and an appreciative audience for her mischievous antics. Her love and gratitude to the Wolgemuths echoed throughout her life. There was nothing Lonnie would not do for family. In addition to her own kids, Lonnie raised half-siblings and took in nieces and nephews. She brought her father to Santa Barbara during his last illness, and she flew to New York to help her siblings care for their mother. And her own children nursed Lonnie in their turn.
But when I met her, she was a single mother raising teenaged Adrienne and Anthony and preteen Deirdre, working full time, and going to school. And they weren’t making it easy for her. They did not appreciate being uprooted from their comfortable, “normal” urban life in New York, being transplanted to what seemed a backward and lusterless Goleta suburb. Keeping the three of them out of trouble was no mean feat as they sprouted wings and grew taller than her. But she parented them with firmness and rebuilt their family life in the new, changed circumstances. And they became amazing adults.
Lonnie is most widely known as a focused, insightful, and brilliant healer. To say she had a gift barely scratches the surface of the deep gratitude her patients feel, both for her abilities and for her simple, calming, comforting presence amid serious pain and suffocating anxiety. She practiced acupuncture with her son, Anthony Kar, in a clinic known wide and far, and her skills with Eastern and Western medical techniques earned her privileges at Cottage Hospital.
Outside the clinic door, however, Lonnie had a hilarious impulsivity, an impish silliness that sometimes veered to the bawdy. She could be scattered and impatient, but also optimistic — sometimes hair-raisingly so — or breathtakingly outspoken. She was the new med student who fainted at her first dissection and the ICU RN who went scooting down the hallway on an IV drip hanger.
I was to learn that simple things were in danger of becoming unexpectedly complex in Lonnie’s hands, yet at the same time she could be startlingly insightful about complex things. And though she might complain that she had too much to do, she never failed to shoulder whatever life demanded — or offered — with grace, no matter how impossible things became. She procrastinated unaccountably on seemingly simple tasks, let large matters slip to the back burner, and yet, in the end, it all got done. It was amazing to watch.
One afternoon she called and said she’d just heard that on a clear day, sailors at sea claimed that there was a green flash just before sunset. Off we went to the cliffs above the shore to sit staring in a chilly breeze, with me complaining that it was getting cold, that sitting on the bluff was not the same as being out at sea, that we wouldn’t see anything. Yet there we were, as Lonnie wanted, waiting for the sun to set. Just as I was thinking I saw an afterimage on the horizon, she turned and exclaimed, “Did you see that? Did you see it?” And I had. A flash of green. I would have doubted my own eyes if Lonnie hadn’t been there, grabbing my arm and exclaiming joyfully.
In the same way, she taught me to stop for double rainbows, sundogs, lunar eclipses, and whatever we might spot on the side of the road. I learned to hop into a car with no preparation, to go far away, to have a great time—with only minor disasters. I learned that a disaster is not the end of the world; that there might be momentary misgivings, but then they’d be dealt with. Lonnie was more than a survivor; she could prioritize calamities. And she had the scars to prove it. Through it all, there was a lot of joy.
As someone who was so open to exploring, it might be assumed that she had nerves of steel, but she did not. She was afraid of crawling things. She phoned me in a panic one day, demanding I rush over immediately to help get rid of something scary in the living room. When I arrived, she was still screeching and immobile. I was momentarily puzzled that someone so courageous could be undone by a grasshopper clinging to the folds of the curtain.
We, her friends and family, often found ourselves shaking our heads, standing puzzled, worrying about her stress levels, doubting her judgment if not her sanity, as she rolled with life’s punches, dancing close to the edge. She wasn’t a great explainer, nor persuasive in so many words, but her mind was fast and her intuition clear. A teacher who leaned toward crazy wisdom. What she never did find for herself was a perfectly compatible mate. She had a number of loving relationships, but she was, finally, an idealist who never quite resolved the key conundrum of her desires for closeness and freedom, companionship and independence.
Lonnie was much more than I will ever know. But in my memories, a curious light shines through all my impressions of Lonnie, an illumined being, growing brighter.