This week, on a cold, cloudy, Mid-Western winter’s day, a group of people gathered to say their final farewell’s to Monica Wernette. A wife, sister, aunt, cousin, and friend to many (so many) around the world.
If you never met her, I offer you my condolences, because, seriously, you missed out. Like a day late for the seasonal flavor that was so yummy, a dollar short for the limited edition sneakers that were so comfy, or 50 reward miles shy of a free upgrade to first class on a long-haul flight when economy is full of crying, pooping, babies kind of missed out.
I’m sorry for your loss. Please, allow me to introduce you.
Born and raised in Kansas, Monica often told me that in her childhood, other kids called her Harmonica Cornet. I could never quite asertain if she liked or disliked this, but to me, it makes sense. Monica not only threw a great party; she was the party. Food, drinks, laughter, dancing, and music included. I imagine her somewhere now playing some boogie-down toe-tappin’ blues with Gabriel on his trumpet. Monica was one of the most fun–and funniest–people I’ve ever known. She was also one of the kindest.
When we first met in the mid-1990s, she immediately took me under her wing. We were both working for UNAIDS in Switzerland which had just been established and launched to be a sort of central and hub and re-set for the United Nation’s response to the global AIDS pandemic. It was meant to be different, inclusive, and far-reaching. We were all making it up as we went along, no one more so than myself. But Monica, smart-as-they-come, had worked in public health on AIDS and monkey pox with the United Nations for years and was the consummate humanitarian. She worked to improve life for all humanity. Even for me, a green young woman with HIV trying to save the world. Others saw me mostly as a newbie (which I was) and inexperienced (which I also was) but Monica saw me as a person, first and foremost. It was like she had a soul x-ray machine and could see what people needed, as individuals. This was her superpower. Well, one of them. She had many.
It seemed, she also had many (many) chairs because there was always another seat for that other person who showed up, unexpectedly, because we all knew that Monica would welcome any and all. She always made space. Whether it was a group of (allegedly [possibly] stoned) women on a Friday night after work at her house watching The Wizard of Oz cued up to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, a gathering of ex-pats for Thanksgiving, or just the 10 am coffee crew who met weekdays on the patio of the M Building at the World Health Organization, there was always room for another person to feel welcomed into her world.
A lucky recipient of her generous spirit, she swooped me into her circle of friends when I moved to Geneva in March of 1996. At Easter, she told me she’d pick me up at a certain hour and that I would be going to her friend Janet’s gathering. It felt like a friendly command. Despite me being dazed by all of the changes in my life–living in a new country, taking on a daunting new job, secretly wanting to hide from the world and digest what was happening–there was Monica, outside honking (only once because it was, after all, Geneva so, shhh) and taking me off to a stranger’s house. Honestly, on the ride there, I felt nervous and nearly scared. Where the fuck even was I? Who was this woman? Why was I circling that big lake in her car? Once I arrived, however, my life changed forever because Janet, it would turn out, was as amazing as Monica and is still my dear friend to this day. She knew who I needed to know to build that new chapter of my life. This is who Monica was. A catalyst, a caregiver, a fixer. She’s the person you’d want at your side in a crisis.
A few months later she put together a photo album from my housewarming with a commentary that brings tears of laughter to my eyes even today. I will not share much of that commentary because this is meant to be a family-friendly post. But trust me, her wit and insight was a balm for the soul.
On the inside cover she wrote:
Dear Kid Sister…Thank you for taking on challenges that will try you, but yet appeal to you, time and again.
She’d only just met me, but she summed up my entire life–past, present, and albeit unknowingly, future–in those words because she saw something I couldn’t yet focus on. She saw in me, and in others, a potential to do good. She pushed us to keep showing up and supported us to perservere. We had work to do and we had to know ourselves so we could give to others.
Two years later, when I was run down and sent home on sick leave, Monica checked in on me regularly. She sent me care packages including a dossier of totally made-up fake and hilarious “work” documents to make me giggle and reassure me that I was wise to take care of myself. She’d call and ask, first off, if was it okay that she called. Did I want to chat? She helped me learn how to put myself first in my own life because she modeled that behavior of what I should do. I didn’t fully appreciate all of this at the time, but in many ways, she and the other friends we shared in Geneva saved me from self-destructing.
Nobody ever told her to do these things or said, “Hey, Monica, as we start this UNAIDS thing, you go roll out the welcome wagon then keep an eye on everyone’s well-being, will ya?” No, she just did this because she was Monica Wernette, Harmonica Cornet, the fun one who brought everyone together. She knew the right card, the funny note, or the clever email that could get you through the day. Or the perfect prank that would simply make you laugh. She had a lot of those, too.
And stories. So many stories.
Monica was known for her accounts of her travels and often referred to the lot of us UN workers as the FuhKaWee Tribe — as in Where the Fuck Are We? Well-intended souls doing humanitarian work in places where we maybe didn’t blend or belong. I don’t know if she coined the phrase or maybe it was a Late Night joke on Johnny Carson, or who even knows, but it fit. And it stuck.
One of her favorite stories was any variation of this: a United Nations quatre-quatre (a 4-wheel-drive vehicle) gets stuck in the mud 42 clicks (kilometers) down some remote unlit road in the distant corner of ___fill in the blank_country___. Probably in a storm, at night, barefoot without your glasses. Then the two-way radio dies. I heard that story so many times that it felt like I’d lived it. I hadn’t. But I had lived the one where the ceiling panel falls open as the helicopter takes off and the wires drop down in ___fill in the blank_country___. And the one where the 20-seater prop plane landed on the dirt runway in a cloud of red dust near the refugee camps in ___fill in the blank_country___. As well as the one (among others) where the radio squawks to life telling you to grab your go-bag because rebel forces were headed your way in ___fill in the blank_country___, just in case you needed to be evacuated. We all had our variations of these lived experiences; we the FuhKaWee Tribe.
But that story of hers, about the jeep stuck in the mud, was a doozy and felt wilder with each new telling. Thinking back on her storytelling makes me smile.
When I first received the news of Monica’s passing, I was stunned, as we often are with such announcements. I reread the email a few times, then clicked through to her obituary. I read that and reflected. Then I read it again. And a third time. It was only then that I noticed the location of the visitation on Tuesday, followed by an evening rosary, and where on Wednesday morning, January 18th of 2023, her Mass of Christian Burial would be held. Clay Center, Kansas. And then I laughed. Out loud. Like, snorted-kind-of-laughed.
Clay Center, Kansas. (Yes, I know, it was named after a person, not the mud, but hey, creative license.)
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, that damn jeep is still in the mud…er, clay. And in her last glorious prank, our beautiful salt-of-the-earth Monica, makes Clay Center her final resting place. Her quatre-quatre and her stories are parked for us to remember. No more pushing or maneuvering in the rain is required to get unstuck. She is where she needs to be forevermore. She will be sorely missed by many, but she truly made the world a better place, one person at a time.
To all who are grieving her passing–Kim, Jean, and everyone else–I offer my sincerest condolences.
Wail on that Harmonica, blast that Cornet, and blow Gabriel blow. Your sister Monica has come home. Rest, my friend. Rest in Peace.
Martina Clark is the author (and narrator) of My Unexpected Life: An International Memoir of Two Pandemics, HIV and COVID-19, in which she talks about the FhuKaWee Tribe and the squishy underbelly of the United Nations. Thanks to Monica Wernette, and others, she is not currently stuck in the mud.