“Vegans can no longer be silent in this most important social justice change…anymore than we could have [remained silent]…by just not owning slaves during Antebellum slavery and saying slavery was a choice. Some things are so wrong they can not be tolerated. Time is short and creating a vegan world has become crucial to saving it from possible destruction. It has become everybody’s business what we eat.” – Shirley Wilkes-Johnson
On Saturday, April 9, 2011, the world lost one of the purest souls to Heaven. Shirley Wilkes-Johnson, Vegan advocate and activist, radio show host, tireless warrior and voice for the voiceless, passed away. Shirley’s illness and subsequent death was sudden and unexpected, rocking the worlds of those who knew her and loved her.
Shirley and I “met” on Facebook in August 2009, just several months after I had become Vegan and began a blog about my journey. We became fast Facebook friends and I had no idea how important this woman was going to become to me. But over time, Shirley was there for me with her open heart that poured out endless love.
We shared a love of cooking delicious Vegan food and from the beginning, Shirley would repost the recipes from my blog and write to tell me how much she and Ben loved the dishes and how she was sharing the recipes with her non-veg friends. Every time, Shirley headed the post with a comment like “Here is a vegan recipe from my amazing, beautiful friend Rhea. She’s lost over a hundred pounds since becoming vegan.” I remember feeling so proud every single time – proud that this great woman thought so highly of my food and more proud that this great woman thought so highly of me. She wrote to me, “I love you for making vegan irresistible.”
Recently, Shirley began encouraging me to write a cookbook. Every time I posted a recipe, she would have something positive to say. Just last week, she wrote, “I can’t eat all this food. Stop making it look so irresistible” and after some other people made positive comments, Shirley wrote, “See, Rhea, the world is waiting for your cookbook.” Just as I was waiting for the one she was working on.
These comments are so precious to me because, as anyone who knows me knows, I don’t have the greatest self-esteem and I am my own harshest critic. Every time I post a blog entry, recipe or essay, I worry that it isn’t good enough or that people will hate it. Shirley gave me confidence; she made me believe I had something to offer the world and the Vegan world, in particular.
But our shared love of food was the least of it. From the beginning of our friendship, Shirley was there when I needed someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on, a person to turn to. When I first became ill in December 2009, Shirley wrote me and offered her vast knowledge of health and nutrition. She suggested a mineral supplement to me but I couldn’t afford it so she sent it to me. Just like that. “A New Year’s present,” she said and it was in the mail the next week, along with an inspirational CD.
Shirley was the one I turned to when I had problems with my in-laws, whenever I was depressed or having a rough time dealing with being ill. She gave me support, advice and always love. She would check in to see if I was ok when I was too quiet, to gently “remind” me that I wasn’t posting recipes and to tell me that she missed me. That was the spark I needed to come back to life.
Shirley would post on my Facebook wall just to tell me I was amazing or beautiful. Just like that. And just like that, my mood would change because I knew that someone so special out there was thinking of me. That’s the kind of magic that Shirley spread. With just a thought and a few words, she could change someone’s entire day. I can only hope that I was able to make her smile as well or to offer her an ounce of that kind of comfort when she lost her beloved cat, Phoenix.
Shirley was my mentor, my hero, my friend. We once had a conversation about how we could come to care so much for people we had never met and I let her know, “You’ve become a very important part of my everyday.” And she was. Everyday she had something to teach me, everyday she had knowledge to impart, everyday she had love to share. I would cook and write recipes, always thinking, “I wonder if Shirley will like this one.” She taught me how to make hearts on Facebook. We joked about how I was coming to Texas to move in with her and bask in her beautiful garden. In December I asked her if I could interview her for my blog and she said she would be honored but we hadn’t gotten to it yet and now it will never happen.
Shirley was such an “important part of my everyday” that I can’t imagine a day without her. It feels like there is a giant hole in the world now, a void that will never be filled. Who will be my teacher, my mentor, my “online mother,” my biggest fan?
But this all sounds selfish of me. I may have lost a friend but Shirley was also a wife, a mother, a grandmother and so many things to so many people. The loss is not just mine and mine is not the greatest loss. I cannot begin to convey my condolences to her family and her friends, to those who knew her and loved her and must now go on without her. They have my deepest sympathies. I know how much she loved her family, how in love she was with her husband, how proud she was of her children and grandchild. I’m sure they are just as proud to be able to say Shirley was, and always will be, theirs.
And the Vegan community has lost a respected leader, a role model, an inspiration to so many. Shirley’s Facebook page is overflowing with written tears and prayers. The mark she made in this world and in people’s lives is so strongly etched, it is clear that her voice will never be silenced. Her words and her passion will live on through all that she touched and the animals will benefit from this woman who devoted her life to them.
Shirley wrote, “Will we be able to bring into being the world that everyone really wants? Can we get the world to awaken to the understanding of peace, compassion and love for all? It would be such a shame if we don’t succeed.”
We will succeed, Shirley. We will because of people like you who taught us the way. One day we will have the cruelty-free world you envisioned and fought for and I know that you will be able to look down to see it and know that you helped make it happen.
I always thought that one day we would meet. I still think that one day we will, in another world, one where Shirley’s dream of peace, compassion and love for all already exists.
“Creating a compassionate vegan world is the most important social change the world has ever seen. I want to get beyond this so we can just play.”
Today is Shirley’s birthday. I hope she is playing, surrounded by love and light, and of course, animals who are free to run and play with her, especially Phoenix. Happy Birthday, my Beautiful Friend. I promise to cook something delicious in your honor. I miss you and I love you.
Note: Vegan World Radio will have a special broadcast on April 13th: Celebrating the Life and Work of a Vegan Hero: a Memorial Tribute to Shirley Wilkes-Johnson
See www.worldveganradio.org for details
Note: Photos are from Shirley’s Facebook profile.