Mei Ray Woon was born on June 28, 1942 in Seremban, Malaysia at the height of World War II and the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia. She and her three siblings had a colorful but strict Chinese upbringing filled with memories of Japanese soldiers entering the family home, difficult chores, draconian family discipline, raising ill-fated pet chickens and having to hop out and push the old family car up hills in order to quickly jump in and race back down them.
At the age of 17, with a strong desire to leave the country, Mei Ray and her sister emigrated to Australia to become nurses – at that time the most expedient way to gain personal independence. After a spell in Tasmania and Melbourne, she traveled via boat (by way of the Suez Canal and a memorable stopover in Egypt) to England where she practiced all varieties of nursing and midwifery in London.
In 1967, while at a London train station, she noticed a young Oxford student, Stéphane Kachama-Nkoy, as he dropped his schoolbooks, scattering them across the platform. She stopped to help him pick up his belongings and soon after, they were married.
That same year, Stéphane was called upon to serve as a speechwriter and Chief Minister of Cultural Affairs to President Mobuto Sese Seko in the newly formed government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (later renamed Zaire). Pregnant with her first child, Mei Ray soon joined Stéphane in Kinshasa, where she found herself a politician’s wife in a young nation still in the throes of post-colonial and revolutionary turbulence. She had very little time to adjust to everyday life in Africa before her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Three months after the birth of their daughter, Erika, Stéphane died.
Mei Ray spent a further four years in Zaire, practicing nursing as a means by which to support her family. She would commute daily to work in any number of small compact cars, all of which were accident-prone. Once, she managed to crash her little Fiat off the side of a road outside town. Her car was quickly encircled by an ominous group of local shepherds pensively wielding their crooks. When she crawled out and joined them to survey the wreck, one of the shepherds turned to her and announced, “Madame, it’s pretty bad, but we don’t think you’ll get the full insurance. Let’s bang it up so you get everything!” The locals then proceeded to assault the little car with their staffs, to her everlasting bemusement. In the end, she was reimbursed for the full insurance.
Though she had the support of a few trusted friends, Mei Ray felt alone and unhappy in Africa. Her struggle was compounded when some members of Stéphane’s family attempted to seize control of her daughter and the estate, leading her to personally entreaty President Mobuto for his assistance. He forbade the family from interfering in her affairs and also helped ensure she was able to leave the country safely. For all his sins as a dictator, she was always grateful for his kindness to her.
Cut off from their immediate family ties, Mei Ray and Erika next moved to Frankfurt where she rekindled a friendship with Dale Fardelmann, an American doctor. They eventually married and relocated to the United States. Not willing to endure an increasingly unhappy union, she ended the marriage quickly and courageously (keeping her married name simply because changing it was just too much of a hassle). After a brief spell in Vancouver, she and Erika moved to Bangor at the end of the 1970s, where she accepted an offer of employment from Eastern Maine Medical Center. Here she would remain settled for the rest of her life, at last providing Erika with a stable home in which to grow up. During this time, Mei Ray met Sheridan Smith, a local general contractor, with whom she had a son, Ian.
In her 50 years as a nurse (over 30 of them at EMMC), Mei Ray was universally respected and admired by her colleagues and patients. Her style of care was efficient, old school and no-nonsense, but utterly compassionate. Hers was a formidable presence in the workplace where she refused to tolerate sloth, disrespect or inefficiency. As always, she was incredibly independent and could be intimidating, but she always allowed her wry, playful sense of humor to peek through to the surface. She took impeccable care of her patients, never failing to provide the attention they required (whether they liked it or not), and their recoveries were all the better for it. She had a special place in her heart for elderly and cancer patients, but countless people formerly under her charge would send her letters in appreciation of her exquisite attention, advice and care. She held on to every letter. Her impact on the lives of those she cared for as patients, friends, colleagues or mentees is beyond measure.
Mei Ray settled into a pleasant routine in Bangor, largely keeping to herself, though she could sometimes be seen zipping about town in her little red Miata, (on which, in 18 years, she had proudly only put 19,000 miles). An immaculate dresser with an exotic beauty and smooth, youthful skin, she was both highly cultured and effortlessly elegant. She engrossed her time with a massive library of beautiful books and a luscious flower garden she was nevertheless always decrying as “worse than the year before’s!” She adored action and Kung Fu movies, opera, musicals, animation, Styx, lush period romances, Hugh Jackman, science fiction, and British television dramas, comedies and mysteries. She disliked heights, dentists and the overexposure of Meryl Streep. She dabbled in watercolors, writing (in exquisite calligraphy) and foreign language studies (she was fluent in English, Cantonese, French and German) and was a fiercely talented cook. In her lifetime, she accidentally burned at least five very loud whistling teakettles and summarily destroyed four vacuum cleaners in fits of frustration.
She had a great love of nature and wildlife, donating frequently to a variety of nature conservation charities and never met a little pig, frog or meerkat figurine she didn’t at least give careful consideration to purchasing. She owned seven dogs and six cats in her lifetime and enjoyed affectionately making fun of her last dog’s nasty habits, odd proportions and ridiculous mane of fur. At home, she took great pleasure in feeding wild birds in her little backyard, though she considered any animal that could sit in its own food and engorge itself to be both lazy and disreputable.
Though she had already seen so much of the world, Mei Ray never stopped travelling. In the last 35 years of her life she visited Switzerland, France, the Caribbean, Iceland, Mexico, Portugal, Italy, Spain, China and Ecuador. In 2010 she and her son returned to Malaysia. There, she happily reconnected with her brothers and many childhood memories. She had plans to visit several more countries and was especially looking forward to a luxurious journey on the Orient Express. She took trips to visit her children in New York and Wisconsin and formed an endearing bond with her grandson, Simon, with whom she would theatrically narrate bedtime stories, play Plants vs. Zombies and capture snail interlopers threatening her beloved garden. When asked why she wasn’t looking to spend her post-retirement winters somewhere other than Maine, she replied, “I already get three months of summer as it is. Why the hell would I want more than that?”
Mei Ray Fardelmann died unexpectedly on April 6th, 2014 at home in Bangor, her fat and silly dog by her side. She was 71. She is survived by her siblings, son, daughter and grandson, all of whom will miss her terribly; she could always make them laugh.
In accordance with her wishes, no services will be held. Condolences may be sent to Erika Kachama-Nkoy at 3137 Lindbergh St, Madison, WI 53704 and Ian Smith at 188 President St Apt 4, Brooklyn NY 11231. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the World Wildlife Fund (www.worldwildlife.org) in her honor.