“Get That Man A Chair!” by Michael Varga (Chad)

By Michael Varga (Chad 1977-79)

Michael Varga (far right) escorts the Lebanese delegation into the State Department for peace talks with Israel, 1992. Courtesy of Michael Varga


In 1995 at the G-7 Summit in Halifax (Canada), Secretary of State Warren Christopher was meeting with the Japanese finance minister. Somehow the official notetaker did not show up, and I, lingering at the site as the control officer for U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, got pulled into the meeting to take notes.

When I entered, the two delegations were already seated. I saw no vacant chairs, so I crouched down in a corner and opened my notebook. Secretary Christopher started to welcome the Japanese delegation, then stopped midsentence, and said in a loud voice, “Get that man a chair!”

After the meeting ended, the two delegations marched off to their limousines, and I stood on the curb. I was unsure about my next step. I was serving as the economic officer at U.S. Consulate General/Toronto, and had been sent on temporary duty to help the team at the summit. I knew I had to write up the meeting immediately and send a cable back to Washington, but the how and where of that was not obvious. Then, a car window rolled down and Secretary Christopher said to me, “Michael, get in the car.”

I wrote up the report and felt like I was at a high point in my Foreign Service career. Earlier in the month, a short story I’d written had won first prize in a competition sponsored by The Toronto Star. On June 4, Canadians woke up to my face on the front page of the newspaper. It was a heady time. But I also knew that things were likely to take a turn very soon.

Michael Varga (left) attends an end of Dubai tour send-off with Consul General David Litt, 1987. Courtesy of Michael Varga


I had tested HIV-positive in the 1980s, and my doctors had already warned me that my life expectancy at that point was a mere 18 months. There was no effective treatment for AIDS or HIV. It was a grim time, and I had no reason to think I would be any different than the hordes of patients who had already succumbed, who were deprived of a normal life span and the opportunity to grow old.

I had applied for a disability retirement but knew it was going to take months for the State Department to approve it. When the approval came through, I moved to Cape May, New Jersey, to write my Peace Corps novel. I knew I had a limited window to get the novel written before I became too gravely ill to care about it.


Then the miraculous happened. New drugs became available. Suddenly I could imagine living beyond 1997. Maybe even make it to 2000. Ah, to dream of a few more years.

I looked into returning to the Foreign Service, although I suspected the State Department would balk. Diplomats must be available worldwide, and with my compromised immune system and the substandard health care in many nations, the bureaucracy was not likely to want to post me overseas.

When it became obvious that there were too many bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, I knew my Foreign Service chapter was over.


I was a then a Florida resident when one morning in 2020, I woke up and could not swallow. A biopsy confirmed that I had stage 3 cancer of the tongue and lymph nodes. I endured a brutal surgery that removed more than half of my tongue along with 31 lymph nodes. Nerves from my arm were sewn together to reconstruct a new tongue, and COVID-19 restrictions barred visitors from the hospital.

Subsequently, I underwent 33 targeted radiation treatments, which left me with impaired speech and sense of taste. I had  burning sores in my mouth, and the inability to swallow any food that required chewing.

It was a hard time, and I begged my friends to visit. Not so much as a death-watch, but for support. I needed help getting nutrition into the feeding tube. My weight had gone from a plump 204 pounds to a skeletal 135.


I never expected to still be around to appreciate nature in 2024.

What my friends did next still astonishes me. They organized a schedule of caregiving that included people I love from almost every chapter of my life—high school, college, the Peace Corps, graduate school at Notre Dame, and the Foreign Service.

Many of them didn’t know each other, but that didn’t stop them from creating a text group that could plan a blanketing schedule. One friend even built a device so nutrition could be more easily delivered to my feeding tube. These friends are the reason I made it through radiation and am recovering.

The hardest part now may be my relationship to nutrition. Eating is such a big part of our culture. Not being able to swallow food or taste anything is a major drawback.

To keep socially involved, I signed up with a nonprofit agency to teach an English conversation class for refugees over Zoom. Most of my students are women from Syria and Afghanistan. Many are nursing newborns and do not turn on their cameras, which makes understanding their speech a challenge. My speech is slow and slurred, a lingering effect of the reconstruction of my tongue.

Despite the challenges, I feel blessed just to wake up and walk around my neighborhood, to marvel at a family of brown ducks traversing my street or the noisy, green parrots squawking above me in the trees. A butterfly floats among the pink impatiens on my patio. Yes, I’m on a hard road. But I never expected to still be around to appreciate nature in 2024.

There’s no telling how or when my story will end. AIDS could have killed me but hasn’t so far—although, since the radiation treatments decimated my T-cells, I am technically an AIDS patient once more. Cancer, too, may kill me yet. It’s an open question.

But when I’m feeling low, I close my eyes and see that FSO Michael crouching in the corner of the conference room in Halifax, and I hear Secretary Christopher’s voice again, “Get that man a chair.” I ease back and know that I can doze in peace.


After a stint — 1977-79 — in the Peace Corps in Chad, Michael Varga became a Foreign Service officer, serving in Dubai, Damascus, Casablanca, and Toronto. He served as the desk officer for Lebanon and was a Pearson Fellow at the World Trade Center in Miami. He is a playwright, actor, and writer of fiction whose columns have appeared in many newspapers and journals. To read more of his work, visit www.michaelvarga.com.

“Get That Man a Chair” by Michael Varga, originally published in The Foreign Service Journal, April 2024, https://afsa.org/get-man-chair. Republished with permission from the FSJ.


Leave a comment
  • Your piece is a great reminder of how all of our lives are like wisps of rising, swirling smoke: they’re there and gone. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you, Lawrence. Yes, a reminder that none of us is more than a temporary visitor here. My health challenges helped prepare me to live in the NOW and not dwell too much on past hurts or glories or future hopes and dreams. But as returned Peace Corps volunteers we can all savor those unique moments when we felt fully alive in our service. All the best.

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