Nothing jolts the mind more deeply than glimpsing the subject line of an unexpected e-mail as you simultaneously come to the sudden realization that someone you had at one time known and respected is now no longer counted among the living.
There are those who mentored us in our youth, perhaps a handful of special individuals — special for their presence, their wit, their innate intelligence and their caring — those who we envision visiting again to let them know how appreciative we are of the interest they took in us as students; to reminisce about former times and to discuss the current state of the world. We jot their names on a mental list, and tell ourselves that one day, one day soon, when we can tear ourselves away for a couple of days from the rat race that has become our life, we will look them up and pay our respects. And then the obituary notice arrives and suddenly we realize that the opportunity has passed and will not rap on our door again.
In addition to providing me with a solid grounding in chemistry, this particular mentor taught me a way of looking at the world. In numerous discussions after school he gave me informal lessons on various ways through which we come to understand things in life — in short, how we know what we know. The technical term is epistemology. I recall being so taken with this concept that as editor of our high school newspaper, I devoted a large part of an interview with this teacher to that very subject. Much later in life those same seeds appeared in an essay I authored to launch an open access online journal for humane medicine and the medical humanities, Cell2Soul.
In addition to his scientific and philosophical bent, this teacher also shared a secret desire: he wanted to become a writer of stories, in particular science fiction. He outlined his idea for a novel during one of our chats, a novel he was in the midst of writing at the time. Whether it was ever published or subsequently abandoned, I don’t know.
Ironically, although I posted a piece about him on this blog sometime ago, I doubt that he ever saw it.
The best I can offer is an observation that that knowledge which is imparted to us by our mentors provides a way for us to carry them forward after they are gone. If we are diligent mentors ourselves, perhaps one day these torches will also be carried and in time passed along by those we have taken the time to instruct.