Black friday

(Author’s note: This is a short addendum to my November 27th post.)

We got the call Friday afternoon, the day after Thanksgiving, from our neighbor across the street.

Earlier that morning a hiker had passed through the park, saw Mike’s tent and hailed him. There was no answer.

Our neighbor had taken his dog to the park that afternoon for a run. By then the entrance was littered with emergency vehicles parked in the frozen snow. When he saw the police cars our neighbor told the men that he knew Mike. “Maybe I can convince him to come out,” he said. “He might talk to me.”

The policemen shook their heads. “Mike’s not talking to anyone now,” one said.

The cause of death was uncertain. Evidently, Mike was diabetic. Obviously, he drank. Temperatures had plummeted to well below freezing the night before.

Anyway you look at it, it was a tough way to go out.

When we know

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.

Goodbye, Sadie Hawkins

It was the week before the junior high Sadie Hawkins dance, when the traditional shoe fell on the other foot. Back then it was the boys who asked the girls out on dates; nearly every boy asked a girl to senior prom. But on Sadie Hawkins Day things got switched up; on Sadie Hawkins Day the girls asked the boys out to the dance.

This was particularly problematic for a shy boy like me. I made it a point to keep an extra low profile in the weeks leading up to the dance.

We were sitting in the back of an empty classroom one autumn afternoon, chatting among ourselves after an extracurricular club meeting. I don’t recall which one it was, only that we were there lounging at the desks, making small talk; when suddenly there she was, straight shoulder-length brown hair framing a face accented by heavy dark-rimmed eyeglasses, staring at me.

Uncomfortable, I reached for an imagined yellow pencil behind my ear and slid forward in my seat, as if I could dematerialize in the process; but she stood her ground. I knew it was coming, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

“Would you go to the Sadie Hawkins Day dance with me?” she asked in one continual uninterrupted breath.

“Who, me?” I hemmed and hawed, pushing myself up into the seat, only to slide back down again.

“Of course, you,” she said, and waited expectantly for an answer.

“I, well I—” I gulped some air, cleared my throat and offered some lame excuse as to why I couldn’t make it that particular night.

“Is it because you’re hoping someone else will ask you?” she asked, undeterred.

“No, no that’s not it at all. It’s just that I, well I…” The words trailed off like the hollow notes of a loon over a lake.

“What then, is it because I’m not pretty enough?”

“No, it’s not that at all. It’s just that I, I don’t dance—I don’t know how to dance.”

Somehow this explanation seemed to placate her. “Well, maybe you ought to learn to some day,” she said, and walked away.

Five years later I attended my senior prom—alone. I took my 35-mm camera mounted on a tripod and took photographs of couples for free. I don’t recall if she was there that night or not. I was only thankful that the camera had saved me from having to ask a girl out for the evening, even if I had to pay for the white-coat formal wear myself.

Years later our paths crossed at a Thomas Howard lecture in Lancaster.  She was doing graduate work in Vancouver; I was just finishing up my undergraduate degree.

I never saw her after that until our 35th high school class reunion. Suddenly there she was with her husband of two years; she had fallen in love and married late in life, too late to start a family. She still had her dad; her mother passed away when we were in high school.

That evening she was exuberant. She told me about her translation work; I told her about my book. She wanted to know where she could get a copy; I told her she could find it online. Eventually, the conversation died down. She and her husband seemed so much in love.

Today I learned of her recent death from liver cancer. She would have turned sixty this September.

Try as you might, you can’t pack nearly sixty years of life into a few paragraphs of newsprint—it just doesn’t seem to do the person justice. But then, in the end justice isn’t what it’s all about.

In the end what it’s all about is mercy and grace.