Twenty years ago, I managed to convince a woman who probably had better things to do at the time, that the two of us had enough mutual interests and interpersonal connection to at least consider spending significant time and energy building upon those things, discussing them, making the links that would one day lead to the beginning of a life spent together, and with that life the benefits and responsibilities that accompanied it—among them a son and a home.
My connection to her also gave me entree into a circle of people who might have otherwise been inaccessible to me. They were academics, all devoted to the local private college at which they (including my philosophy professor father-in-law) had spent decades honing their craft and disseminating knowledge to others. I admired those people, secretly wanted to be like several of them.
Among those was B., a mathematician with the driest of wits and a knack for cracking up even the most ill-humored (and soberest) among us. Many was the time that what little academic decorum we all observed was tossed out the window, in favor of loud storytelling and the occasional feats of skill, usually involving throwing and catching food, or shooting a grape out of one’s nostril, after one had had one or two or four too many cocktails.
This man meant a great deal to me, and to my wife and in-laws, who knew him considerably longer than I. To me, he was a paragon of great humor, a guy with a big heart, and a host with the most, quick with the offer of a refill (usually a nod in the direction of the gin bottle), quicker still with a story about my wife and/or in-laws I’d never before heard, one that would crack me up and leave him with great satisfaction in having been the one to tell me the story.
Nearly four years ago, B. was diagnosed with cancer. He managed to maintain his sense of humor and work schedule through most of his ordeal, but this past March, his doctors determined their treatments had proven ineffective, and B. agreed to discontinue them. He was given a matter of weeks to live.
That he lived seven months after being handed that news was a testament to his will, his strength, and his stubbornness. He focused on the important stuff, retiring from teaching and spending as much time as he could with his wife, children, and grandkids—soccer and baseball games, trips down south and out west, quiet times at home. He received accolades from his peers and students. He was the person of honor at one last, kick-ass party over Memorial Day weekend, where we all ate and drank and, after the food, told great stories about B. right there in front of him, our laughter echoing out into the warm evening.
The afternoon before the Memorial Day shindig, as I was in the kitchen preparing my contribution to the evening’s appetizers, I had Dream Theater’s Score DVD playing in the living room. It’s a great prog concert document, beautifully shot with excellent sound. I stopped cooking when the band started up “I Walk Beside You” early in the film. I’ve loved the song from the first time I heard it, on the Octavarium album, in 2005—it sounds so different from so much of Dream Theater’s typically thorny material, yet it is undeniably them, and undeniably cool.
The jury’s out on what exactly the song is about—is it a lover talking to his beloved, or Christ talking to a believer, or a departed soul, comforting one he left behind? That latter interpretation resonated with me that day, as it does now. The imagery in the second verse is a thing of beauty:
Summon up your ghost from me
Rest your tired thoughts upon my hands
Step inside this sacred place
When all your dreams seem broken
Resonate inside this temple
Let me be the one who understands
Be the one to carry you
When you can walk no further
There’s also that amazing chorus, which lifts its rather pedestrian lyric up to the heavens, through the sheer force of its melody and singer/Fabio lookalike James LaBrie’s voice. It’s one of those progressions that gives you goose bumps, if you’re open and in the right frame of mind for such things. I was then, and am now.
I wish B. had not died. There is a lot I would have given to see him well again. He approached his mortality with a dignity not often afforded those stricken with cancer, fought the disease with gusto, and left this world having made a difference in many lives. Ultimately, that’s the measure of the mark we leave behind, isn’t it? The people we touch, the ones who will remember us fondly, who love us, who we support and walk beside for as long as we’re able—those are the factors that mean the most. We who knew and loved and now miss B. know this all too well.