Missing a friend, and learning from his example

05/29/2010 02:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Harold Pollack Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago

Given my profession and some unlucky life turns, I've had more occasion than my typical reader to mourn beautiful people close to me, or--more often--to mourn beautiful people one or two steps more distant. Aside from the routine roster of elderly relatives who died at the natural sunset of human life, I've known people who overdosed on drugs, died of AIDS, were victimized by violence or depression, lost an infant to SIDS.

I don't want to overstate things. Death hasn't touched me with the frequency it touches friends and colleagues who are street outreach workers, police officers, health care providers, or who are simply gay men of a certain generation who came of age before HAART medication. Death has touched me quite enough. When it has, I've often been surprised by deeply and in what ways I mourn the people I miss.

Some weeks ago, I went to dinner with my old college friend, David Kramer and a young journalist friend. After dropping her off, David and I had a serious conversation about my work, in particular two Chicago youth who had been shot. I knew of both through a violence prevention intervention I help to research. One was left paralyzed after being shot in the face by another 15-year-old in a particularly stupid crime. The other was killed accidentally by another teen in an equally stupid handgun accident.

It was not our first conversation about mortality or other serious themes. I sometimes called David to decompress as I dealt with some difficult family challenges. We would talk about some of the daily frustrations, joys, and comedy of caring for my intellectually disabled brother-in-law Vincent. I noted how shattering it was to see Vincent' simple desire to be a man--to have a girlfriend and his own apartment, to play football, to have a cellphone--go mostly unfulfilled, David would listen to these stories and find grounds for hope and optimism, adding: "I struggle with the existential questions. Why shouldn't he?"

David wrestled more deeply with such questions than most people. A literary scholar who raced through Princeton in three years, David headed off to Yale to study English. Yet the life of academic literary criticism was too sedate. He moved to Washington, DC, became a junior high school and community college teacher.

He was an inveterate jokester and prankster. One night during my senior year, my roommate answered the buzzer at midnight, only to see the partially-obscured figure of a Burger King delivery man with bundles in a fully-authentic uniform noting: "I've got an order for four whoppers, a chicken sandwich and three fries." My roommate responded "It's Kramer." David asked "How could you tell it was me?" He was irate at the obvious answer: "David, anything that weird is definitely you."

He brought that same sensibility to the 8th grade classroom. He once arrived at school one Halloween dressed from head to foot in a white rabbit costume, walking from the Metro trailed by a growing entourage of captivated students.

His attitude as a teacher was "By any means necessary," as he conveyed his love of serious literature to DC kids. Few teachers do the same. I have before me my own daughter's 10th-grade term paper assignment: "The rhetoric of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar." The assignment begins: "The rise of rhetoric in Ancient Greece was of particular concern to philosophers like Plato and Aristotle...." It gets more narcoleptic from there. Over the weeks, they have systematically beat any possible life or human interest out of this wonderful play

David would have considered that malpractice. If you were a friend who wanted to talk about Christian iconography in Moby Dick, the Death of Ivan Illich, or the linguistic vitality and drawbacks of Ebonics, he'd keep you for hours. If you were an easily bored 8th grader who had never read Shakespeare, he was equally happy to jump on his desk with a plastic sword and relate this account of love, treason, and betrayal to kids' daily lives. Talking to David, you never forgot that literature is about living and breathing human beings.

He met and married a beautiful Caribbean woman with whom he had a daughter, Veronica, now eight years old. He pursued wacky investment strategies that appalled me, but that somehow made a ton of money. He became a semi-retired investor, giving away much of his money to Doctors without Borders and other good causes. He had recently purchased a new house so he could spend time with his daughter.

Within a week of that last dinner, David was dead. His car was struck from behind under circumstances that are still being investigated. Veronica was remarkably poised and composed at his memorial. In the simple and direct way that children bring grace to a tragic occasion, she read a poem thanking him for countless tennis matches and Monopoly games, the surprising number of times he had taken her to street festivals and (she might have added) Tibetan human rights demonstrations.

David poured so much of his unconventional, well-lived life into the life of that little girl. My own life has been a bit different, more conventional, more driven and distracted. More time with my kids has been hindered by emails marked "urgent" pinging the Blackberry. I can't help noticing that her list of thank-you's was longer and more specific than my own daughters could likely provide. When I'm tempted to mail it in and present the same old Powerpoint lecture slides to my students, I'll think of David, too.

When a friend dies, one small consolation is the opportunity to celebrate what made him special to us. We try, in our own halting ways, to make some of the best of him live on through us. That's the best way to honor a friend, to be enriched by his life's good example.