A grad school friend died on Monday. He was 42, and the kindest and most generous person I may ever meet.
Yesterday my Facebook feed and my instant-messenger account started filling up with queries and reminiscences, and it's clear that everyone who knew Brett felt the way I did. Though he and I had remained in touch, exchanging a couple of email messages a year and grabbing a private meal whenever we wound up at the same conference, I can't claim that we were especially close; I just felt that we were, because everyone felt that way about Brett. People who hadn't seen or talked to him in a decade confessed to having spent yesterday afternoon hiding in their campus offices and crying.
Those of us who knew him have been trading a lot of stories, and the ones I've heard have made me laugh and briefly recaptured his presence. I don't think they'd do much to conjure it up for anyone else, though, and that's because presence was precisely Brett's genius, his charism: he was there, fully there, with everyone, whether it was a student, an old friend, or someone he had just met over a conference cheese plate.
This was an extraordinary thing to experience even at this age, but it was almost unfathomable when we were students. It meant that Brett stood outside the ordinary economy of grad school, with its competitions and anxieties and constant sizings-up, so grounded and comfortable in himself that he was endlessly open, endlessly welcoming. As one friend wrote about that period, Brett "was open and kind well before he had the professional standing that makes being like that easy." He knew everyone and he made everyone feel known.
And there's no substitute for, no way to hold onto that gift once it's gone. Brett would have been an active and devoted teacher into his eighties, and the kind of person who still produced a little thrill in each new student, scholar, or poet when he took an interest in them. (And he would have, all of them.)
I'd known that Brett had been diagnosed with cancer, but the last time we'd exchanged messages, in April, he seemed to have turned a corner. A couple of months ago, though, I started to hear rumors that things were not going well--and, without inquiring, I sent him a chatty catch-up message that also managed to say a version of the things I've said here.
I didn't hear back, and there's no reason I should have. I wasn't a close friend, and we never responded that quickly to each other's messages anyway. But I'm glad I sent it, and I hope he received it--or that, at any rate, he knew how thoroughly and completely he was beloved.
And if I don't have the talent or the temperament to be a Brett in other people's lives, at least I hope to do that: to show those I care about that I do, every day that I can.
*Title after Isaiah and this extraordinary poem.