Two Years of Learning and Loss

This piece is about a remarkable friend and teacher that I knew for one wonderful year from 2015 to 2016. It’s still hard for me to re-read these words, which were written in the immediate grief of his passing. It is published with permission from his wife, who is a wonderful woman and loved him very much. 

Ira first spoke to me while waiting in line at a coffee shop. Looking back, it reminds me of a scene from daytime television. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man, whose warm presence was underlined by quiet wit. I liked him immediately, but had no reason to think of him as anything else than a stranger in line.

Pointless small talk came first. We talked about the weather and my parents’ restaurant next door. I mentioned that I’d just finished graduate school.

What for, he asked.

History, I said.

The cashier said something about history students reading a lot. Reading and writing, I said. When Ira tapped my shoulder and asked if I was trained in academic writing, I let slip one of my more modest secrets: “Academic for school,” I said, “But I prefer fiction.”

It was true, but I didn’t understand why I said it. Writing was a largely forgotten hobby. I wrote short stories as a teenager, and I drafted a terrible novel in college. I gave up fiction writing to pursue my degree. My beloved hobby became lost in the whirlwind of my post-graduate life.

Ira smiled at me, and he asked if I was actively working on anything. There was something sincere and mirthful about him. This wasn’t well-meaning small talk, but a pointed question, and I think my soul knew the difference.

That afternoon, Ira and I had coffee and talked about writing. I mostly listened to him at first, but he was more interested in hearing about me. He’d been published, but he considered himself a teacher more than an author. He’d been a writing teacher in the past, but had stopped his work for personal reasons. A few coffee meetings later, and he told me that he wanted to teach again.

Within a month, I was invited to Ira’s new writing group. I was the youngest, but each and every hand-picked member had the same playfulness and spirit that Ira cherished. They were good people, but not the sort of people I would have met on my own. They were stately older women with rich personalities, who’d lived entirely different lives from anything I’d known – and I was just as alien to them. I had little in common with them other than a desire to write, but we soon became friends.

The meetings consisted of writing exercises, but not so hollow as the prompts I’d received in college. Ira liked to challenge us, but he also liked to feel out our passions and encourage vibrant thought.

He asked us questions that we didn’t know how to answer, and surely enough, each reply was different. He asked us to write about life experiences that varied heavily among us, so that even a mundane question would produce a rainbow of differing anecdotes.

He encouraged us to learn together, from each other and from ourselves as much as from him. When praised for the artful way he tied each prompt into a lesson topic, he would only smile and say that we were all the teachers, he was only the organizer.

I loved the meetings, but I continued to meet with Ira for our coffee sessions as well. Early on, he made two things clear: one was that while he was willing to be my teacher, he wanted to be my friend first. He didn’t see himself as my superior, just as a man with more years of experience.

The second thing he made clear was less obvious, and more horrible: he was terminally ill. I knew about his cancer from the earliest stage of our friendship. At the time, it didn’t feel particularly real, but as the months wore on, it occupied a larger and more uncomfortable spot in my subconscious.

He didn’t show signs of his illness. He went to the gym. He attended my wedding reception. He asked about my mother when she suffered a heart attack. He posted sarcastic social media posts and sent the entire group friendly e-mails. He only rarely spoke of the disease, and when he did, it seemed so fleeting and cavalier that it reassured me. It reassured all of us.

From the very start, I knew I wouldn’t have him for long. In early June the following year, Ira canceled one of our writing classes. We heard he’d fallen down while out walking. The following week, it was canceled again, with the hope that we could resume next time.

The next week, he was gone.

I recall sitting up late the night before, writing a heartfelt e-mail to his wife. I attached the rough draft of a short story, not because I expected him to read it in his condition, but because I’d promised to send it when it was done. I’d finally finished something, and he wanted to see it. I had to keep my promise.

The following day, I planned to call and ask his wife if I could visit. Instead, I woke to an e-mail from her.

He’d passed.

She told me about how he’d adored me. The part of the message which stood out the most was this: “Please know how much he enjoyed working with you. At one point, he said that he sometimes felt his “purpose” for staying around was to help nurture your talent — which he believes is immense”.

That message is forever entombed in my mind. I’m not concerned with praise, but with the notion that this remarkable man could care so deeply for someone who’d touched only the end of his life.

I only knew him briefly, but the year I spent with him will never leave me. It began with one simple, curious question in line at a coffee shop. Those few seconds gave me so much – confidence, friendship, and the rekindling of a lost passion.

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