Death of a Writing Teacher

His name was Tony, and he had been a mentor of mine since I had joined the Writing Program as a full-time faculty member. My promotion packets, both times I applied for promotion, were based on his, and both times they succeeded. He had written me gracious letters of recommendation. He was unfailingly courteous and kind, supportive, a model teacher. He was also a writer, and had written an award-winning collection of short stories.

Shortly before he died, about a year ago, he sent me an email about some departmental business, adding at the end a personal note about the novel he intended to write. That summer, he said, he would finally have time to start it, to really work on it intensively. That summer, he would get to the project he had wanted to work on for so long time. A few weeks later he was dead.

I still have the email, somewhere in my email queue. I’m sure that someday, the university’s email program will delete it automatically. I don’t want to delete it or look at it; it’s like a ghost, haunting my emails. If I delete it, I will erase a memory of the man. If I look at it, I will be reminded of how easily any of us can be here and then gone. It has become a memento mori. It’s enough for me to remember that it’s there, one of the final things he wrote.

I went to his funeral and then the memorial service afterward. It had been sudden, a heart attack — once he entered the hospital, he did not come out. Everyone was feeling both grief and shock. Someone, another faculty member, mentioned to me that he had been talking about his novel, of the things he was going to do that summer. He was at least a decade older than me, but not old in any sense. He had a beautiful wife. I remember her standing in front of the church, incredulous and devastated.

What hit me so hard, then — so hard that I’ve been meaning to write something like this for the past year, and have not been able to — was the unfinished work he intended to do, all his hopes for the future. I thought, suddenly, of all the books I want to write, all the things I plan to create. And I thought, then — I’d better get on it. There is no time, there is no time. There’s never enough time. We always die with our work unfinished.

We have a little while here, so little, less than a tortoise or elephant. And in that time, we can create things that are hopefully worthwhile. So ever since, I’ve been pushing myself, sometimes probably too hard. And sometimes I’ve been tired and sad, because all the things I want to do will never get done, and there are so many other obligations — like, you know, the work that pays my rent.

But it seems to me that there are only two truly important things to do in this world: love the people around you, and create your art. Now, with wildfires raging and seas rising, I would add: try to save the world just a little bit, if you can.

I’m haunted by the memory of a friend and mentor, by an email I don’t have the courage to look at again. And I’m trying to do the work that I feel was given to me, while there’s still time.

(The image is Poppies and Italian Mignonette by Thomas Wilmer Dewing.)

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15 Responses to Death of a Writing Teacher

  1. cathypearl says:

    Theodora,

    Thank you for this!

    With Appreciation,
    Cathy

  2. I really needed to read this tonight, Theodora. Thank you.

    —Mary

  3. Well said, but sad that it needed to be said.

  4. Judith Nelson says:

    Theodora,
    Thanks for this reminder to treasure our time and each other. Most of my life I worked, and now volunteer, in hospitals. I see death so often, but I have never become immune to feelings of sadness and loss, both in myself and others.
    Thanks for so eloquently putting those feels into words.
    Judy Nelson

  5. This was so what I needed to read first thing this morning. The things I want to write have been receding into the foggy distance of “dream on, you’ll never do it, you are no longer capable of doing it, you should have done it 10 years ago.” As a freelance editor I’ve been able to work in regular writing time, but for the last almost three years (has it been that long?) I’ve also been doing my bit to save the country and maybe the planet, and those obligations strike at any time: write a press release, attend a meeting, help organize a meeting, call or text voters, attend an online training . . . On one hand, these things seem far more urgent than my writing; on the other, part of me is relieved to be let off the hook. Trouble is, if I’m not writing, I feel like I’m only taking up space on the planet, and are the planet and the country really worth saving? Time to rearrange the workload to put writing back in the foreground. Thank you for this.

  6. Nancy says:

    Theodora,
    Life has a way of waking us up when we’ve been walking in our sleep. For three weeks now, I have not touched the book I’ve been writing. Although it’s 49,000 words in…and I’ve outlined the next chapter…I have not put my fingertips to the keyboard, simply out of fear. I believe in signs…and that beautiful painting of poppies is yet another…

    Thank you!
    Nancy

  7. Nancy says:

    P.S. And you know something else? Just yesterday I was wondering where you were…

  8. Nancy says:

    P.S. And you know what? Just yesterday I was wondering where you were…

  9. William Sherman says:

    Beautiful post, doctor. Thank you.

  10. Martin says:

    I’ll be celebrating my 83rd cycle ’round the sun next month and I still have a ‘list’, though I don’t think about it much anymore. Perhaps I should get on it….

  11. Amy Makechnie says:

    Oh, wow. Incredibly written. Thank you 🙏

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  12. Danny Adams says:

    I don’t know how your school operates, but it may be that his email will last much longer than it might immediately seem. As I recently rediscovered when I went to speak about her for a class at the college where I work, I still have campus emails from a friend who was killed at the age of 23 in an accident ten years ago this month. So I hope that if the time comes when you do want to look at the message again, regardless of when it is, it will still be there waiting for you.

  13. Thank you for this eloquent reminder that my time on this beautiful blue ball is finite so I should attend to the important things, love, art and nature.
    Namaste
    Cherri

  14. Ruth Gould says:

    Your wisest line here is “We always die with our work unfinished.”

    Indeed! And there is no “finished”, only the process. If we can only take that truly to heart, we can stop beating ourselves up so much.

  15. Barbara Meza says:

    Theodora,

    I am so sorry for the loss of your friend and mentor.

    Your message brought me to tears… I have been pondering mortality. Something I feel viscerally during the late autumn into winter… the death and darkness, the void where life begins.

    Your message reminds me, as my recent thoughts have been contemplating, of the gift- of this one brief flash- we call life.

    As always, I am glad you are here.

    Peace, Barbara Meza (201) 978-7335

    be present in your life http://consciusvita.com

    ________________________________

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