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.)