Reflecting on a sorrowful week

This post refers to this earlier post from last week.

A little over a week ago I was sitting at my desk at home on a Monday evening checking some last e-mail before I went to bed when a message popped up from a fellow library employee, Dan Tsang — we also share KUCI in common, and while it has been some years since I did a show, I remain on the mailing list and use it to keep in touch with the station’s current doings. This message had been sent by Dan to the mailing list. What I saw made my eyes widen in shock and surprise.

For a few minutes I wondered what to do — if anything. Was it just news to digest and think about? Was it something to investigate further? Could anything more be found?

It finally occurred to me that I had posted a number of entries in the past regarding people who had passed on, cultural figures and others who had influenced my life over time — and it seemed that the least I could do was something similar for someone who, even though I had barely known him personally, deserved no less. The circumstances of his passing being so tragic, I felt it necessary to acknowledge them and link to the information that Dan had already provided via his own webpage and mail. I also knew that there would be many people on campus who would be deeply affected by the news, so I felt it would be right — right and proper, if you like — to express, however briefly and generally, my condolences.

I didn’t think it would be anything other than a brief note of sorrow that might have been found here or there as time passed, and I took care to say that spoke neither as close colleague, nor former or current student, nor personal friend — I could claim none of these things. Arguably this is what caused me the most internal turmoil over the next few days — had I in fact overstepped a boundary because I was just simply somebody who casually knew and remembered him? But that is to anticipate.

I posted said blog entry — brief, a couple of short paragraphs, linking to what pages and resources I could find, professional faculty pages, publications, as well as a final link to Dan’s page and a note of thanks to him — and went to sleep, still surprised and deeply moved by the news.

What happened the following day was a whirlwind — a secondary one, perhaps, but one nonetheless. It only took me a brief glance at the blog statistics the following morning to see that my blog entry wasn’t merely being heavily read but read by greater and greater amounts almost second by second. A quick check on Google made me realize that this was almost about the only place where there was any news at all regarding what had happened — and the word was spreading, rapidly.

It wasn’t a low-key tribute post anymore.

Two things happened that morning for which I am grateful, and which, I think, I will keep in mind for the rest of my days. The first is one blog readers that day and the following would have seen alluded to in some of the initial edits — I received a private e-mail from a friend of the professor whose name I recognized who suggested, politely but with understandable concern, it might be better to make my post ‘more of a memorial and less of a story,’ referring to the brief mentions I had made regarding what details were known of his passing, among other points. This brought me up sharp, I admit, especially since it was one of the first clear indications how widely read my blog entry already was — and I felt upon quick thought that this was a perfectly understandable request, which the friend and I discussed in a quick exchange of e-mails. At the same time, I wanted to provide information to those who wanted to know more about his passing, as the numbers clearly were growing, so I prioritized the link to Dan’s site, which provided those details, and made the first of what would become many edits to my post.

At almost the same time a member of the professor’s family posted their thanks on blog in a comment for my kind words, along with including an initial mention of memorial information. This, I think, was when things really started to sink in for me — and which gave me the first real bout of concern. I found myself in a quiet agony over whether or not I had completely arrogated his family’s role in conveying this information, and how they wanted it conveyed. The news was public, yes — and surely the family had already been informed, it wouldn’t have been made public if that wasn’t the case. I couldn’t imagine Dan would have posted the news otherwise. But what if I had made some sort of dreadful mistake?

The only thing I could do was write to said family member — his cousin, I learned — to offer my direct condolences and to ask forgiveness if I had done something untoward. She assured me I had not, which was a great relief, but I wanted to make sure I did right by the family from that point forward — not assuming any official role or anything of the sort, but wanting to convey what news I could as they had it to offer.

From that point forward, everything changed a bit, though it did not fully make itself clear to me immediately. It was with the posting of a comment from a well-known academic of an earlier generation who saw the professor as one of the leading lights of the new one that I understood in full that this truly was, as the one person who had e-mailed me had suggested, a memorial — a place for thoughts, reflections, expressions of sorrow to be gathered. I was merely a caretaker for those thoughts and words, and I began to emphasize that in later edits to the post. Meantime, I started to search for and gather links to other tributes and further news reports, adding them as seemed appropriate. Having made that initial post, I felt it was a duty to keep it updated. The creation of the Facebook group by a former student of the professor’s helped further in this, and he and I became allies in sharing news, in further coordination with the family when another cousin of the professor’s asked if she could be involved in overseeing the group, which we both immediately agreed to.

At the same time, the most shocking — and disturbing — note of the day occurred when I was approached not once but three times by three separate press outlets — a newspaper, a TV station and a radio station — asking me to contact them for comments. It was only natural, I suppose — people were looking for information, they were searching online for it, and that would include reporters, given the circumstances of the professor’s passing. But I had made clear — I’d thought — in my post that I had no connection beyond a very casual one to the professor at all.

I immediately turned down each of these requests as they landed in my inbox. Just the mere thought of agreeing to these requests outraged me. I was already deeply concerned that I’d said too much and now I was being contacted for this. My responses were polite but crisp, short and firm, and to their credit each of the reporters or researchers thanked me and did not pursue it further. I thought I was only passing on the news — I didn’t want to become the news. It was not my place to offer more than I already had, and I was already deeply concerned that maybe I had offered too much to start with.

Everything since then has been a bit of a blur — not least because there were so many other things I had to pay attention to in my own life, after all, from work to movies to get-togethers to garden moves and more. Life, after all, does continue. But there was a constant thread through it all — checking to see whenever a new comment on the blog had been posted, keeping an eye out for news from the family to pass on, trying to keep on top of things. Trying to make sure that people who wanted to know how best to honor the professor were best informed about to do so. Keeping the space open for more thoughts and reflections. Linking to other ones. Doing what I could do.

It was the least I could do.

The amount of kind words and thoughts that have been sent to me, as well as the comments on the blog I’ve seen posted thanking me, move me greatly. I do not have the words for my thanks in turn. And I don’t have the words for those times when I’ve spoken with people directly, face to face, about the professor, who knew him and loved him. What can I say, when my own sorrow is as nothing compared to theirs?

Working at the library on campus in a public role means I know many people almost by default, as they check out books, submit reserve requests, and so forth. The encounters I’ve had at the desk since then as people who, as I knew, were greatly affected by the loss have been very thoughtful and sad, and in a couple of cases almost crushing. I need not dwell on them here. There is much about this last week that should remain private, and will stay that way. But the distress you feel when you are talking to somebody who you like and admire very much who is absolutely shattered by news like this is palpable. I was almost breaking down a couple of times myself.

In private discussions with friends about this, I had a chance to talk more frankly about it all — to speak about my concerns, my feelings that I felt like a fraud, someone who shouldn’t be ‘there,’ in that space where those who were closest deserved to withdraw and connect together. I was still quite distressed and the feelings linger.

Yet at the same time many people told me that I had done something so important for them — that given the professor’s lack of a informal Internet space of his own, no blog, no Myspace page or the like, I had provided something necessary, welcomed, appreciated. In the end, I think, it was that distance I had that allowed me to be the liminal person — the caretaker, the gatekeeper — who was able to balance my feelings with a clearheaded drive to provide the information and space that people wanted. It was an accidental role, not a planned one — but having inadvertantly created it for myself, it was my duty, as long as there was a need for it, to see it through.

To do otherwise would be wrong, unworthy, irresponsible. Simple as that.

The memorial service to the professor was held last evening down at the Newport Beach peninsula, where the yacht that would convey mourners into the Pacific for the scattering of the professor’s ashes was docked. The family had passed word on that they would be greeting well-wishers before and afterwards, and some of us came down to do that, which gave me the chance to pass on a gift to the family for a mourner who could not attend, and to speak briefly to some people I had wanted to talk with for some days. Our small group of three — we were invited to join the service, but all felt it simply wasn’t our place, and expressed our best wishes and thanks — saw the yacht leave and we spent some time talking amongst ourselves, along with some later arrivals who were there to meet the mourners on the yacht when they returned from the service. It was a good chance for some introductions and reintroductions, and to move away from all the computer discussions we’d been having to something else — something present and immediate, not mediated through the screen.

We talked over many things in the shade of the evening on the dock, noting especially the beautiful quality of the light and weather. It was a spectacular day all around — warm but not punishingly hot, a soft wind at most, calm water. There were some strangely beautiful clouds in the air as well, I later noticed — shreds of lenticular clouds, almost — and the feeling was one of peace.

Our group of three left and as we drove back, there was much discussion in the car — the other two had known or worked with him more directly, as students and learners, and we went over many shared and individual feelings, of loss, of happy memories, of anger, of whether one could say that positives could come out of negatives. It reminded me of other tragedies where I had seen others close to me experience great losses, and it also reminded me of something else, which perhaps is all I can offer in terms of a way forward to others.

For many years, I have been a fan of the band Stereolab, an English-based group with a revolving membership around a solid core of performers. In recent years they have played Costa Mesa regularly; a former road manager of theirs, local legend Chris Fahy, ended up at the booking agent for the Detroit Bar, and whenever they tour America they almost always begin their tours there, a great local show that’s always a joy.

One of the key members of the band was Mary Hansen, an Australian expat who had settled in London and played with other acts before joining Stereolab near the start of the group’s existence in the early nineties. She played guitar, wrote songs, sang harmony with lead singer Laetitia Sadier and often sang lead herself — a familiar and much loved figure by the fans and of course even more so by her bandmates. It would have been hard to imagine Stereolab without her.

As this heartfelt story by Chris Fahy details, she was riding on her bicycle one day in London in 2002 when she was hit by another vehicle. She died instantly. Nobody — not her family, her friends, her compatriots in the band or many other bands besides, her fans — had the chance to say goodbye. She was there, and she was gone.

I well remember the next time Stereolab played in Costa Mesa — a good show, certainly. They have yet to do a bad one, for all the times I have seen them. But for most of us there it was the first time we had seen Stereolab without Mary, and we were all still adjusting. The band, in a way, seemed like they were as well, but I couldn’t say for sure — I think we all were. The harmonies that we always relied on live weren’t there any more, and Laetitia seemed, even on a crowded stage like the Detroit Bar can have if it’s a big group, isolated. It wasn’t wrong, but it was different somehow.

The next time they played, a couple of years later, it was definitely different. I think it was a matter of time, of course. But something else too — the band seemed more at ease all around, from Laetitia on down. And I think we all were too. It was a truly fantastic performance and everyone had a wonderful time. Though nobody said it — I think there was no need to say it — the same thought was in most of our heads, I think:

“She’s gone. We can’t turn back the clock. We’ll be thinking about it one way or another for years to come, perhaps forever. There’s a before and after and it can’t be undone. The band know this too — but they haven’t sought to replace her. They are continuing onward, doing what they have done and continuing to explore sounds and songs, being busy and looking forward — they have her in mind more than any of us will, and they will honor her by carrying her spirit forward with them, as inspiration and as reminder. And that will endure.”

As I said, this is all I can offer as a way forward to others. But I hope it is something.

The blog post that prompted all this will continue to be updated as needed. But this blog post here is done, while my reflections and thoughts will continue in their own way for a long while.

I can only conclude with something I spoke with one of the professor’s closest friends about last night briefly, how I felt terribly uncomfortable in referring to him at any point other than properly and professionally. To me I think it is signally important to always refer to a professor formally — “Prof. Smith” or whatever the last name is — as being polite, respectful and accurate. If a professor indicates otherwise to me, that a first name is more than fine, then I will do so, though I think it a bit strange still.

But the many comments, stories, posts from all who knew this professor — who used his first name freely and rightly, given their friendship and love of him and for him — make me think otherwise, just this once.

Be proud, Lindon. You touched more lives than you might have ever known. I have seen that. And if you are somewhere reading this or sensing this now, I hope you did not mind what I’ve done.

Be at peace.

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