On Wednesday, I learned of the death of a dear friend from college. I hadn’t been in touch with him for many years but hearing about his passing has left me absolutely devastated. He was the type of person who exuded an aura of thoughtfulness, strength, and intelligence and made the world a better place just by being in it.
I met him when I was a baby college freshman at the University of Michigan. I came from a small, conservative, primarily white town, and had lived, by all accounts, a very sheltered life. Coming to Ann Arbor, living in East Quad, which was without doubt the most liberal, flamboyant, artistic place on campus, was absolutely mind-blowing and numbing. I went to college thinking that it would be crewneck sweaters, football games, beer drinking, frat parties, and late-night study sessions in cute pajamas with my hair in curlers. It instead turned out to be complete chaos, depression, and confusion, struggling to make friends with people of all ethnicities and social backgrounds, people who were frank about their sexuality and gender-bending and didn’t view it to be a shameful secret; people who didn’t think jokes about minorities or gays were funny (not that I did, either; I’d just come from a place in which they were part of the social language). The highly liberal and artistic environment of EQ attracted many talented and amazing people and also a fair amount of drug abuse, instability, and mental health issues. In addition, my roommate suffered from terrible depression and by the end of the year, had come to grips with sexual abuse in her past that left her, many days, sobbing on the floor of our dorm room.
I had never given any thought to issues like race, gender, our government, what was happening in the Persian Gulf at the time. I had never lived outside the bubble of the world that I knew. In short, I was shocked and numbed and completely unprepared for the social experience, which was a thousand times more important than the educational experience.
At first glance, C. was a somewhat intimidating young Black man with a lot of muscles and a cool, insolent stare under his ball caps. At first, it seemed odd that he was living in EQ, instead of in South or West, where a lot of the athletic sports-loving types lived. He listened to NWA and Public Enemy in his dorm room and came and went as he pleased; people said he was a townie, and we assumed that he went back home a lot. In truth, he was probably just wandering. Over the year, he gravitated to our dorm room a lot and began dating my roommate, and thus began a friendship that lasted for a long time. Then I understood why he lived with us instead of somewhere else – he had no tolerance for anything without deeper meaning, just for the sake of being around people who looked or acted more like him. He was one of the most educated and intellectual people I’d ever met – his mother was a university professor at a nearby school, he spoke fluent French and was a star student in the Residential College’s immersion language program, he spent summers in Manhattan with his older brother. He had survived Hodgkins lymphoma in junior high and high school, and that experience gave him a wisdom that not many people our age possessed. He seemed to live as an observer much of the time, in his own head behind his eyes, conducting an internal dialogue with himself about what he saw; sometimes he shared that dialogue but more often he didn’t, keeping it private. He was a private person.
He laughed at me a lot, at my style of dress and my turn of phrase, and I know there were a lot of times that he thought I was a bit of a cracker, but he was exceptionally kind and protective – his presence was very reassuring and always made me feel safe and contented. Through him I learned what it was like to have a dear friendship that looked past the external and focused only on the people that we were inside. I learned a lot from him and felt proud that he was my friend.
C. went on to obtain a PHD in philosophy and he became a university professor himself, teaching Black studies and doing ethnographic research in high school classes. He spent time in Haiti studying transnational racism, education, and justice. He married a woman from the Dominican Republic, and they had a son.
In July, he was diagnosed with cancer, and by November, it had spread to his lungs. He was admitted to the hospital on Christmas Eve and he died in the early hours of December 27. His son is five years old and there are no words for how tragic and unfair it is that he will never remember more than bits and pieces of his father, who was such an extraordinary person.