I thought about you today. I always do when it rains. You would appreciate the fact that the little sensor that detects rainwater on the windshield of a car and automatically turns the wipers on was invented by a German. In fact there are dozens of devices – printers, anti-lock brakes, zippers – which relate back to a German who just kept thinking about how things work. It’s a pretty good definition of how you lived your life, actually.
So what do you do, people ask, and I tell them I have a commercial bakery. Inevitably someone will ask, and what did you do before you started the bakery? It’s a reasonable question, given I’m 52 and the bakery thing has only been since 2014.
I always pause, even now reluctant to say the words, as if reluctance will remove their truth, but the truth is always there and it still surprises me.
“I was in software,” I say. Maybe someday it will get easier to say what comes next. “But then my business partner died.”
I’ve often deliberated on what to say next. There is no detail that does not add to the pathos: your age (just 43), your children (three pre-adolescents), your career (zooming towards multiple apexes), but what I want people to feel when I mention you is not the sadness of your passing, but the happiness it was to know you.
Introduced professionally, our click was immediate and so loud it was nearly audible. What was supposed to be a brief project meeting became a four hour conversation that buzzed like a bee from subject to subject, eased along with a steady supply of red wine. “I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” you kept saying as you ordered another round.
We interrupted each other, finished each other’s sentences, jotted down the names of books and writers for each other. You turned me onto Tim Ferriss and I turned you on to Gravity’s Rainbow (“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”) I read for three months on the suggestions from our first meeting alone.
At one point you asked if I’d read Neal Stephenson“The best way to know someone is to have a conversation with them” you nearly lost your mind. I asked if you read William Gibson and you responded with the shot heard round the sci-fi cyberpunk world, a quote that you wrote onto your office white board.
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”
Conversations about writers and books tend to be the most interesting because of the random way they meander, one topic naturally leading to another. For us, a Neal Stephenson mention led to David Foster Wallace led to M -theory led to Gibson led to memory led to AI led to the original Westworld (the 1973 Crichton film) led to what makes us human led to self-consciousness led to was Yoda really a Bohemian, like Rilke (“The only journey is the one within.”).
How you would have loved the cable series Westworld; how I miss being able to discuss such things with you.
Writer Hermann Eich was both right and wrong when he said “The Germans have a mania for work. They have no idea how to enjoy life.” For many Germans, enjoying work IS enjoying life and you and I shared this predilection …to such an extent that, among the books you noted down from our conversation were three about work, itself, including my favorite by poet/philosopher Donald Hall, Life Work.
I love it that a research scientist is recommending a book about work written by a poet, you said delightedly.
Sometimes you get along so well so immediately with someone that it practically demands to be noticed and commented upon. Author (Bel Canto) Gail Caldwell wrote of this connection in her book “Let’s Take the Long Way Home”, about her friendship with the author Caroline Knapp, who, like you, died so young and unexpectedly. Caldwell and Knapp met at a dog park and their initial shared connection was their dogs. Later in the friendship, Knapp would teach Caldwell to row, something that, like walking dogs, they could do simultaneously alone and together, underscoring just how powerful a bonding agent common temperament can be.
For us, the connection was what I’ll call “pure Germanic work-joy” (you, a native German speaker, would have naturally known a seventy syllable German word for this, like “fervenverkingladenstein”).
Germans have long enjoyed a reputation for being diligent and creative workers, always improving things. In WWII, American GIs who occupied German positions were amazed to find bunkers with screen doors, carpets and paneling. Many late nights, sitting in the bright halo of light of my office lamp, my eyes burning from hours of staring at the screen, your avatar would pop up in my Skype app “Get some sleep!” Another half hour of work, the dark pressing the windows of my office, and Skype would ping again: “Let me know how I can help.”
We were allotted just a few months of magical thinking following the unhappy news of your cancer diagnosis. The treatment was aggressive to match the late stage of your illness – a brutal series of surgeries, chemo, and radiation. I knew the insults to your body were extreme but there you were with regular Facebook updates and the occasional visit to the city you loved, and I allowed myself to relax a little into relief. Surely the treatments would do their work; yours was a form of cancer that was sometimes cured, even very late. My heart clutched at pictures of your kids like totems. With so much future to look forward to, surely the worst was over.
The illusion that any of us are ever safe was cruelly reinforced when we met up that December. You were in town for a conference and I had an extra ticket to a Jazz club featuring a 14 instrument band of musicians from around the world.
Sorry I am running late, I texted, Take your time, you replied. I’ve got company. I laughed when a picture of a dirty martini in a glass lightly beaded with dew popped up on my screen…and relaxed a little more. If you were once again drinking your favorite pre-dinner cocktail then the world really was back on track.
It is not my final image of you, the way you looked sitting at the bar when I rushed in that night, but it is my last image of you as a happy, healthy man full of enthusiasm for the future, so perhaps that is why it comes to mind most often when your name is mentioned.
You were still thin from treatment. Your hair had grown mostly back, the texture fine as a baby chick, and the combination made you seem ten years younger, something I immediately stashed away in my pile of totems.
That evening you were full of plans and all things seemed possible. We ate sushi and watched the show and mainlined conversation. I had assumed the slight hoarseness of your voice was from treatment, but it was from cheering your son as he won a Junior Olympics swim meet. You showed me the videos of his races, the glow from your smartphone screen lighting up your face as we watched him slice through the water, and of course I took this as another totem.
We parted on the sidewalk in front of the club, talking right up until our taxis arrived then separating in a flurry of rushed hugs and promising to plan a ski trip soon, and though all of us knew that cancer can come back, none of us were prepared for your call less than two months later.
I was practicing guitar in the living room, vaguely aware of Herb in the other room talking on the telephone, when he walked in and said in a still, quiet voice “That was Alex.”
When he didn’t say anything else I looked up and his face told me everything. We held each other and cried for the first of many times that day, that week, that year.
Things happened fast then; you had so little time. Herb asked if there was anything you wanted to do in particular; you expressed regret that the two of you, after twenty years of partnership and five different start-ups, had never managed to make good on your vow to take a heliskiing trip between software companies.
Such trips usually take a couple of years to plan but having a brother-in-law in the professional mountain guiding business can sometimes pay off, and this was one of those times. Within a week, Herb had cobbled together an itinerary and thirty days later found you at the top of Meteorite Peak in the Chugatch Mountains of Valdez, Alaska.
You had carefully selected the trip window to fall between chemo treatments, but by the time you got to Valdez you were unable to keep even sips of water down; the athletic strength you’d casually relied on your whole life was still there, but fading. A local connection arranged for medicinal cannabis which mercifully enabled you to retain the calories of about a half a banana a day.
Your imminent mortality was sadly evident to all: the pilot, the guide, the small band of skiers flying back and forth on the tops of untouched mountain peaks – how could it not be, when night after night they fell asleep to the sound of you helplessly vomiting out the aftereffects of chemo. You didn’t fall asleep so much as gratefully drift out of consciousness for a brief respite from the violent fight of your body.
But despite the wracking nausea that never left you, there were moments of reprieve, and when the time came, you were able to ski the legendary runs of Diamond and Pyramid peaks in your otherworldly graceful style. However much you were suffering physically, you skied beautifully. And though we have your helmet cam footage, the best view was not from your own eyes, but from the videographer mounted in the helicopter – only from this God-like perspective can one fully appreciate the magnitude of the mighty Chugatch. You and Herb are small bright spots in all of that vast whiteness, effortlessly riding great white rivers of snow pouring down the mountain, your tracks interweaving, a negative ribbon that is eventually swept away by the implacable wind.
It was so typical of you to come back and talk as much about the skiing as you did the amazing leadership qualities of your heliski guide. Nothing excited you so much as excellence. When you met someone outstanding you immediately tried to figure out a way to hire them, know them, mentor with them — it was your way. At your memorial, one friend put it well: Alex was always seeking to progress, in everything he did, and especially in himself. I think you would like being remembered this way.
There is a particular picture from that time. I find myself returning to its cold comfort again and again. In it, you are leaning back, smiling, your arms crossed behind your head like a carefree master of the universe, the snowy peaks spread out before you. It is not the best picture among the piles of photos taken; your face is not visible, and you are only recognizable by your outerwear. The photographer sits behind you so that the viewer is looking at the same view you were looking at when you turned to Herb and said, At the very end this is where I will go; this is what I’ll be picturing.
I am not religious but have to agree it’s as good a picture of heaven as any, the mountains of pristine powder under forget-me-not skies. My own personal picture of heaven is a windswept coastline where the mountains meet the sea, with the evocative name of The Western Gate, a place at land’s end where the winds are legendary, a place where indigenous myth says souls pass from the mortal world to heavenly paradise.
You returned from Alaska and time sloughed away from your future as easily as the snowpack in Alaska sloughed away from your skis. There comes a point when hope is incompatible with reality. The Facebook message from you: I will be waiting at the Western Gate. You added a smiley. I didn’t cry until I noticed your avatar had changed from a family picture to one of you seated at the snowy top of the world.
Less than six months later you sat in our living room for the last time. When you called to say you were coming, I had a faint and foolish hope; if you were well enough to travel… a hope that drifted away like an untethered balloon the moment I saw you. It was the work that animated you, not health, or even optimism.
You’d undergone a painful procedure just days before and eating was out of the question. Weight loss had transformed from a one-time goal for your health to its most clear and present danger. Your suit jacket hung from your broad shoulders as though on a hanger. Your energy was ebbing – the conference you had come to town for would not see you the second day. The long staircase in front of our house was a visible trial for you and I felt helpless watching your slow progress. I’m fine, you assured me, just tired. Not in pain.
You worked much as usual on that trip, treating the bouts of exhaustion like just another thing to be planned for. I had tickets to a lecture on the nature of creativity, which you were excited to see but needed pain meds and a nap to prepare. You were alert and interested during the talk, but I knew you were miserable in the unpadded seat – you’d lost so much weight by then, you needed external cushioning in order not to feel your bones grinding together when you sat.
We talked about your kids, what their understanding was, and you sighed with a weariness so deep I sometimes think I can still feel it echoing in my bones. I think they think, I got better once, it could happen again. Then they head out to swim practice and dance and gymnastics class…..your voice trailed off and you made a ‘look at me’ gesture.
No one tells you that hope is a thief, stealing moments from the present to bank them against a future that never comes. The last time I saw you, you were walking into the airport. We hugged out on the sidewalk, and in the swirl of baggage handlers and loudspeaker announcements we said things like “have a good trip” and “talk to you soon” but did not say the word goodbye because how could we?
The automatic doors parted and you stepped inside and the doors closed very matter of factly and I told myself that you were only going as far as San Diego, that I’d see you on Facebook before the day was over, and it might have worked if I hadn’t looked at Herb just then and saw his stricken expression.
We returned to the city we knew you’d never move back to, and began waiting for the call we knew would come.
Even after two years it’s hard to believe that you’re really gone. That if I text you, an answering text won’t come blazing back lightning fast. That if I call you my phone won’t ring back within the hour. I still sometimes start to share something with you on FB or text, like when Herb bought me Tim Ferriss’ latest, “Tools of Titans” but it happens less and less. Your wife regularly shares updates on the kids, and in this way we slowly become accustomed to a future that will always be partly defined by your absence.
There will be no grave visit, no need for the finality of your name carved in granite – it is already carved on our hearts, and your legacy is not in the short span of years etched on a stone, but in stories of you that we share.
The artist Banksy is credited with saying we die more than once – the first time, when we stop breathing, and then the second time, when your name is spoken for the last time ever, and if that is true then you will remain alive and well among us for a very long time to come, long after I see you again at the Western Gate.