This time last year Alison let me come over and we sat in your den, under your beautiful Christmas tree in Sugar Land, and we talked for three hours. Our boys played outside with Nerf guns. It was gray outside, but not too cold. I will always be grateful to her for this–you had that hat covering your head after the radiation had been applied to your brain, you were a little tired, but wanted to talk. It was almost Christmas. I did not believe that it would be the last time I would see you. I did not believe that you would only have one more Christmas. I did not believe your funeral would happen in January. I just could not believe that you would leave us.
I was wrong.
That day I brought all this food from Pappasito’s–we had so many lunches there–usually with you bringing someone off the charts interesting to join us. It was never boring. Sometimes you would say, “We should really stop drinking margaritas.” And I would say, “Why?” And then you would say, “Dr. Wilson, you need to go to law school immediately. In decades of law practice, I have never seen cross-examination skills like yours.” It was always like that: always fun, always funny. My inner cynic always dwindled into nothingness around you.
The first time I met you at our university, you asked me a few questions, and then suddenly, before I knew it, I had told you my entire life story. Like Americans on trains in Europe, you had me spilling my guts to you from day one, and I could never really reel it in. Like winning the lottery, for no good reason I was super lucky, and got the older brother that I never had. We were so wrapped up in our families after 5, ours was a morning friendship: you would call me at 6 or 7 a.m., saying, “Hey, are you up?” And of course I had been up for hours, but you would say,”Are you working on your writing, because if you aren’t, then you are not really up.” You were the kind of friend worth having: the one who cares enough to tell you the truth.
Sometimes, if it was really important, we would talk while Christopher was in Boy Scouts. One time I was having a come-apart because Christopher was having a problem in school: math, science, I don’t know. I was ready to hire a whole arsenal of tutors, sell all my belongings to put him in private school, anything to prevent the complete life devastation caused by a refusal to memorize math facts. I said, “What would you and Alison do?” And then you would say, “You know, it is just math. Maybe start with some flash cards.” You would say what I already knew, but I liked it coming from you. You took my overreactions seriously, and then made them manageable. It was magic how you did that.
At your funeral, there was not enough room for everyone, even though the church was huge. You had people from the legal field, academia, the military, sports, your church, your family, your friends. You were good at so many things simultaneously, it made my head spin. It hit me like a ton of bricks: how could I have not realized how generous you were with your time with me, when so many people wanted your attention? Why was I just realizing this now? I just thought we were having lunches and talking over our projects; you know, breathing. I didn’t know we were counting down days that would pass so fast.
I didn’t know when you started our “writing group,” with Doug and Emma, that you were really introducing me to friends that would be there to help me cope once you left us. You were always doing that–making people connect. I want to tell you that Doug has gone to India and Dubai, that Emma is having her first baby. I want to tell you everything, and sometimes I am so angry at you for leaving this earth, but I have no idea what to do about it. It is so selfish, so narcissistic, and I know it: but really, come on, how could you leave us at 53? This really is so not working out for me.
Trust me, I am not the only one who feels this way.
The only argument we ever had was a product of your generosity. Once you mentioned that you might want to do a reserve tour of Afghanistan “because our troops really need us.” Of course I just projected my own anxieties on to what was our usual course of being able to just think out loud, with no fear of retribution. I completely flipped out, as Christopher’s father is deceased, and I said something like, “If you leave those boys and Alison to go defend a ROCK in AFGHANISTAN, I will never speak to you again. And if you get blown up or shot, then I really will never speak to you again.” That was not my most patriotic moment, but it was real, and you accepted my reaction, and I am really glad you did not go there. I just could not conceive of you leaving like that, just as I still cannot conceive that you are gone.
When you left our university, I was devastated. I just could not believe it. But you always came back stronger, and before I knew it, you had a corner office at Rice University and three books out. Even after you died, your colleagues still got that book on sports law out within the year. That is because that is the kind of colleague you would have been–we all learned from you. I have colleagues I adore, and sometimes I think that is in direct proportion to how much they are like you. Like everyone, I have colleagues that make me crazy, but it is not their fault. It is your fault, Pat: because you were the Maserati of colleagues, no one can even come close. You knew what to do, you had sprezzatura, you were always in your own, infinitely better league. I struggle so much with forgiveness in every arena of life, yet you always made it look so easy.
The best was when I would talk to you about men, and you would say “Dr. Wilson, you are referring to boys.” That would make me crack up right there, and then it would get better: “Are you still slumming it thinking about that guy who will never, ever get you?” Or, “Hey, why don’t you go out with my friend. He is really old, but sometimes you just have to take one for the team.” I would say “What team? Whose team are you on?” and I never, ever left a table or a conversation with you without feeling so enthusiastic about everything, because everything was funny, everything was possible, and it was a kind of happiness that I think is rare on this earth, because it was effortless, and it seemed like it would never run out.
Did you know that when I am teaching, and I know that I am losing my athletes, their eyes are glazing over, they are longing to be on a soccer field, and they are hating me for making them read Pride and Prejudice, that you come through for me every time? I just tell them about my friend Pat, and how he translated his love for sports into becoming a sports agent and then an expert on sports law, and that he did really well in sports and school, and wrote THE textbook on sports law used by everybody everywhere. And then they look up and start listening to me. Just like you had your students eating out of your hand for every class, I have them for about a minute since I have your example at the ready, and you have never seen such an enthusiasm for Jane Austen permeate the room.
It’s really something.
When I read the names of students at December graduation for the first time, I so wished you could have been there. You would have been the first one to ease my nerves by making me laugh. You would have been the one saying, “Hey, Doni, try not to screw it up. Try not to be the professor that ruined the most important day of someone’s life.” You were perfect that way. Life is so heavy: children die, jobs are lost, people are broken. But you always had that way of infusing hope into the most hopeless situation. How did you do that? When I was on that stage, you were hovering in the back of my mind. I was wishing you were near, and not so far away.
I imagine what you would say almost every day.
I believe in heaven, but I don’t know how it works: I know how much you meant to people on this earth, but I don’t know if you know it. I know you are in a better place, but we still need you here in this world. I know last Christmas I got to say what I needed to say to you, but I want to say it over and over again, just to make sure. Deep down, I am sure I will never get over this.
Last December I had a colleague, who told me, when you were diagnosed with cancer, that you would not survive it. I am not a violent person, but I felt murderous. How dare she underestimate you–she didn’t know what she was talking about. I was furious beyond words. I said nothing. This was my way of fighting a battle I could not win. I am not proud of it, but at that moment, I really hated her. And I hated her because I couldn’t bear to think that she might be right.
I am so grateful that we had so many conversations: I have to imagine what you would say if you were still here, and you have no idea how much it has helped me negotiate dangerous terrain. I want to tell you that Christopher gave out Halloween candy this year instead of collecting it, all part of my plan to make him more like you, a giver instead of a taker. I want to tell you that Christopher is in sixth grade, that he did make it into that gifted and talented school, that Santa isn’t coming for the first time this year.
I am crazed with the changes, they are happening too fast. I want everything to last longer, just like I wanted your time here on this flawed earth to last longer. As you would say: “Doni, you really hate it when you do not get your way.”
Some days I can almost wrap my mind around your absence. Most days, I can’t.
I can picture you as crisply as the best Christmases. I cannot ever recollect a conversation with you that did not have laughter, because those conversations did not exist. I cannot tell you about the void that you have left, and in spite of all of my education, there are no words that I can come up with to fill in that infinite abyss.
Please come back, Patrick K. Thornton.
You are so missed.