Early this evening I went to a memorial service for a freshman student from one of my classes last year who had died suddenly over the Summer. Overall I found the experience touching and positive, but it put me in a reflective mood and I find it impossible to concentrate on the game. (Though, to be honest, the Red Sox' mediocre performance recently has contributed to this indifference.)
Near the end of the service I remembered our last encounter, an amusing end to a Calc 2 final that was especially pleasant for me (a couple of beers, a winning online poker game, and a covert encounter). I had put a freebie question (draw an animal) on the test and he exclaimed after handing in his paper that he had forgotten entirely to do it; I reassured him that I'd give him the points anyway: perhaps it was a polar bear. I couldn't help but smile at the memory, and smiling felt right. I smiled right through Amazing Grace, which even in my best of moods usually elicits a tear or several.
It was wretched to see the grief on several faces who were friends of his from our class and elsewhere, but I realised that for many of them this could be their first experience of a friend dying so young. I remembered Joe, a friend of mine from Oxford. He had a poise and a maturity and an ability to touch others that I suspect only comes with a heightened sense of one's own mortality. He died of leukemia in the Summer after our second year. We weren't even close (relative to many of his other friends) but I still think of him and remember how good he was to me. He was my first such experience. Having lost so many friends since then -- mostly through natural attrition, though occasionally more unexpectedly such as through death or a relationship turned sour -- I feel better able to assimilate further losses and to concentrate on the positive aspects, the times that I have shared with people. Of course I was lucky today, in some way: I had completed the natural cycle of encounters one has with a passing student, which perhaps made it easier for me to focus on the positive, but I hope his friends can come to their own comforting realisations in time.
I have often wondered who would be my Best Man, if I should ever get married. Beyond questions of competence, the main feature I think I would want is someone who, when asked, would answer "Wow, really?!" as opposed to, simply, "Really?!". I saw today that my former student Branko would have had a plethora of "Wow, really?!"s to choose between, and it was obvious how he had earned that affection and popularity. Most people don't have the capability to achieve that, and I for one would be happy to have touched one (perhaps two) people in the way that he did.