On the Death of a Friend


One of the curious things about friendship is that it is often “death-haunted.” “It is as if,” writes Andrew Sullivan, “death and friendship enjoy a particularly close relationship, as if it is only when pressed to the extremes of experience that this least extreme of relationships finds its voice, or when we are forced to consider what really matters, that we begin to consider what friendship is.” So, many of the great literary depictions of friendship—Augustine’s, Montaigne’s, Tennyson’s—don’t depict so much the daily course of friendship but rather its dramatic loss. It is death that moves the poet or the preacher to take up the theme of friendship and try to pay tribute to that most un-dramatic of all loves.

Alan Jacobs, in a beautiful essay, has speculated that this nexus between death and the verbal portrayals of friendship may owe something to the “homely, comforting” nature of friendship. Friendship usually isn’t about “a story to tell, a sequence of events to dramatize, an intensity of experience to lyricize.” Furthermore, friendship isn’t about undertaking some quest to achieve some goal. Unlike, for instance, the love of parents for children, which is very much oriented toward the telos of “training up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6), the love of friendship is its own end. And because of that non-flashy, goal-less quality of friendship, it sometimes takes the dramatic rupture of death for us to see the friendship as a whole, and for us to be able, then, to give voice to our gratitude for it. As Jacobs puts it,

Having so specific goal in mind, having nothing to strive towards, friendships possess no intrinsic narrative quality. This is not to say that we should not strive to be better friends, that is, to practice more assiduously the virtues that strengthen friendship, but we cannot do so for reasons intrinsic to the friendship. It is in the nature of friendship, I think, that the demands a friendship makes upon us wax and wane: we go through seasons of relative closeness, seasons of relative separation, without re-evaluating the basic character of the friendship. (I have dear, dear friends whom I can see only rarely, but they are no less dear because of this, and would be no more dear if we could meet regularly.) This stability of affection coupled with great variation in occasions for intimacy is almost impossible to represent in narrative terms, or indeed in other literary terms.

Whether it’s for these sorts of reasons or for others, I’m not sure, but I have been struck this week in the wake of my dear friend Brett Foster’s death on Monday night by how Brett’s death has prompted an outpouring of appreciation for his friendship, specifically.

Here’s part of what I wrote on Tuesday morning:

I first met Brett through my friend Chris. I was in the middle of grad school, Brett had been teaching at Wheaton for a while, and we started talking shop, each standing in Chris’s kitchen holding a glass of wine before heading out to the back porch to sit around a fire pit. One thing stood out about Brett that night: the man could talk! He unspooled more stories and unleashed more opinions than I thought possible in the space of three hours, and by the end of the night (too soon), I loved him. Later that week, I called another friend, a former student of Brett’s, and I described my new acquaintance as the most endearingly, delightfully arrogant person I’d ever met. By the end of that first night knowing him, I knew about a lot of Brett’s writerly achievements (he was a fine and award-winning poet), but far from being off-putting, it struck me as childlike in the very best sense of the word. Brett was delighted in what he’d done with his life, with his career thus far, and he simply wanted others to see, to smile at him, to somehow share his wonder and ambition. “[N]othing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised,” C. S. Lewis once wrote. I think that’s a fitting description of my friend Brett.

As the years went by, Brett and I grew closer. We never (alas) saw one another as much as either of us would have liked. I never lived near Chicago again, but Brett made a couple of trips to England when I was there for my doctorate, and he stayed at my house. One night, with our mutual friend Chris, we stayed up late drinking whiskey and urged Brett to read some of his newest poems to us (it didn’t take much urging). He read with verve and gusto and volume, with that slightly high-pitched crackle he had. When it seemed like a good time to stop, Chris suggested we go for a late night walk. I remember the sky being clear and the air being bracing as Chris fired up his pipe, and Brett was still declaiming about something — it really didn’t matter what, because you were desperate to him say, in that infectiously excitable tone of his, whatever it was he wanted to say — as we traipsed down the hill behind my house. (There are experiences you have that, it seems, come to symbolize a whole set of impressions and affections, it feels as if those experiences must have been recurring; but no; in this case, it was just that one memorable night.)

Later, when I moved back to the States, Brett would invite me to visit him at his mother’s cabin in rural western Pennsylvania. We would go on walks by the creek there and complain to each other about academic politics (I was a full-time teacher by the point). He would listen to me moan about the things brand new lecturers find to moan about, and he would laugh with me and give advice and share my frustration. And, always, there would be poetry.

Brett was alive, and he was fetchingly absorbed in his work, but above all he was absorbed in his friends. He was astonishingly people-oriented. I felt wanted when I was around Brett, like he couldn’t get enough of my attention and presence. And I felt the same around him — I wanted the light and fire and joy he brought to any room he entered. There are so many — so many — who will miss his calls and visits. He loved so many of us so well.

Here’s Brett’s erstwhile Wheaton colleague Leroy Huizenga:

Above all Brett was a prince of a human being, a regular guy who liked drinking beer and watching football, who enjoyed people and brought them joy.

My fondest memory of Brett involves Orvieto, Italy. Brett was there on some monthlong-fellowship, and I was in Rome for the international Society of Biblical Literature meeting. We spent the better part of the day in Orvieto working on academic things at various cafes (as Brett had this habit of working somewhere for an hour or two and then wanting to relocate), always somewhere under the aegis of the glorious cathedral.

Having retreated to his apartment later in the day, we decided around 10:30 that it’d be good to begin preparing dinner. We went to the local grocer (still open) and got the requisite ingredients for whatever we were making, along with a sufficient supply of sagrantino, the local Umbrian wine. A friend of Brett’s was with us too, and he did most of the cooking while we drank and talked. We ate around midnight, and stayed up until about four in the morning, talking about everything friends talk about–work, college politics, family, daydreams, passions. Given the lateness of the hour when we finally retired, about four in the morning, and the quality of the sagrantino, we did not make our planned trip to Siena the next day.

And here’s David Michael:

Brett was both a great friend and a great teacher. Though, I actually never took a class with him. We met in the English department somehow—Brett heading out of his office flustered, arms filled with papers, and pausing to introduce himself to me as I sat waiting for some other professor—and again at the church we both attended. I don’t quite know why, but he was very generous and kind to me when I was an undergrad. I remember him seeking me out to suggest we go book shopping. “Bring along your poetry. We’ll grab dinner and chat.” So one rainy evening, after he took me to his favorite store, Half Price Books, we sat at Chipotle as he made read through and made comments on my very shitty poems.

Brett was generous. Maybe too generous for his own good—he took on so many commitments and made time for so many students, that I suspect his own writing suffered.

Still, he was prolific, and when he had essays and poems to spare, he let me publish some of his work in a little web magazine I started after college. Our friendship grew, and when I was in Wheaton, we’d get together for a beer at Muldoons along with John Wilson and Alan Jacobs.  I always felt like someone’s kid brother, somehow getting invited to hang out with the older boys. A touch nervous, but mostly excited to be in the company of people who wanted to talk books.

And here, finally, is Brett’s current Wheaton colleague Noah Toly:

Brett Foster was a colleague who taught me. He didn’t teach me to translate Italian, to read Renaissance literature like an expert, or to write poetry, but he taught me to be a friend. I watched him share the burdens of others when they faced trials, and he drew me more deeply into a supportive group of colleagues during a difficult season. On a rough December evening years ago, he dropped everything to come talk with me at a restaurant near my home. I hadn’t asked him, but he insisted. For a time afterward, that somewhat sketchy restaurant became our go-to place. So much so that when my wife bought a Groupon for that restaurant, intending that she and I would use it together, I assumed she had bought it for me and Brett.

In early June 2014, a number of friends were gathered for lunch at a local restaurant when Brett came in and broke the news of his diagnosis. We were, solely by coincidence, seated under a t-shirt pinned to the wall above us, which read “Cancer Sucks!” Speaking of t-shirts – mere days later, as I was about to depart for a family road trip, and as Brett was about to start his treatments, I returned to him a t-shirt he had given me, which read, “Honey Badger don’t care! He just takes what he wants.” I told him I didn’t want it back until he’d beaten the cancer. Before I left, I added his number to the very short list of those programmed to ring through to my phone even when it is on “Do Not Disturb.”

Over the past 17 months, I’ve been privileged to see the faith, hope, and love with which he faced the unsettling news of his diagnosis, the ravages of cancer and chemotherapy, and the terrifying choices he had to make. And I saw in his recent bursts of creativity his deep love and appreciation for his friends…

On Monday night, when I heard the news of Brett’s death, I went to the home of a mutual friend so that we might grieve together. “Brett would want us to be doing this, sitting together, drinking a beer,” he said. But we decided that Brett wouldn’t want us to be doing it alone. So we extended an invitation to many friends to meet after last night’s 7:00 PM Arena Theater performance. We had a full house of people grieving Brett’s loss and celebrating his friendship, which was, as someone pointed out, Brett’s spiritual gift. We remembered Brett, his work, and his wishes. One colleague said that we should not let go the many things that Brett hoped one day to accomplish together, that we should, in some ways, carry on his work. Another pointed out that Brett always made her feel welcome, as if it were important to him that she was there, and said that the most important way in which we might carry on his work is to carry on in the friendship and community that he cultivated. Even in his death, Brett enlivened the gathering last night. And if we heed the advice of our colleagues, then what we’ve learned from Brett will continue to give life to our community.

Knowing Brett as I did, I think that Noah is exactly right here: Brett had a spiritual knack or charism for celebrating friendship. If we couldn’t quite give expression to that, or verbalize our deep appreciation for it, during his lifetime, we his friends have found our tongues loosened by his death. I don’t know whether that’s the way it usually goes with trying to speak about friendship—whether friendship is always more or less “death-haunted”—but I am more grateful than I can say for my chance to read these tributes to one who was, above all, a friend.

3 thoughts on “On the Death of a Friend

  1. Pingback: Tribute to a friend | The Sublimity of Infinity

  2. Pingback: A Friendship Poem | Spiritual Friendship

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