One day I got a message from a friend: Brett has cancer. At age 41. Stomach pains for some weeks, but, being Brett, he didn’t get round to going to the doctor. Finally went in, and after the requisite tests came the cold news: stage four colon cancer. The specialists at U-Chicago threw everything they could at it. Some months later a friend sent word that Brett was in decline, and that I should come in the next couple months.
Brett Foster was my best friend at Wheaton College, where he taught literature and I taught New Testament. We were regular guys from blue-collar backgrounds in rough-and-tumble midwestern hometowns who somehow made good, navigating top-flight grad schools, marveling we were even there. We indulged both our base and highbrow interests together: Monday Night Football, trips to used bookstores, cheap Asian food and Portillo’s exquisite hot dogs, beer and scotch, the glories of poetry, the brilliance of the Bard, and the stupidity of deconstruction.
Brett was so normal, a humble guy with real gifts, a poet himself and scholar who would have come to dominate the big leagues. We’d be watching football in his basement, and the phone would ring, and it’d be John Hollander or Harold Bloom from Yale, checking in to see how a project they were working on together was going, or how they could help Brett secure some fellowship.
I left Wheaton and took a job at Catholic institution in my home state of North Dakota. We kept in touch, and I made my way back to Chicagoland (suburbanites there call it that) every now and then for conferences or whatnot, and we’d catch up as if we never parted.
The Last Time
I flew down, knowing that this would likely be the last time we’d spend time together. He was grey and gaunt, weak but cheerful. We did what we used to do: bookstores, Panera’s for coffee and a stretch of writing, and a meal. Brett couldn’t keep his noodles down. He vomited in the car. We didn’t talk much about his looming death, though a little, and he still held out some hope. But we didn’t need to; we knew, and made the most of our time together. Some weeks later Brett died, on a November Monday, at home, with his family.
At the wake, I couldn’t look at the picture boards. I had a much easier time at the casket, once I sucked it up to say goodbye. Probably because the body is the casket’s ice cold reality, and the boards remind you of what sort of things the guy would still be doing, if . . . .
Brett was dressed in a zippered argyle sweater with a slight collar, which was perfect. Coat and tie was always artificial on him. I thought of how he had been an accomplished academic of multiple talents: a poet himself, a translator of medieval and Renaissance Italian poetry, and an expert in Shakespeare. Those three points don’t cover all that Brett could do. But I also thought, with real pain, of how he was also a husband and father. Condoling his widow was one thing, but the kids . . . what do you even say?
I hadn’t cried. Brett’s friends in Wheaton have been walking through this with him for months, and were there in town when he died. They got a lot of crying out of their systems already, I suspect. I hadn’t, so it really hit me when I showed up at the wake just as dark had settled over Wheaton, that Brett was really gone. I let myself lose it in the parking lot. F*** I hate crying.
I was glad to get through the funeral without losing my cookies, because I thought I was going to. And crying is wrong. I couldn’t look at anyone in the chapel in the eye, but stared into a vague space about twenty feet out from my line of vision. And got through it.
Graveside, I joked to a Wheaton student that there’s not enough alcohol for such a weekend. I’m pacing myself. I say bold stupid things like that in certain situations for effect.
Nothing sadder, I think, than an untimely widow embracing her husband’s casket graveside to say goodbye for the final time. That’s when I really lost it inside. But I really tried not to cry, because crying is wrong. At least in public. In private it’s just bothersome. I did just say above I say bold stupid things like that in certain situations for effect.
All He Was
I also wrote above that the three academic areas in which Brett excelled didn’t cover all that Brett could do. They certainly don’t cover all that he was.
Here’s one small story: the story of Brett Foster, accidental midwife. He was a man on whom you could count, as proved by that time my wife was in labor and he needed to babysit our doula’s kids through the night in a sketchy hospital parking lot in Oak Park, Illinois. Our doula — a good friend — had a nursing infant, and so when my wife went into labor late evening we zipped down I-90 from the suburbs to the hospital way too fast.
My wife’s labor took longer than we thought, and the baby would need to nurse, so in the deep middle of the night I called Brett. No questions, no grumbling, just “OK, I’m on it.” Brett picked up our doula’s baby and her teenage daughter who would help watch the baby, and zipped them to the hospital. One baby got fed, another got born, and all was well.
That was Brett. Scholar, poet, teacher, but above all, a friend. Brett, I miss you.
Leroy Huizenga is associate professor of theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. He has recently published a book on the gospel of Mark called Loosing the Lion, and is now writing a major theological commentary on Mark for the International Theological Commentary series. He taught at Wheaton College until 2011, when he entered the Catholic Church.