They say you were something in those formative years/hold on to nothing as fast as you can

How are you supposed to feel when someone dies who was very important to you for a very short time very long ago? It seems like I shouldn’t be allowed to be as sad as I am. Like I’m grabbing the coat tails of someone else’s tragedy. But all I know is that there are a small smattering of people who played a role in my life during pivotal periods who I’ve never been able to reconnect with through social media as an adult, and I can now stop my periodic Google searches for this one guy. I never found him. And there’s a tiny hole in my heart because of it.

The end of my eighth grade year was a time of shifting loyalties. In my overly dramatic brain, I was beset on all sides by friends who had never been friends, by enemies who had always been enemies, by people who did actually like me but sensed which way the wind was blowing and desperately jumped ship when being my ally became a liability. I had always been something of a joke, but as middle school marched towards its close, my value as a target for ridicule seemed to reach a terrifying crescendo.

But then something strange happened. An odd assortment of people began to tentatively stand by my side. People who had written me off as a hopeless nerd got to spend some time with me and realized I was actually funny and interesting. People who had always blended into the woodwork emerged and reached out to me.

I have no recollection of how my running joke with this guy started. We were in art class together; that was it. To be quite honest, there may have been some casual inhalation of rubber cement that made us think the whole thing was funny in the first place. But suddenly every time we passed in the halls, he would hip check me and we would trade our silly lines, act out our tiny play. There was no romantic aspect to it (that was already developing elsewhere with someone else I had barely noticed before). This was just a simple affectionate gesture between two people who were practically strangers until that spring, that spring that had been so bleak for me until that point. Did we recognize our mutual dysfunction? A similar darkness inside, a sensation of being lost and directionless?

1994 was a long time ago, and due to a variety of factors my once formidable memory has begun to crumble, so all I have left of him are snippets, small vivid moving pictures of the two of us from that summer and fall. I remember us at a birthday party, both having escaped from the main celebration, hanging off a bed and watching The State upside down. (It was the episode with the Sleep With the State Concept and Barry Lutz Monkey Torture, for the record.) I remember both of us leaving tryouts for soccer teams that we had very little interest in actually joining, strolling with another friend across a baseball diamond, a parking lot, a grassy quad. I don’t remember what we talked about, just a feeling of contentment.

I remember the new school year starting and alliances shifting yet again, making a new set of friends through the fall play, never really seeing him beyond the occasional nudge in the lunch room. And then I remember him being gone. And I remember myself losing my mind, and being too distracted by my own crumbling sanity to have any consideration for his disappearance. I knew he had disciplinary issues. I knew he had dismal grades. I assumed our school had “asked him to leave” because unless someone was actually caught doing drugs in the gym the administration was reluctant to do anything so déclassé as expelling anybody. I heard he had transferred to another local prep school. I decided he was fine. We were never the kind of friends who would chat on the phone, so we disappeared from each other’s lives.

One day he appeared at school, alongside another former middle school classmate (who had, presciently, left after 8th grade rather than bother with another four years of snobby nonsense). He shambled up to me with a huge smile on his face, I yelped with surprised delight and gave him an enormous hug. We fell immediately into our little script from years ago, a script that we had tossed out in favor of actual tentative friendship before he had vanished but still, always, the core of our bond. It was a stupid little bond. I was nothing more than a blip in his life, I’m sure of it. I called him Vinny. He called me Gina. And then he was gone. I never saw him again.

I saw his brother once, when I was living in New York City. I asked how he was doing. The answer was generally noncommittal but clearly not good. I could commiserate. That same night I caught a cab home from Grand Central, rode with the window down, watching the city fly by, letting the air hit my face, feeling that old emptiness, that old darkness. I woke up the next day and found I had plunged into my worst depression in years. It took me another two years to pull myself out. From the sound of it, whatever my old friend was going through, he was in too deep.

I searched for him every time a new social network popped up. Friendster. MySpace. I was actually briefly Facebook friends with some other rando from Buffalo who happened to have the same name until I read his profile and discovered this kid was about seven years younger than us and a drummer in a Christian rock band. Definitely not the same guy. I was apparently not the only one who had left town but occasionally poked around the internet trying to track him down; he had left absolutely no digital footprints. But he had never gone anywhere. As I now understand it, he was in Buffalo the whole time. And tomorrow, I am going to his funeral.

When you’re an adolescent, you break your identity down into pieces and then put yourself back together at least once, if not multiple times. Sometimes in that interval when you’ve fallen apart, you have a moment where you are briefly no one in particular, where you can look around with some peace and clarity and relate to other people with no baggage. The end of 8th grade was that moment for me. I was tired of everyone’s bullshit, sick of their expectations, over their preconceived notions of who I was and who I was supposed to be. And in that moment, I made a friend. Just for a moment. Not enough of a moment to merit the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach when I was told he had died, logically, but no one has ever accused the emotional portions of my brain of having much connection to logic. In that moment when I needed him, he was Vinny and I was Gina. Some days that was what made the difference.

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“It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away / Your love will be / Safe with me”

He recognizes my footfall. He can be awake in his crib for an hour, resting peacefully through absolute cacophony upstairs, but the moment he hears me walk across the floorboards in the living room above his head, he cries out.

I once remarked that he hugs me like he’s Princess Leia and I’m Han Solo and I’m about to be frozen in carbonite and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever see me alive again. On more than one occasion I have joked, when he grabs me by the legs or snuggles into my lap, that he needs to learn he can’t climb back inside me.

About a month and a half ago, he broke my glasses. He’d gotten into the annoying habit of slapping them off my face as I loaded him into his car seat. He really wanted those glasses off of me. He would then look at me fondly and caress my cheek, as though he hadn’t seen my face, my real face, in ages. I think it was a weaning thing. When he nursed, even when he was a very small baby, he wanted to make constant eye contact. Gazing at me in wonder.

I don’t think anyone in the world has ever loved me as much as he does.

I am constantly afraid that something horrible is going to happen to him. A freak accident, when he’s just out of my sight. Awful scenarios, running through my head, all the time. I read the Phillippa Gregory book “The White Queen” last week, and the closer I got to the ending I knew was inevitable, that the queen’s sons would be taken to the Tower of London and never come back out, the more white-knuckled my grasp of the library binding became. My New Year’s resolution this year (and I never make resolutions, so this was big for me) was to stop reading things on the internet that would upset me. True crime, houses burning down with children inside them, longreads about child pornography sting operations. And yet somehow last night I found myself reading the Ted Bundy wikipedia page, half-convinced that there was a serial killer downstairs silently strangling my children and on his way to kill me too. I don’t know if this is normal. I kinda assume that it is and it isn’t. All I know is that I love my children far more than I love myself and I live in constant terror of something horrible happening to them.

So I just don’t understand.

I understand why people, in the comments of some articles I have been unable to pull myself away from of late, want to offer up some small bit of empathy or sympathy to a mother who feels pushed to the breaking point, who feels alone, without support, without hope. I get why people want desperately to create some sort of context, to help prevent, to try to understand.

But I will never understand.

I will never understand how someone could try to kill their child.

I can empathize with Dorothy Spourdalakis right up until she gave her son sleeping pills and then stabbed him in the heart.

I can empathize with Kelli Stapleton right up until she lights the grills in the back of her van.

And then my empathy is gone. And then my compassion disappears.

My son is not autistic, but my daughter is. The emotional abundance I receive from E is not as readily accessible from D a lot of the time. But I have no doubt she loves me. She is able to show me that, through words and deeds. She always has. I don’t know enough about Alex Spourdalakis or Issy Stapleton to speak to their capacity to express connection with their parents. All I know is what the media narratives tell me. They were large, and violent. They were locked in, in their own worlds, a burden. Nevermind reports, firsthand reports I’ve read, from people who have met these kids, seen them talk, seen them play. I do not doubt that these children were more difficult to deal with, on many levels, than my own. But they are your children. They trust you, completely, inherently, from birth. Your job as a parent, more than anything else, is to love and protect your children. Their lives are not yours to dictate. You have no right to decide when and how they will die. When the language we, as a society, use to describe autistic people is language that is othering, dehumanizing, we set up a stage for this to keep happening. When you see your children as a burden, as a curse, as people trapped inside a shell of an illness, as props in your play…that’s the only way I can understand such acts. And with that I cannot, will not, empathize.

When D was a baby, I was shellshocked. I felt an immediate connection with her when she was first placed on my chest, but in the weeks that followed I felt that connection crumble. She was a voracious nurser, wanted to eat constantly, wouldn’t sleep anywhere that wasn’t a lap or a shoulder or a busom. But she wouldn’t tolerate a wrap or a carrier. When I tried to strap her to me so I could accomplish something, anything, she wrestled against me and screamed. Once we got her on some reflux medicine, things got better. But there was still a constant struggle within her that I could perpetually see — her desire to be close to me, so I could nourish her, but simultaneously shuddering and clawing away from confinement. The fervent and almost obsequious love that my son showers me with…it’s not the same as what D and I have. The summer before he was born was a nonstop struggle to come to some sort of detente with her. We screamed. We cried. We hurt each other. I didn’t know what was wrong between us, but despite our epic rows I clung to her. A few days before E’s birth I crawled into bed next to her and we held each other close. I knew it was the last time it would be just me and her together, alone together, as we had been so often for so long. She is my first child. She frustrates me endlessly. She makes me proud every day. A phrase I have seen very often on autism self-advocacy blogs is “Behavior Is Communication”. When D does things that are violent or aggravating or disruptive, I need to stop myself from simply responding to the behavior and instead try to deduce what has led her to that behavior.

Why was Alex Spourdalakis violent? Was it because his mother was subjecting him to biomedical “cure” treatments recommended by her friends Andrew Wakefield and Polly Tommey? Was his gastrointestinal pain a result of bleach enemas? Chelation? I expect we will find out at the trial. But he was trying to tell his mother something.

I will never understand.

Why was Issy Stapleton violent? Was it her reaction against endless behavioral therapies aimed at stopping problematic behaviors rather than understanding what she was trying to communicate? Was it a reaction against a mother that clearly had some need for drama, a mother who posted videos on YouTube of herself weeping and screaming as her daughter comes at her? Trying to tell her mother something.

I will never understand.

Your child is not a bit player in your own personal psychodrama. Your child is not a puzzle waiting to be solved. Your child is a gift, a miracle in every cell of his or her body, even if that body is in some way different from what you expected, what you always thought you wanted in a child. Your child is new and unfinished and essentially defenseless against you. Yes, even a 14-year-old autistic child who outweighs you. You are the parent. You always have options — not always good options, but options. Options better than killing your child who trusts you, who needs you, who is struggling and needs your love and your guidance, not your disappointment and disdain and despair.

I think it is an insult to my friends who are parents to autistic children who fall on the more “severe” end of the spectrum to express sympathy for these women. Thousands of parents are raising children who are very similar to Issy Stapleton and Alex Spourdalakis and would never dream of murdering their kids. We can and should have a discussion as a society about lack of services, lack of supports — but can we please do it independently of the conversation about murdering children? Kelli Stapleton had total strangers on the internet donate money, enough money to send Issy to a residential therapy program for six months. Dorothy Spourdalakis had people from Age of Autism filming in her kid’s hospital room; Andrew fucking Wakefield at his bedside. These were NOT women who were toiling away anonymously, penniless, without any resources or supports.

As a parent, it has been relatively easy for me to find blogs of other parents where we can offer each other support, to find accounts in the media that promote sympathy and understanding towards parents of children with autism. I agree that in our day to day, non-internet life, it can be hard to find the support we need. But the overall narrative in the media is one that gives parents a voice. Conversely, I have found it is extremely rare to find blogs or articles that are written from the point of view of autistic adults. Really. It wasn’t until I found Shannon Des Roches Rosa’s blog (through a search about iPad apps, of all things) that I was introduced to the voices of autistic adults from all points along the spectrum, from Ari Ne’eman at the “high-functioning” end to Amy Sequenzia at the so-called “low-functioning” end. So many parents of autistic children believe that organizations like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network are made up solely of Aspies who don’t represent their non-verbal or aggressive child. They are WRONG, and the reason they are wrong is because they simply haven’t seen it, seen what their children are possibly capable of as adults. People like Kelli Stapleton and Dorothy Spourdalakis see their children’s autism as a life sentence, not only for their children but for themselves. Of course that makes them depressed and anxious, and in some cases, in people who already have their own issues to deal with, personality disorders, whatever it may be…they snap. And what ASAN and other adult autistic advocates and even many parents like myself are trying to express is that we cannot offer our sympathies to those people who snap, because their actions do nothing but perpetuate the currently rampant idea that autism is an unbearable curse for parents and children. That devalues and dehumanizes autistic people. The most common response to these tragedies, it seems, is to focus on the experience of the parent, try to find what possibly triggers their murderous behaviors. I think it’s more important to change the focus from the parents to the children, emphasizing how our society’s general perspective on autistic children is a dehumanizing gaze that is so pervasive that it warps how many parents view their own children. As a parent, I struggle, every day. But I have to always keep in mind that my daughter is struggling more than I am, and do everything I can to help her through. And part of that is refusing to support a media narrative that says I deserve a voice but my child doesn’t.

My son just turned two, and he doesn’t talk much. It’s frustrating, and ironic, to have had a daughter who is autistic and couldn’t stop talking for a million dollars, and a son who, from all available evidence, is not autistic but is just a big ol’ mushmouth. But one of the things he can say is, “I love you”. It doesn’t sound like “I love you.” It sounds kinda like, “N’doo.” But he says it to me every morning when I get him out of his crib. I speak his language. I hear his voice.

“Here Is Fruit For The Crows To Pluck…Here Is A Strange And Bitter Crop”

I had meant for this to be a post about the 20th anniversary of the release of “Exile in Guyville” and the effect that album had on my life. I meant to write a post about music videos that stopped me in my tracks when I happened across them on MTV during my adolescence (“Silent All These Years” by Tori Amos, “Hit” by the Sugarcubes, and “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails, for the record). Maybe I’ll still write that post someday. But on this day, I would like to write about something else I saw on MTV during my adolescence that was far more mindblowing, although I didn’t realize it until years later.

Like most kids my age, I watched a lot of MTV. And so like my most kids my age, I ended up watching a lot of The Real World. It’s a little hard to remember now, since the show long ago descended into a swamp of debauchery, showcasing the absolute worst America’s youth has to offer, but that first season is actually a relatively understated little documentary: 13 episodes about young people pursuing careers in the entertainment industry in a still-vaguely-gritty New York. It’s available in its entirety on Hulu+, and watching it without all the blaring pop music that branded it as an MTV product (“Julie’s in church, but she’s a rebel! Play ‘Personal Jesus’! Now they’re about to fight! Play the ominous tinkly piano bridge from ‘Right Now’ by Van Halen!”) but had to be removed for licensing reasons, you’ll find the overall vibe is very chill. There are a couple episodes that are spectacularly mundane. Andre and Heather are trying to record mediocre albums, Norman turns out to be gay and gets a boyfriend and nobody particularly cares, they’re all sad that Jerry Brown loses the Democratic primary so they paint a big Jerry Brown mural on the loft wall that also includes Sesame Street characters for some reason… The producers tried to spice things up by shipping the girls off to Jamaica to “meet guys”, but Julie just gets her ear talked off by a Canadian masonry salesman and Becky hooks up with one of the show’s directors, getting him and his glorious salt-and-pepper mullet fired. Outside of a totally nonexistent romance the producers tried to cobble together from footage of Julie peeing on the toilet while Eric was in the shower, there was really only one source of drama or narrative thrust.

And that was Kevin.

Kevin Powell has gone on to a decent career as an author, public speaker, and activist. He’s also had a less decent career as a politician, failing multiple times to unseat Ed Towns as New York’s congressional representative from the 10th district by making rookie mistakes like telling a bunch of Satmar Jews he would “bring home the bacon” to Williamsburg and also, you know, not paying his taxes. But in 1992, Kevin was a cowrie-shell-necklace-wearing spoken word poet (Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, y’all! I read about that in the Sassy magazine piece on spoken word! Man, I thought that must have been the coolest place on earth) from Jersey City who was the oldest and most outspoken member of the cast.

Midway through the season, Kevin was made the butt of an extended practical joke meant to highlight how little time he spent in the loft. The show essentially made it appear like Kevin spent the majority of that loft time arguing racial politics with his castmates. The most memorable argument is the one he had with Julie, the 19-year-old ingenue from Alabama, who claimed he had physically threatened her. He emphatically denied basically every aspect of her story, and the production staff apparently inexplicably (and conveniently) had no footage of the blowup in question. I tend to believe Julie here, given that her account was filled with consistent explicit details (he allegedly called her a fucking bitch, threatened to break all her fingers, and threw a metal candlestick), while his rebuttal was basically, “Nope.” So it’s a classic he-said she-said. Kevin’s stance was that everyone made assumptions about his character and potential for violence simply because he’s black. The fact that he says this while physically towering over Julie, thrusting himself into her personal space and shouting two inches from her face tends to undercut his case here a little. But a lot of what he’s saying is clearly true on a systemic level, even if his personal behavior in this particular situation was hardly exemplary.

Kevin was clearly a very angry young man. But on a certain level, he had a right to be. Earlier in the season, he had another fight, this time with a tipsy Becky, who started blathering something about how we live in a great country that’s a melting pot full of opportunity, which made Kevin snort. Becky tried to defend her statement, Kevin made a crack about the land being stolen from Native Americans, Becky said he had a chip on his shoulder, they bicker, Kevin calls her a racist and Becky of course gets indignant, because as we all know being called a racist is obviously way worse than being affected on a daily basis by systemic institutional racism.

And then Kevin says something really important.

K: Race plus power equals racism, look it up.

B: What power do I have, Kevin?

Watching this when I was 12 years old, I thought Kevin’s statement was ludicrous.

Watching it now, 20 years later, I realize that MTV had enrolled me in Critical Race Studies 101 and I didn’t even know it.

Race plus power equals racism. A lot of the arguments about this boil down to semantics. People of color can certainly hold their own prejudices, or be bigoted. But racism, as a word, holds a specific meaning. It means that we live in a country that was literally built on the backs of black slaves. It means that our society functions in a million ways, big and small, even today, that make it almost impossible for black people to succeed. A society where a seventeen-year-old black boy in a hoodie who happens to be walking in a former Sundown Town is seen as a threat just for his very existence. A society where there is apparently nothing criminal about stalking that seventeen-year-old to the point where he finally turns and confronts you and then when he hits you shooting him point blank in the heart. A society where everyone wants to talk about the kid’s record of school suspensions and weed-smoking as though that’s relevant when he was by all accounts walking back from buying Skittles and Snapple, but not about the shooter’s record of both sexual and domestic assault (not to mention punching a cop!) because that has nothing to do with anything and his parents say he’s a nice guy and not a racist so that’s good enough to trust his word on anything he says about the night in question. A country where the shooter’s lawyer has the audacity to assert in a post-verdict press conference that if the shooter was black the whole thing never would have gone to trial. A country where black males are disproportionately imprisoned, disproportionately sentenced, and disproportionately disenfranchised upon release. Sure, everyone would have been ok with a black vigilante shooting a white kid in Sanford, Florida. Totally would have been fine. Knock knock.

Something else the shooter’s lawyer said was equally jaw-dropping:

“There are people who are vicious in their hatred for George Zimmerman. I don’t know which is the one who’s going to walk down the street at the same time George does. They know what he looks like; he doesn’t know what they look like.”

Welcome to Kevin Powell’s life. Welcome to Trayvon Martin’s life.

I could link here to many different first person essays by black men who feel like what happened to Trayvon could happen to them, essays by black women terrified that what happened to Trayvon could happen to their sons. But while Becky and I, as middle-class white women, still face systemic obstacles based on our gender, we can never fully understand what it is like to fear for our lives simply because of the color of our skin. That is a privilege that we have and are able to take for granted.

As an adolescent, I thought Kevin was an angry aggressive dick with a chip on his shoulder, like Becky and Julie did. And you know, my opinion of him hasn’t changed all that much, except now I feel like the chip on his shoulder is valid and his anger is earned. In the last 20 years, LeVar Burton has moved from teaching kids literacy to advising young men on how not to get shot by cops for driving while black. What George Zimmerman did was apparently totally legal, and all the cable pundits talk about the potential for black riots in the aftermath of that verdict. That’s Becky’s melting pot? That’s Becky’s country of unlimited opportunity?

The Real World is basically just a filmed orgy now. But 20 years ago, it was planting tiny seeds for young people to have a deeper understanding of complicated social issues. In the first few years of the show, before I was even able to drive, I saw intense discussions about race, and about homosexuality, and about abortion. We saw a young man living with and then all too quickly dying of AIDS. And we saw Kevin Powell, who was intelligent, and angry, and passionate, and flawed.

“Race plus power equals racism, look it up.”

I wish more people, myself included, had followed his suggestion. Because if what happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and what happened within the justice system following the shooting, wasn’t about power or race, then I would like someone to tell me what it was about. Was it about being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it a tragedy of errors? Was it about how those fucking punks always get away with everything? Tell me. But more important, tell Kevin Powell. Tell the parents of Trayvon Martin, of Oscar Grant, of Kimani Grey, of Kendrec McDade, of Sean Bell. Of Amadou Diallo. Of Emmett Till.

“And at times the fact of his absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep.”

Aside

When I was in middle school, my mom received a delightful invitation one day from a family friend.  Richard Lee was going to be consulting on a case for the Buffalo Zoo; there was a newborn giraffe who had something wrong with one of its four stomachs (fun fact: giraffes have four stomachs!), and he thought maybe I would like to tag along.  I’m not sure what made him think of me.  Maybe he knew I needed a small infusion of whimsy in my life.  But I do know that, because of Dick Lee, I ended up in a cage with the most amazing animal I’ve ever had the opportunity to touch, getting licked by its enormous sticky purple tongue.

I remember thinking, at the time, “Why is Dr. Lee working at the zoo?” I was under the impression that he was an OB-GYN. I’d been to his office at Children’s Hospital.  But it turned out that Dick Lee had a resume longer than my arm.  According to this exhaustive interview, he was Director of Medical Clinics and the Primary Care Center at Yale, as well as chief of General Medicine.  Then he was vice-chairman of the Department of Medicine at SUNY Buffalo, while also chief of medical services at the VA.  Then he became head of the Department of Medicine at Children’s Hospital, Chief of Maternal and Adolescent Medicine and the Division of Geographic Medicine at UB, professor of anthropology, professor of social and preventative medicine, professor of pediatrics, chief medical officer at the WHO Center for Wealth in Housing, medical director of something called Ecology and Environment, Inc., and, yes, consultant in Internal Medicine at the Buffalo Zoological Society.  He was also one of the smartest, funniest, kindest and most captivating human beings I have ever had the immeasurable pleasure to know.

And yesterday, he died of a heart attack.

I was talking to a friend recently about how ages that seemed old when we were children don’t seem old now.  Obviously this is mainly due to a change in perspective as you yourself age, but I think it’s also due to men like Dick Lee.  When I told my husband that my parents’ friend had died, out of the blue, he asked how old Dick had been.  I told him 75 or 76, something like that.  “Well, then it wasn’t REALLY out of the blue.  I mean, he was 75.” But Dick somehow seemed ageless. I hadn’t seen him a couple years, I suppose, but the last time I did see him he was as vibrant and vital as he had ever been in all the time I knew him.

I met Dick when I was 7.  I had already known of his son, Ben, who was a year ahead of my sister in school and had given indelible performances in their productions of M*A*S*H, The Music Man, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Ben was always much nicer than he really had to be to the kid who showed up backstage at her sister’s plays and gazed at him in awe.  But then I met Ben’s parents and realize that he simply came from very very good stock.

My dad got to know Dick when he helped facilitate an exchange program between Nichols and a boarding school called Loretto, in Scotland, which Dick had attended briefly as a teenager.  The teacher who came to Buffalo from Loretto, Peter Wood, became a great friend and colleague to my father, and he began coming to dinners at our house.  Soon, Dick and Susan Lee began coming along.  And that summer, we were invited to our first of many gatherings at the Lees’ house.

The Lees lived out in the country, on an expansive property called Many Barn Farm.  The name was apt.  As a kid, my favorite barn was, understandably, the stable, where they rented out stalls, and where I took one of the two horseback rides I’ve ever gone on in my life.  (Both were before the age of 10. It’s been a slow 20 years, horse-wise.)  Another barn was converted in the ‘90s into a guest house and library.  I remember Dick and Susan being very eager to show off the renovations to my parents and me once they were complete.  They envisioned holding salons there, gatherings on cold winter nights in the large library loft with a selection of the most interesting people Buffalo had to offer, where they could trade ideas and drink wine.

But every party at the Lees’ house was essentially a salon.  A salon with swimming, and volleyball, and kebobs.  Dick had, over the years, curated a collection of friends who were smart and funny and very occasionally skirted the line of pretentiousness, but regardless a fabulous array of individuals for me to be exposed to at a young age.  I didn’t really appreciate that exposure until I was quite a bit older.  When I was young, I used to spend much of the time at their parties exploring the house, which was crammed to the rafters with books and papers and maps and globes and relics and an enormous tiger skin rug that I would lie on and read the old magazines (mainly Harvard Lampoons, if I recall correctly) that I had scavenged out of his older son’s bedroom, because the actual books in the house were all too intimidating for me to touch.  Dick Lee seemed to ingest information whole, absorb it through his skin.  He knew everything and somehow wanted to learn more.  He was among the most well-read people I have ever met.

He was also one of the kindest, and almost certainly the most benevolent.  He spent his summers for years and years taking students as young as 14 on medical treks to Ladakh, a remote mountainous area in Kashmir, where they would help treat infections, administer vaccines, and care for pregnant women and their children.  He apparently took similar trips to Brazil and Kenya.  He spent much of his residency in rural Montana, doing housecalls for families in the middle of nowhere and then working on a reservation.  He managed to combine his drive for adventure and thirst for knowledge with a relentless do-goodery that touched thousands of patients over 50 years of practice.

And he somehow managed to take the time out three months ago to respond almost immediately when I sent him an email about my health concerns.  He provided some clarification about auto-antibody tests and reassured me that it was certainly possible to have positive results on those tests and never develop full-blown symptoms of lupus or Sjogren’s. (He also followed up with my mother a few weeks ago to see if I’d gotten any answers from my rheumatologist visit, and just to express general concern.)  I look at our email correspondence and feel, as my mom put it yesterday, bereft.  It doesn’t make sense.  How could he have just been here, and then, in a moment, gone?  I listened to a radio interview last night that he and Ben did a couple years back, discussing his discovery of their hidden Chinese heritage, and I just smiled hearing his voice.  His voice that was alternately calm, clear and wise, or else boisterous, rollicking, Shakespearean.  I can’t imagine never hearing it again.  The world is richer for him having been here, and poorer now that he is gone.