Death of a Mentor

The last long conversation I had with Bob Isseks, technically my dad’s cousin but in my mind my uncle, was about Donald Trump. Bob died last week, and I have shuttered myself with resentment over the fact that such a destructive and useless real estate mogul/golf course tycoon/U.S. president/criminal could have stolen the final hours of our time together.

Bob was a role model and a friend. As my brother points out, Bob was unique in his commitment against infantilizing young people by talking down “to their level.” I recall deep emotional conversations he would prompt with me and his grandson, Paddy, who is now seven years old. We would take kayaks out on the lake behind my parents’ house and discuss love and politics. He would ask Paddy to verbalize his opinions on the issues. Paddy liked to ask Bob “why,” and that’s because Bob liked to ask Paddy “why,” too. On the first kayak trip, Bob and Paddy accidentally rammed my boat and capsized it, and I came out of the lake pelted in seaweed and mud. They howled with amusement, and Bob kept apologizing to me through his laughter.

The last time we met, I lectured Bob and his brother, Fred, on the business of resistance. Bob looked worse than I’d ever seen him, which was not completely awful, because he was youthful at 65, closer resembling someone ten years younger. He was still marvelously handsome, his eyes placid with knowledge, his face pocked with the distant memory of a pimpled, self-conscious adolescence. He was massive, his frame still broad and solid, like an oaken chest of drawers, which I suppose was how he had been built ever since his football days in high school. I told him and Fred and Ted, my dad who was sitting next to me, about how the fight was on, how we would mobilize and stand in the way of the state’s assault on democracy. I was talking to a public civil rights litigator and his brother, an activist public school teacher who had recently retired after 40 years of service. They looked at me and did not smile. Bob was haggard and looked exhausted and ate his omelet more silently than he ever had in all the times we had met at that diner during the holidays over the past decade. “It’s not fun,” Bob finally said. And of course I knew it wasn’t fun, that standing up for one’s beliefs in an age of repression and retrenchment and terror was a brutal undertaking when done right. But I was just trying to boost spirits the way that my friends had done for me in that month since the election. I knew that the enemy of progress was the pessimism informed by a lifetime of political disappointment, so I was trying to be peppy. To some extent I had forgotten whom I was talking to. Bob didn’t need my pep. “It’s not fun,” he said again, later, over email. He knew exactly what we were in for.

Bob and I were not terribly close. I understood the inside of his brain from the long conversations we had over breakfast tables, from the book recommendations and reactions we traded sometimes over email. As I got to know him in my early twenties I revealed myself to him intellectually and then emotionally, and he was a good listener and he volunteered the same stuff. He gave me the short version of his life in an attempt, maybe, to make me feel better about being transient and uncertain in my early adulthood. But our time was limited, and after his death last week one of the first things I thought of was that, between us, there was so much more to say. I actually knew very little about him, and if his direct family members are reading this you are undoubtedly thinking that this portrait of Bob occupies a mere back room in the mansion that was his life and his closest relationships. I can’t get Bob right for anyone else but me, and for me, Bob was a gift of robust connection and critical thought in an extended family tree otherwise dominated by formalities, niceties, holiday events where you showed up and talked about how good everything is, how bad the traffic was, how good or bad everyone’s health is. Apparently no one knew how good or bad Bob’s health was, maybe not even Bob himself. He generally just talked about what he was thinking. For me, Bob was significant because he encouraged me to share myself. That sort of insistence eventually, quickly, makes you want to be that person for others, too.

The fact that we weren’t that close and only saw each other a few times a year made it easier for us to be close, honest, and supportive when we were together. I don’t know if this is paradoxical, or if it’s an obvious truth that is just dawning on me, or what. From my point of view, Bob knew a lot about love, and he managed to teach me something about it, but I also know that he was struggling with these very issues — closeness, honesty, support, generosity — in his life. Just like every other normal person, I suppose. Since our relationship had no baggage it was easy for us to open up, and to feel good about it.

Bob was walking through a cemetery when he died. I think this is kind of touching; he would have laughed at his own ironic fate. He was not obsessed with death but he was not afraid of it either — his wife told me that he was joking about his own death hours before he died. The last book he reported reading was subtitled “A Study in Bereavement”; the first book he ever recommended to me was William Gibson’s “A Mass for the Dead.” I want to believe that the fact that he died unexpectedly is, ultimately, not any more of a tragedy than if he had died slowly, normally, in old age. The tragedy is simply the loss, regardless of how it happened, and I am learning that the tragedy of loss comes specifically from the richness of life and the joy of love. Bob was well attuned to these phenomena. He made a point of making me feel it.

 

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