Thinking of Gary Adelman

My thoughts tonight are with Gary Adelman, my mother’s cousin who really has been like an uncle to me.

He’s in his mid-70s, but, in many ways, never should have lived this long.

After contracting a case of childhood diabetes, he went blind by the time he was 25. This means that the last images he saw were in the late 50s and early 60s.

At age 44, his mother Estelle gave him a kidney-he called it “a gift of life twice given”-that was supposed to last for five years at most.

It lasted 22.

Phyllis, his devoted wife, happened to be a match with Gary and donated one of her kidneys to him seven or eight years ago.

Some people would have led this and the other difficulties caused by diabetes defeat them, but not Gary.

He finished his doctoral studies in English at Columbia University and began a more than 40-year career as a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

I’ve had the privilege of walking next to him many times, and can say first hand that for him many of the characters in his beloved Dostoyevsky, Conrad, or Beckett are at least as alive to him as the people walking next to him.

Conversation with Gary is a combination contact sport and Socratic dialogue. You best come prepared, too, because with his Brooklyn roots and love of verbal combat, he’ll root out any inconsistency or equivocation in your positions or ideas.

Possessing a near photographic memory, he’s also become more and more productive as a scholar as technology has made it much easier for him to write than before computers existed.

Gary’s always been a loving critic and fierce supporter of my projects and life path, and, for that and the connection to the Adelman side of the family, I’m enormously grateful.

Now, though, he’s ailing and possibly heading toward the end of his life.

We spoke yesterday, and, while he wanted me to give him a full, rather than summary report of Mike and Annie’s wedding he wanted so desperately to attend, he was too tired at that moment to hear it, but not so exhausted that he could not summon Don Quixote’s words:

The next time we speak

Make haste: tell me all, and let not

an atom be left behind in the ink-bottle.

We talked again this morning, and his voice was stronger.

“My spirits are good,” he told me this morning after comparing himself to early twentieth century Poland, surrounded by hostile empires but still proudly flying its flag high.

I hope they stay that way.

It’s been a full season of life and death for us these days and months.

In less than an hour Dunreith and I will leave to pick up Aidan, who is returning home for fall break after his first half-semester in college.

As we drive down Lake Shore Drive, I’m sure my thoughts at some point will drift to my valiant and much-loved Gary, and to the hope, perhaps fanciful, that we will again soon be able to talk as we have so that no atom remains in the ink bottle.



5 responses to “Thinking of Gary Adelman

  1. Gary was one of our dearest friends. Whenever possible, each Sunday morning my husband Fred and I walked the length of Meadowbrook Park in Urbana with him and then stopped to pick up his coffee at Espresso Royale in Champaign. His death leaves a huge hole in our lives that cannot possibly be filled. Who else can teach us how to love books and their authors with such a passion? I know of no one else with Gary’s depth of understanding of literature and its critics. He loved life and he loved his wife Phyllis, his sister Martha, his five kids who had been so important to him as they grew up, and the friends who encircled him, relishing his company. He lived a great life and fought the good fight with great courage. His last book will be published this spring and we only wish he had been able to enjoy its launch. We shall always think of him with love.

  2. Gary was a role model for us all. Despite his illness and limitations, he never felt sorry for himself. He never complained. He never whined, and if you tried to get him to talk about any one of his many ongoing medical hurdles, he refused. He did not want you to feel sorry for him nor did he ever feel sorry for himself. If he did, you certainly didn’t know about it.
    My favorite memories of Gary are playing Scrabble with him years back…. and losing! (Me, not Gary). And our Saturday morning walks — at the Park, weather permitting; if not, at the mall. Gary had been my friend for over 40 years. I will miss him.

    Carol Mizrahi

  3. I was a student of Professor Adelman’s at UIUC. He was the greatest professor I ever had. I think of him often.

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