In news that alternately brought me sadness and relief, I learned today that Gary Adelman, Mom’s oldest cousin, died yesterday at age 76.
The source of my sadness is obvious.
Gary was one of the most courageous and vital people I ever met, and I loved him deeply.
Blinded after a case of childhood diabetes, he was a voracious, passionate and insightful consumer of literature who taught English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for more than 40 years and who kept writing until the very end of his life.
His final book, this one about Beckett’s heirs, will be published later this year. Gary wanted desperately to see it in print, but his body didn’t make it.
He never complained about the impositions the disease caused him, instead seeking constantly to emphasize the positive parts of his life.
It lasted close to 30 years more than many had predicted.
After receiving his mother’s kidney at age 44 – he called it a gift of life twice given – he was expected to survive five years at the most.
Aunt Estelle’s kidney functioned for 22 years.
Then, in a remarkable coincidence, Gary’s wife Phyllis was also a kidney match. She gave him one of hers, and it helped him make it through nearly another decade.
These medical developments aside, and despite living the vast majority of his adult life in the Midwest, Gary never lost touch with his Brooklyn Jewish roots.
He was an Adelman through and through: bawdy, eager to engage in verbal combat with the goal of higher levels of understanding, and often equating volume with quality of argument.
In short, he was a vivid and unforgettable presence. (I’m resisting calling him a force of nature because I feel that phrase is used too often to describe dynamos like Gary.)
Mom always talked about how he got lit by literature while at Columbia University.
The fire never went out.
Gary came of age intellectually during an era before post-modernism had fully gotten its hold in English departments throughout the country. While he ultimately became proficient in that approach for his final project, he brought a more basic and central concern to his reading of Dostoyevsky, Beckett, Conrad, Kertesz , Lawrence and all the other giants he devoured.
To wit: he used their work and their lives to gain insight into the meaning of life itself.
My brother Jon and I talked about how walking with Gary through the streets of Champaign was not only like attending a private literary seminar, it also left us with the distinct impression that many of the characters he was discussing with such precision and gusto were at least as alive to him as we who were standing right next to him.
This is not to say that Gary’s head was only in books.
He took enormous interest in and displayed tremendous generosity toward me.
I met him only a couple of times as a child, but maintained increasing contact with him starting in 1987, when I first visited Phyllis and him at the home where they lived for the more than 30 years they were together.
Gary was an invariably engaged conversation partner on the phone and in person. He consistently asked probing questions about what I was reading, what I was working on, what I was thinking about for my next move.
Above all, he inquired about Dunreith and Aidan and and emphasized their importance in my life.
At the end of each conversation he thanked me for calling him.
Gary gave me and all those who knew him many gifts: the gift of hearty laughter and shared company; the gift of a disciplined mind, an unerring hunt for emotional truth and a compassionate soul; the gift of an unceasing grit and the ability to identify, hold in front of him and feel life’s deeper meaning.
How Gary lived his life and how much he gave are also the source of my relief.
He suffered a lot the last year as the ailments kept multiplying and basic functions like eating and walking became harder and harder.
Gary wanted very much to attend my brother Mike and his bride Annie’s wedding in October.
His body just would not let him.
When I called him shortly after returning from the West Coast, he compared himself to Poland, surrounded by three empires, but with its flag flying high.
“The monsters are at the gate,” he said. “I’m in closure.”
But not in so much closure that he couldn’t draw on his prodigious memory to quote Cervantes’ Don Quixote and tell me, “The next time we speak, Make haste; tell me all, and let not an atom be left behind in the ink-bottle.”
Jon and I went down to Champaign twice after that.
The second time was on Saturday, the day before he died.
Gary’s hair had never turned grey, but as he lay in the hospital bed in hospice care, we could tell his ravaged body’s final breath was near.
I told him quietly that I loved him, that I appreciated all he had done for me, and that it would be over soon.
Yesterday, mercifully, it was.
I thank you for everything.
I will miss you.
And I love you.