RIP, Gary Adelman

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.

Farewell, Gary.

I thank you for everything.

I will miss you.

And I love you.







8 responses to “RIP, Gary Adelman

  1. Golly, Jeff, you have had to say good-bye to so many close relatives recently. It will make you appreciate those who remain, however. You can cherish your moments and hours with the living all the more poignantly now that you have experienced the inevitability of human mortality.

  2. Jeff- Gary and I went to the University of Michigan together for 3 years. The family plan was for him to become a dentist and work with my father. While he was at Michigan he became passionate about literature. He went to Columbia to get his PhD.

    I was thinking about our conversations after I had the accident. I wanted to know what my body was saying, what the pain meant, how the connection with how I was named or labelled in the world affected the physical symptoms I had from the accident. I wanted Gary to talk to me about this. He wasn’t interested in talking about his body. All he wanted to do was, by this time, hear literature, remember what he heard, teach and write about it.

    Each of us is on our different paths. When I got diabetes, he told me the most valuable way to keep my body functioning. Gary exercised after every meal. Sometimes he went on his stationary bike. Sometimes he walked. When I heard what he did, I thought that if he can do it and live such a good life, I can do it too.

    With Gary dying I felt that the connection to our college days was leaving too. Now that he is gone, I know he is much more comfortable without his body. I know he is with his family. I know also that he is looking at his life, moment by moment, asking himself God’s questions. I know how much Gary cared for his sister, Martha. I also know Martha since she was born.

    We are a family. She has lost the person who was closest to her all of her life. I know that our connection is not the same. But I will call her and tell her I am here for her. I can do that for Gary. I miss him. His death is the first of the cousins, the first of our generation. His death makes every day I am alive all the sweeter. The older I get, the more I am aware of how much being alive is a gift. Gary was given many more days that any of us imagined. For that all those who loved him are grateful.

  3. Dear Jeff,

    Your eulogy-farewell to Gary is very beautiful and deeply moving. Thank you for writing it and for sharing.

    When we were kids, I didn’t think Gary knew who I was. For one thing he was older than me. But far beyond age was the fact that he was the focus of all the male Adelmans’ attention. Even Aunt Dorothy paid special attention to him. He was the heir to the Adelman name and hope for continuation of the Herman Lester Adelman line. The rest of us were girls.

    Gary received even more attention from my father and Uncle Dave, my father’s first younger brother, because Gary was such a superb athlete – like Uncle Dave and my father – but especially like Dave who was a natural world class athlete. He had the medals to prove it.

    Gary’s childhood diabetes started around age 15. He’d been playing stick hockey and been hit on the head. Kids didn’t wear helmets in those days. Several weeks later on a Friday night when we were all gathered for dinner at Grandpa Herman’s apartment, Gary begged my father to help him because he, Gary, knew was sick and dying. Today even I could have diagnosed his diabetes but in those days most people didn’t have any awareness or knowledge of this awful disease. Uncle Arthur made the diagnosis, Gary got his insulin, and his life was saved.

    Unfortunately for Gary’s eyesight not much was known about the effects of insulin on the body. Instead of managing one’s diet, exercising, and taking as little insulin as possible, which is what diabetics do today, he was told to eat what he wanted. If he ate more, he should just take more insulin.

    In Alice’s comment to you she said that Gary was to go to dental school and go into practice with my father. I had always heard that he was to go to medical school and become a doctor. To become a doctor was still the dream of American Jews striving to become securely middle class. Medicine conferred status, security. Medicine was a much more rarefied profession with far greater financial opportunities for wealth than dentistry.

    I’m not sure why or how I began my adult relationship with Gary, especially since he always asked after my husband, Elliott, with great fondness. I ignored his obvious affection for my husband, and my jealousy, and began to share my life with Gary. When I told him I’d been writing poetry, he asked me to send them to him. He was generous with his praise and encouragement. Told me he loved the rhythms I’d created. He urged me to publish. Plus he’d shared my poems with friends of his and they praised my work. Heady stuff.

    When I finally told Gary that I’d been drawing, doing collage, and creating “people” on wine corks, he wanted to see what I’d done. When I sent him photos of my work, he asked several of his art expert friends to described and evaluate. He shared with me their praise for my creativity and the fine quality of my art. He was very proud. And so was I.

    Right now I don’t feel as if Gary is gone. That will come later.

  4. Gary loved to shop in our store, Art Mart, in Urbana and was in regulary. I helped him on many occasions. I’m saddened to hear of his passing. Best to the family.

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