Last night I witnessed Arena Theater’s moving tribute to my
dear friend, Brett Foster. The performance included a carefully curated
selection of Brett’s poems – equal parts innocent delight and worldly passion.
The poems read especially revealed Brett’s ability to take in the world around
him, to hear it and see it for what it is, and to give it back to us transformed
and imbued with fresh meaning, so that we can also, sometimes seemingly for the
first time, see it for what it is.
At the beginning of the performance, it seemed to me that
the players were bringing to life Brett’s words – that they were bringing back
to life Brett’s voice, just one night after his death. While that much is true,
by the end I was truly inspired by the way that Brett’s words had brought to
life the performance and the way that Brett, himself, had enlivened the actors and audience.
Some may be saddened by the thought that Brett did not get
to see the performance of his work – he passed away at home during the first
performance on Monday night – but he did take in a Sunday afternoon rehearsal
in a final show of his trademark irrepressibility. According to those closest
to him, Brett spent most of Sunday saying he couldn’t make it to the rehearsal.
Many who know him well may recognize that this may have been the first time he
ever told himself he couldn’t do something. Brett often thought he could do
more than others thought he could, especially during his 17-month battle with
cancer. (To his credit, he was usually right about himself, and he also thought his friends could do more than they thought they could!) So, for some of Sunday, as he insisted he could not see the rehearsal, it might have seemed like the cancer had
finally invaded his will, like it had metastasized to his spirit.
It might have been Brett’s greatest show of irrepressibility,
then, when he finally declared, at the last minute, in the midst of his
gravest trials, and against even his own advice, that he would still go to see the rehearsal. Word is that he
was out the door five minutes after making the decision – for Brett’s friends, this quick exit may be
the most unbelievable part of the story – and that his family helped him down
the stairs and into a seat in the theater, where the performers, already
halfway through the rehearsal, started over for him. Even after all the times
that Brett defied odds and advice – going to Ireland with his family this past
summer, for example – finally defying his rapidly deteriorating condition and
his own creeping sense of inability on Sunday brought back to life for one last
time his trademark irrepressibility.
Yesterday, I tried to open class by asking my students to
spend a moment in silence for Brett’s family. The handwritten reminders at the
top of my notes started with, “Have students pray for Anise, Avery, and Gus.” As I made the request, I
couldn’t keep it together and had to leave the classroom. When I returned, I
told my students that I supposed I owed them an explanation.
“When colleagues have left Wheaton,” I said, “whether they
love their new jobs or hate them, like or dislike their new communities, regret
their decision or feel like they made the right one, they’ve reported missing two
“First, they miss our students. They say that Wheaton
students bring together a unique combination of preparation and earnest desire
to be transformed by their education.”
“Second, they miss the camaraderie we have among faculty
colleagues – they miss their friends on the faculty and staff. And it’s not
just that they had good friendships and it may take a long time to cultivate
new ones. People who join the faculty here often report that they never had
these types of friendships at their previous institutions.”
“We have a special community here, and for a lot of people,
Brett Foster was at the center of that. He was one of my very closest friends,
and I’m devastated by his death, but in many ways he brought to life parts of this
When I was asked to speak briefly at our faculty meeting
yesterday afternoon, I told a friend that I hadn’t been able to keep it
together when talking about Brett with my students, and I guessed I probably wouldn’t be
able to keep it together with colleagues, either. “Keeping it together is
overrated,” he said. “Besides, if this were a place where you had to keep it
together, we wouldn’t be starting our meeting this way.” Here, with minor
changes and the addition of one of Brett’s poems to which I only referred
yesterday, is what I said through tears:
On Saturday night, I was with good friends, and I told some
of them that I’ve often described my time at Wheaton as my “second education”
because I’ve learned so much from my colleagues here. Ten years of coffees,
lunches, and drinks with friends in art, chemistry, economics, English, history,
music, theology, and other disciplines has amounted in some ways to another
degree in the liberal arts. But just as we hope that our students, through
their liberal arts education, will cultivate certain dispositions, habits, and
virtues even as they grow in knowledge, I’ve learned more than disciplinary
background and “book knowledge” from my colleagues.
Brett Foster was a colleague who taught me. He didn’t teach
me to translate Italian, to read Renaissance literature like an expert, or to
write poetry, but he taught me to be a friend. I watched him share the burdens
of others when they faced trials, and he drew me more deeply into a supportive
group of colleagues during a difficult season. On a rough December evening
years ago, he dropped everything to come talk with me at a restaurant near my
home. I hadn’t asked him, but he insisted. For a time afterward, that somewhat
sketchy restaurant became our go-to place. So much so that when my wife bought
a Groupon for that restaurant, intending that she and I would use it together,
I assumed she had bought it for me and Brett.
In early June 2014, a number of friends were gathered for lunch at a local restaurant when Brett came in and broke the news of his diagnosis. We were, solely by coincidence, seated under a t-shirt pinned to the wall above us, which read “Cancer Sucks!” Speaking of t-shirts – mere days later, as I was about to depart for a family road trip, and as Brett was about to start his treatments, I returned to him a t-shirt he had given me, which read, “Honey Badger don’t care! He just takes what he wants.” I told him I didn’t want it back until he’d beaten the cancer. Before I left, I added his number to the very short list of those programmed to ring
through to my phone even when it is on “Do Not Disturb.”
Over the past 17 months, I’ve been privileged to see the
faith, hope, and love with which he faced the unsettling news of his diagnosis,
the ravages of cancer and chemotherapy, and the terrifying choices he had to
make. And I saw in his recent bursts of creativity his deep love and
appreciation for his friends.
Among my favorite Brett Foster poems is “For My Friends,” a
poetic commentary on a story from the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark –
the one about the well friends who tear a hole in roof and lower their paralytic
friend into the healing presence of Jesus Christ.
“For My Friends”
– Mark 2
The frequency of your kindnesses
to me is deserving of acknowledgment.
Will it provide you with some thin glimpse,
at least, to say that I have felt at my best,
because of you, in these worst of mortal days?
To have lived this one life so multiply
surrounded by friends of an uncommon sort—
immeasurable comfort, source of my pride.
You cared for me in ways that made me
feel like the paralytic who gets carried
over to that gathering at Capernaum, maybe
at the healer’s own place. The front door
is unapproachable because of the crowds.
And like so—: all summer you have hauled
me around on my stretcher, and when
the entrance was barred to us, you climbed
atop the roof and began sawing through it.
(Even hoisting me up there— keeping me
steady and leveled as we ascended
the ladder, what an effort it demanded!)
I usually picture, in my doubtless presumptuous
modern way, that the roof was thatch,
and even so, it would be no easy task
to open up that skylight on my behalf.
Just so you have lowered me into that room
where a message is being heard, something
about all things being restored, made new,
and there I am, well-meaning interrupter,
empowered by his well-meaning crew.
And I can still feel your presence above me,
the weight of me and your sustaining it,
the rope digging into and burning your palms.
Down here, I am unwavering in expectation
for some remark about forgiveness,
though I really don’t know what it will mean
to be told, “Get up, pick up your stretcher,
and make your way home.” I question
the home that is spoken of, and the nature
of that invited rising. In any case, I feel sure
I would do so quickly, both thrilled with sudden
motion but also, truth be told, glad
to be done with all of this fuss. I like to imagine,
too, you guys still on that roof, how easily
you’ll lift the empty stretcher out of the house,
your smiles and handshakes as you descend
from the roof, mission done, and then stash
the ladder somewhere, and race to meet me
in one of our places— a dark back corner
at Bavarian Lodge or Muldoon’s, or perhaps
the side porch, August evening at Two Brothers.
You will not forget the stretcher, exactly,
and neither will I. I don’t envision feeling confident
enough to throw it away for good, but how glad
and relieved I will be, after our pints (my treat),
to store it away in a closet, not thinking
about it, not at all, till I have need of it again.
I’ve always loved that poem, and not least for the way it
shows Brett’s continued attention to others while he was suffering. But from
the very first time I read it, I wanted to turn it on its head. You see, if I
could have Brett’s gifts – if Brett could teach me to write poetry, and not
just to be a friend – I would write a poem about the sick friend who, through
uncommon faith, hope, and love in a time of great suffering, lifted his well
friends into the life-giving presence of God.
On Monday night, when I heard the news of Brett’s death, I
went to the home of a mutual friend so that we might grieve together. “Brett
would want us to be doing this, sitting together, drinking a beer,” he said. But
we decided that Brett wouldn’t want us to be doing it alone. So we extended an
invitation to many friends to meet after last night’s 7:00 PM Arena Theater
performance. We had a full house of people grieving Brett’s loss and
celebrating his friendship, which was, as someone pointed out, Brett’s
spiritual gift. We remembered Brett, his work, and his wishes. One colleague
said that we should not let go the many things that Brett hoped one day to
accomplish together, that we should, in some ways, carry on his work. Another
pointed out that Brett always made her feel welcome, as if it were important to
him that she was there, and said that the most important way in which we might
carry on his work is to carry on in the friendship and community that he cultivated.
Even in his death, Brett enlivened the gathering last night. And if we heed the
advice of our colleagues, then what we’ve learned from Brett will continue to
give life to our community.