During the last week of March this year, I went home. At a work conference in New Orleans the weekend before, my uncle, David Baker, collapsed. Despite all the best efforts of medicine, he died a few days later.
He was 47, and all of this was a shock to my family.
I wish you’d met him. I wish he was still here for me to introduce you to him.
I’ve been grieving, probably since the moment I heard the news. I’ve learned the stages of grief, no matter how they were presented to me, do not form a single-file line as they enter a person’s life. Some days are horrible.
I write this because the world is a little less bright without David, and maybe these words can hold on to a little of the light.
He was trained as a teacher. For the last many years, though, David worked with the Illinois Community College Board. His passionate work was focused on adult learning and helping adults within the state to access and leverage their educations.
Some passions must be genetic.
In the last few years, we moved from the usual conversations about life and family when we talked. We’d become peers and colleagues. Conversations included mentions of local and national education policy, new developments in technology, and education practices. I will miss those conversations.
Most of my life, though, with only 15 years separating us, David was something between an uncle and a big brother. My mom tells me the story of David coming over to our house before heading to his high school classes and watching cartoons with me. I was far too young to remember those mornings, but I will still treasure them.
David is the reason I know James Dean, Johnny Cash, and Elvis are cool. He never explained why, but I came to understand their place in the pantheon of coolness through some sort of osmosis. The day Johnny Cash died and I spent the second half of my teaching day explaining who Johnny was to my eighth grade students, I knew I was doing the right thing.
David knew what was right.
When I was a teenager and we were celebrating some holiday at my grandparents, my grandmother asked me to go to the basement and get the folding table and chairs. Somehow, I showed adolescent resistance to the task. David, whose job collecting the table and chairs had been for years before I came along, stepped in, “Go get the table and chairs your gramma asked for.” He said it not in a stern or angry tone. He said it in a tone that reminded me what was right and of the tremendous place the elders of my family hold. I got the table and chairs.
Someday, I hope to have the chance to be a fraction of the husband and father David was. He loved his family completely with a sense of creativity and fun that filled the moments of their lives with life. He loved the snow. When it snowed and it was time to walk my 6- and 8-year-old cousins to school, it didn’t matter that playing in the snow would make them late for school. There was fun to be had in the moment, and school would be there whenever they showed up.
It hurts to write these words because I know they will forever fall short of the life and joy with which David filled the world. That doesn’t seem fair.
Just after he died, I was talking to one of my cousins. I was angry at other people who thoughtlessly offer platitudes about someone who’s died, commending people who were average as unforgettable.
David was unforgettable, the we needed him. Life was brighter, laughs were deeper, and the world a little better for his presence.
I wish you’d met him. I am sad that you will not.