My colleague and friend Brett Foster died this past Monday. I knew Brett for 10 or 11 years since he started at Wheaton where I had already been teaching for a few years. I was not exactly an “inner-circle friend” of Brett (many of those have already written deeply moving tributes to him which I hesitate to try and add to) but I was still pretty close. I always felt a somewhat irrational bond to him because my philosopher father and Brett both did their Ph.D.s at Yale (40 years apart); my father also loves literature and poetry (he wrote a book and many articles on the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins) and met Brett a couple times when visiting our church, All Souls Anglican.
It took his illness, perhaps, for me to realize how much Brett had worked his way into the daily fabric of my life and psyche, at church and at the college, even though I did not talk to him all that regularly or labor in the same scholarly guild (I’m a liberal arts school chemistry professor, after all, which is a far cry from a literature professor). But, we played basketball together for many years, we were cleaning partners at church, we frequented the same football-watching and beverage-consuming groups.
I wish I had more of Brett’s capacity for giving of himself to his friends; I hope that spirit of his will be one thing that continues to work on me despite his parting. Brett was in an extraordinarily vivid dream I had the night he died, which is unusual because I rarely have vivid dreams. We spoke for a bit in the dream, and I awoke and wrote down a poem that I had briefly thought about the evening before after hearing of his death. I’m sure it’s an astonishingly bad poem technically, but it does the job for me. I think it represents one unique tribute I can add: the fact that Brett could inspire a chemist who hasn’t written a lick of poetry in 25 years to immediately jot something down, forgo embarrassment at its amateurishness, and share it:
“A sweet fellow” is how he might describe someone like himself,
ever quick with a kind, encouraging word,
he of the tricky left-hand flip shot on the hardwoods,
a dedicated duster of undercroft sills,
a guy of the gridiron devotees
who might enjoy the idea of a chemist fumbling with
words to express loss and to honor
the gift of witnessing a life well lived.