I think I have always liked literature because I feel a kinship with characters who are searching for their place in the world. I think I have chosen this medium of writing to explore my personal place. Our world is just a small part of the universe. I am just a small part of the world. Yet, like most people, I want to make a mark on the world, to be remembered, to have meant something. Thoreau pointed out that “most men live lives of quiet desperation.” I want my life to be more than a struggle; I want to feel like I live a life that matters.
Now, there is a point when many, if not most of us, could feel maudlin. To make a mark on time like an Abraham Lincoln or a Mahatma Gandhi is impossible for the majority of us. These types of great men have volumes of books written about them, and websites dedicated to understanding the impact they made on civilization. School children all over the world learn of their lives, and they serve as the epitome of greatness. At times, I think I can never be what these men were, but then something extraordinary happens to remind me that no one is ordinary. Every single one of us makes an imprint on this world.
It was not surprising to me when I met my friend, Homer, post-college that he had a ton of friends. Homer has one of those personalities that is so friendly that he draws people in. However, he does not view friendships as fleeting. No, the greatest part is that the people who he considers his friends are people he keeps in contact with on a regular basis. You can imagine then that as Tom and I were nurturing a budding relationship with Homer, it was not shocking to us that he had friends from grade school, high school, college, and beyond with whom he still remained very close.
When Homer married the love of his life, many of these friends attended the wedding. Most of these people I met for the first time that evening, but I remember that like Homer, most of his friends were funny and liked to have a good time. Tom hit it off particularly well with his friend Brendan, and we spent the evening laughing and enjoying not only the wedding festivities, but life itself. I did not get many particulars about him that evening. I experienced that he was one hell of a good time. I learned that he bartended part-time and acted part-time. For me, he was just a breath of fresh air.
Years have passed since that wedding. Last September, Homer called Tom devastated by horrible news. Homer was shaken to the core because this friend he had kept for more than 25 years had contracted a fatal disease and did not have much time to live. Tom took the news harder than I did because Tom had the opportunity of having more interactions with Brendan than I did. Although I did not know him well, I remembered the verve to which he seemed to live life, and I was saddened for Homer and all those close to him who were about to lose a dear, dear friend.
Since September, Tom has spoken with Homer a few times, and it is still very hard on him. Brendan and he were very close, and to know you will not be able to talk with your friend, see your friend, enjoy the company of that person ever again is hard. At the age of 38, he stopped making his mark on the world.
But did he?
I am teaching Of Mice and Men for the first time. I have never taught American literature before this year, so I am rereading and relearning important books and themes. Yesterday, I asked a colleague for a power point he had created about John Steinbeck and background information on the book. He had gone to the internet and found pictures of Steinbeck, Salinas, rabbits and mice. He had also found a few still images from the film starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. He walked me through the power point. Just as he was about to flip to the last slide, he said, “I found this picture of a modern-day theater group in Chicago who performed this play recently. I want to show the kids that this work is still modern, and so are its message and themes.”
He clicked for the next slide, and there he was: Brendan. I stared at the screen in shock. I recognized him immediately, and I could not believe my eyes. Here was this picture of a man I once knew, a man who has left this earth, yet a man who has the ability to help Of Mice and Men come to life for my students.
At that moment I remembered what I always have known. We are each important. We each strive for greatness, and greatness is within us all. Just by interacting with people, we make a lasting impression. Maybe we will never end up in history books or on the covers of magazines, but each one of us exists in the hearts of others, people who are influenced by our kindness, our strength, and our individual zest for life.
Brendan, I did not know you but for a few hours, but you spent a lifetime impacting people; now, I feel a kinship with your spirit because you played a part in the great American theater and because you shared a piece of yourself with others. You may not have achieved everlasting fame, and someday your name may not conjure memories, but you have impacted me, and I will impact my students who will impact others, and because life will continue, your spirit will never die.