Round about ten years ago now, I started studying for my Ph.D. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s effort, and it represented everything I had ever wanted to achieve. I loved my subject, I adored reading about it, I loved to write about it, and I was thirsty to learn.
I wasn’t too hot on getting up in public and speaking about it, but I figured that stuff would come later. It did, and I happily lectured and taught for many years.
But, back at the beginning, one of the things I took as a module that first year was Latin.
I wanted to be able to read and understand the beautiful manuscripts I had the privilege of studying, and I wanted to be ‘fluent’ (if one can use that word about a language that isn’t really spoken, at least as a vernacular, any more); a lot of older scholarly texts in my subject, medieval studies, quoted passages of Latin without any translation as their authors would have expected anyone who read them to be able to understand them without difficulty. I also wanted to master a command of this beautiful and important language, just because it was an intellectual challenge.
One day, as I sat with my ‘Wheelock’s Latin’ trying to catch up on the previous lesson’s homework, a new student strode into the classroom. Tall, and handsome, dark-haired and blue-eyed, there was an air of friendliness and humour about him. He looked around the room, smiling broadly, and eventually settled on a vacant chair not far from me. He nodded a greeting as he took out his own book, and among his notes I saw some photocopies of an Old English text that I was also doing research into.
‘Are you doing Old English?’ I asked, excited to meet another person like me.
‘Yeah,’ he replied, still smiling – for this boy always smiled. ‘I love it.’
And so, a friendship was born. Our mutual incomprehension of Latin and our fear of the instructor and her impossible class tests gave us something to laugh about over coffee; our shared love of Old English meant we’d often sound out one another’s grammatical knowledge over lunch, engaging with the multiple meanings of certain words and the effects this had on the texts we loved. We’d work through translations together, discussing the beauty of the language and the blood-stirring stories. Sometimes, we’d just hang out and talk about the same old nonsense anyone talks about when they’re in good company.
He was fascinated by my Ph.D. thesis, then in its barest infancy, barely wobbling on its badly-researched legs. I shared ideas with him and drew strength from his enthusiasm. In return, I engaged with his research, which was on the Old English word ‘mod’ and its uses in different texts over time. This word has many meanings: Courage. Heart. Mind. Soul. Spirit.
He embodied them all.
At the end of our academic year together, my friend left my university to begin working on his own Ph.D. at Durham, and I bid him farewell with a heavy heart. I missed his good-natured banter, his scholarly excellence, his determination to get to the bottom of any linguistic or grammar-related issue, and his sheer enthusiasm for life. I looked forward to watching his career progress, and I hoped – one day – to meet him again. His smile never dimmed and his good humour never failed, and he was the sort of person who carries sunshine in his pocket – everyone was glad to see him, and he always made the day brighter.
Last Friday, I discovered through a message posted by my friend’s aunt that he had lost his life, suddenly and tragically. He was still living in Durham, far from his family in Connecticut. He had been ill, but his death came out of the blue.
The news stunned me. I sat at my computer, weeping, scrolling through the many messages left by his friends and loved ones on his Facebook wall, all of them saying the same things that were in my heart: ‘Too young,’ ‘What a wonderful man,’ ‘One of the greats,’ ‘Will be missed so much,’ ‘Brought joy wherever he went.’ It didn’t lessen my own shock and grief to see how deeply he was loved, but it did make me feel a little less alone.
I thought of his long-ago MA research, and the word ‘mod’, and how it had been the perfect thing for him to write about. He was heart, and soul, and courage. He embodied fullness of spirit. He was one of the best people I have ever known, and I will always regret that I allowed so many years to pass without seeing him in person.
The title of my blog post today means ‘A hero, young in years.’ It is written in the language my friend loved – Old English – and taken from one of the poems we discussed over those long-ago coffees, ‘The Battle of Maldon.’ I can’t believe the world has lost someone as bright, loving and intelligent as my friend, and I will miss him all the days of my life. All I can do now is hope he will live on in the memories of those who loved him, and keep the flame of his ‘mod’ alive in my own heart.
In Ireland, we have a saying when someone dies. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. It means ‘Never will his like be seen again.’
In my friend’s case, it’s absolutely true.