In 2018 I published a book called Embodiment and the Meaning of Life. It started out from my reflections on our mortality. I originally conceived it as an argument about why death, terrifying as the thought of it might be, is not only a fact of life, but a necessary framework within which we can evaluate the events and experiences of our lives as meainingful.
The seed from which the book eventually grew was planted many years earlier, in a eulogy my friend and colleague Deborah Cook gave at a University of Windsor memorial for a colleague who had recently died. She quoted Hegel to the effect that death makes life whole. When a life has been made whole by death it becomes an object for others’ reflection and evaluation: only at the end can we say what it meant.
One forgets about these small influences until something jars us from whatever we are immersed in and we are thrown back into our memories. Yesterday, as I was trying to find my way on- line for yet another Team’s meeting, an email struck me as curious. It was from the Toronto Police asking for my help about a non-criminal matter. I was curious and a little alarmed, so I opened it. The Detective was trying to reach me to inform me that my friend and colleague of more than 20 years, Deborah Cook, had been found dead in her condo the day before.
The blows to my close circle of friends and family keep coming. This is the third person dear to me who has died since February. It is the misfortune of the living to have to memorialise those who die before them, to reflect on their life now lived and try to say what it meant.
If it seems presumptuous to take the whole of a life as an object of reflection, ask how much worse it would be– even though you would not be around to know it– to simply slip away without anyone noticing. To leave absolutely no mark on anyone or anything: would such a person even have been alive? Deborah left her mark on her circle of friends, her students, and the philosophical world. Deborah sometimes did her best to alienate everyone. Sometimes it seemed as if she might prefer to vanish without anyone knowing. But that was never really the case.
She was a trying friend– but true, too, in her own way. As a colleague she was more steadfast: she was always on the right side of the issues. She put herself on the line when, just before I came to Windsor, the university was being re-organized in an ill-conceived and ill-fated “restructuring program.” Fortunately, she lived to see the deconstruction of the reconstruction. Philosophy was liberated from the monstrosity within which it had been imprisoned, in no small part due to her efforts.
I arrived in Windsor in 1998 from Edmonton after two years teaching on a limited term contract. I was hired here on a similar contract. The first time I met Deborah after my hiring (she was on the hiring committee) was at a department meeting. Something about her name rang a bell, and then, as we chatted, it dawned on me that she must be the Deborah Cook whose book on Foucault: The Subject Finds a Voice, had played such an important role in my Ph.D dissertation, completed two years before.
Deborah was a philosopher of the minute and I of the expansive. Deborah poured herself into a text to parse it clause by clause, line by line, looking for the clues to original re-interpretation. I want to drag in content from everywhere and try it make it all fit together. But we shared an overall commitment to humanist values rooted in the belief that people are ultimately free beings capable of understanding and solving the problems that confront them.
Our long and and somewhat fraught friendship began with that first meeting in the Philosophy lounge where we used to have our department meetings. We were two academics from working class backgrounds who liked to drink, had short fuses, thin skins, and Irish tempers, but who both loved to laugh (as she once said, quoting Nietzsche) with “love and malice.”
For the first two years I worked in Windsor we would have dinner every Wednesday. She loved to cook: an artifact of her time in Paris studying at the Sorbonne. She preferred white to red wine no matter what was on the menu at dinner. How that taste developed living in France I will never understand, but some quirks one must just accept. In her living room was a picture of her sitting on the steps of the Sorbonne, cigarette in hand, her eyes smiling with pride that she had somehow made it from Woodstock to Paris.
She would eventually sell her house on Randolph Avenue where we shared those dinners. Like so many other Windsor professors she moved to Toronto, hoping to find there what she lacked here. She purchased a lovely one bedroom Condo on Broadview. She loved the space and location. You could still see a sliver of the lake. The New Edwin Hotel and Jilly’s had given way to hipster brew pubs and high end bakeries. She seemed happy when she talked about her life there.
Strangely, it was a only a few blocks away from the first apartment I ever stayed in as a visitor to Toronto. My uncle Jack, who also died this year, a day before my birthday, lived there. I visited him for the first time when I was 12 or 13. The first chords of the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant bring me back to that place every time I listen to the song. His roommate played it incessantly.
Deborah and Jack became fast friends until they had a falling out. And now they are both gone, six months apart. I spoke with her about a week before she died. I complained about on-line teaching and the stress of serving as President of the Faculty Association in these unsettled times. She counseled me that as bad as it might be it would have been worse to have tried to re-open the school. She worried about being isolated as case counts rose and the breezy, chilly, grey pall of Autumn in Toronto set in.
Today, however, it is glorious sunshine and remembrance of warm summer days past. I sit here trying to sketch another quick and inadequate memorial.
Hegel is correct: we deserve an evaluation. But wrong too: for how to sum up something as tangled and incoherent as a life in sentences and paragraphs?
Professor, Department of Philosophy