Saying goodbye to a good and patient man

May 12, 2019

This month of the spring I graduated college, a passenger plane caught fire on a runway in Moscow. Forty-one people perished. A high school classmate of mine, Jeremy Brooks, died in the blaze. He was the only American on the plane, the plane that Russian media said was hit by lightning as it took off and burst into flames as it returned to the ground. Jeremy was a master fly fisherman before he could drive a car. He was the first graduating classmate of mine to die.

The morning I read about the fire, I had been in the process of decluttering; getting rid of junk that had accumulated since high school; compartmentalizing or destroying the varied notes, keepsakes and artifacts of the many years of formal education. Unsentimental cleaning feels like the passing of emotional kidney stones, a voluntary chiseling away of what was. The past and present can seem controlled and definite when represented by memorabilia destined for a landfill.

But then an improbable fire destroyed a good and patient man who was an essential feature in the constellation of the adolescence we shared. Suddenly, certain objects took on a new and morbid sentimentality.

In my desk there is a hard drive from a computer long since broken, which contains an audio recording of an assigned conversation I had with Jeremy discussing William Faulkner. It’s a recording that would not matter to anyone; there is no relevant information in it either biographical or personal. Now that digital file is the most real evidence I have to show that I knew him, a low-fidelity rendering of his chesty, well-paced voice set against mine.

He was by all accounts phenomenally good at fly fishing. And with people he could always wear a smile and bear even exhausting personalities with cheer. Though I wish I had, I never shared his sense of natural and abiding patience. We were only ever close friends for a short time when we were a foot or so shorter. I remember playing basketball with him in front of my house; he was trying to help me find a shooting style suited to me. We grew apart, partly because I did not like to fish. Approaching adulthood, our lives became mostly parallel, then distant. If I thought anyone in our class could have lived a happy century in full, it would have been him; still amazed at the enduring natural world, free from the symptoms of despair, probably ending up as a great-grandfather giving fishing lessons. But he died with 40 others on a runway in Russia.

I have a photograph of our 36-member class that was a gift from the school. It shows Jeremy sitting near the middle of the assembled students, wearing sunglasses, the sun bouncing off his thick, wavy hair and straight white teeth. It was five years before the fire that we graduated from high school. All of us just far enough removed from high school to be able to look back on it with some sense of nostalgia. And with little to no interim, we were thrown into the rhythms of obituary glances and “did you hear about so and so” conversations. I thought we would all grow unrecognizable with time and render the photo a cheap souvenir; maybe I even internalized the delusion that we would all go on living forever.

In his life, Jeremy posted frequent photos of himself with his catches, always beaming with a reverent joy toward the dazzling fish. The photos record the prizes, the slimy proof of long hours spent in patience and dedication to nature. I’m sure he wasn’t thinking of how the photos would look in a memorial slideshow. He was not a morbid man.

Marco Alarid White is a Santa Fe native who recently graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in history. He wrote for the Generation Next section of The New Mexican while a high school student.