On Origins, Transformations, and Nick

It’s been two years to the day since Nick died.

I have a hard time talking about it. See, I can talk about Nick himself just fine. The number of times I’ve mentioned things I learned during his classes, the stories I’ve relayed about his method of teaching — that’s easy. It’s when I try to talk about the grief it gets hard. Really hard. I still am not good at it.

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Nick (left) discussing various tide pool residents

It’s not simply grief inhibiting me; it’s that when I attempt to describe what Nick meant to me, there are so many things I need to say that most times I’m unable to say anything at all.

But I need to talk about it because the effect he had on me is not just part of his legacy. It’s part of my past, and it’s part of my present and future as well.

I am a radically different person today because of meeting and learning from him. If I am to carry on the work he started, I need to talk about where it began for me and why losing him caused such devastation in my life.


A year and a half ago, I had to write a series of gratitude letters for a class I was taking. It was seven months after his death and I wrote one to him. I couldn’t share it at the time, nor even on the first anniversary of his death. It was too raw. Too personal.

To say the process was excruciating almost captures the magnitude of what I felt during it. Almost, but not quite. It was also more necessary than I understood at the time. It’s been two years though, and a year and a half since I wrote that letter. It feels unfinished, the ending abrupt. But that’s what sudden death does. There’s no closure. It just…stops. Everything stops and there’s no opportunity to say those things you discover only afterwards you so desperately need to say. I easily could’ve gone for another several pages and it still wouldn’t have been finished. This is the best I could do then and it had to be enough.


Dear Nick,

I’ve been putting this off and writing drafts to you in my head for weeks. I don’t know why it’s been so difficult for me to put things down on paper. The advantage of writing to someone who’s dead is it doesn’t have to be perfect; it can be awkward in places and that’s okay because you’re never going to read it. All the embarrassment or vulnerability I may feel is completely internal. There’s never going to be a chance for us to interact around it. There’s no risk of either rejection or connection. There’s no risk of anything, because you’re gone. Yet somehow that hasn’t made this any easier.

When I asked my professor if it was okay to write a letter to someone who’s dead, even though it means we can’t technically deliver it to them, I knew it was the right decision to write to you because you showed up in a dream I had that night. Granted, if I’m reading emails before bed, some of those inevitably make it into my dreams, so it could be argued that it’s simply my brain doing its nightly work of processing and consolidating the day’s events. I’ll allow that the conversation my professor and I had provided the impetus for you being in the dream itself, but it doesn’t explain the contents.

When you died, so many people came out of the woodwork to grieve your death, and to celebrate your life. You were generally humble, but I know you had to have some appreciation for the scale of impact you had.

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Two in one! Turns out mice really like oats and peanut butter (yes, they were released)

For me, what hurts the most is the aborted future. I remember the last time I saw you. I called my trips back to see you at SRJC my “spring break pilgrimage to visit Nick.” I remember the energy we shared. Visiting you was always like having a crash course in the fundamental goodness of humanity. I remember talking about my health taking a nose-dive and how I was dealing with that. We discussed the duality of nature, and of existence. About how everything can be total shit and yet simultaneously miraculous. We both wished we had more time.

I remember one of the stories I told you. It was about when my father’s aortic valve failed. He had the surgery to replace it with a mechanical valve the summer before I started at Davis. During the three months he had off from work, I spent almost every weekday with him. As the prostate cancer was also back, he decided to start radiation during that same period since he was already home. He couldn’t drive for several weeks; in fact, he had to sit in the backseat whenever he was in a vehicle due to the damage that an airbag could do to his still-healing sternum and ribs. So I spent that summer with him doing puzzles, watching Crossing Jordan, talking about the cats, and driving him to and from radiation.

To date, it was the best summer of my life, and it happened because my father had two life-threatening health conditions. That is the duality of life. And that is something you understood. Fundamentally.

If anything, I learned it from you. When I first met you, I was so angry. I was finally learning how to be angry in the first place and I had a lot of it stored up. I suppose you could say I had two possible paths: to take it out on the world, or to not. You provided the modeling I needed for how to go about the latter path simply by your choice to exist as you were.

I was struggling in so many ways — it’s only hindsight that really shows me how much. At the time, I was a smart kid with unmanaged AD/HD who had never needed to develop study skills. (I say “kid” even though I turned 23 that semester, but it’s true what people say — you really are a kid until hitting 25 or so. At least, was the tipping point for me when I started to feel genuinely different. I know for other people it happens closer to 30.) I’d been through a lot of shit by that point already, none of which I felt I could talk to anyone about. I was frustrated with everything. And all of a sudden, I was thrust into a class that required a level of work I had no idea how to go about doing. To say I failed to meet the challenge that semester would be accurate.

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I learned more getting that F than I have getting most of my As

But here’s the thing. You made it okay to fail. From the outset, you made it very clear what your standards and expectations were. Yet there was no judgment involved. The very first day of class, you said, “Sometimes things happen and those things affect your grade. It’s okay. You can come back and try again.” So when it became clear to me that, after being up all night the night before the final, there was no way I was going to pass it — or the course — I went to your office the following morning, shortly before the final was supposed to start. I told you I wasn’t going to take it and I told you why. Part of me still hoped there would be a solution available that didn’t involve me failing the class — wishful thinking and all that — but there wasn’t, and that was okay.

I also wanted to blame you for making things “too hard,” but the thing is, I couldn’t. You were too nice. You had made the path to success too straightforward. Sure, it required a lot of work, but many things in life do. Faced with other students who were in fact meeting the standards you had set, I couldn’t claim your expectations were impossible, either. High, but not impossible. That meant I had to accept failure, accept that it was due to myself and circumstances in my life, and be okay with it.

Here’s the kicker though. Never in my life had it been acceptable to fail, because failure always was treated as a reflection of who I was as a person. With you, it wasn’t. You still liked me as an individual and treated me with respect. You didn’t treat me like a failure; you treated me as a human being who ended up in a particular situation in a particular point in space and time. There was no judgment, and that was a huge first in my life.

When I came back the following semester and rocked your class, it meant something. More than the grade I got. More than earning the highest score on your final (I think not only that semester, but ever). And although my experiences in your class — both times — certainly are the reason I’ve been successful in subsequent challenging courses, it goes beyond study skills. Your class was my first real introduction to the idea that my worth as a person is not and should not be based on external metrics. Of any kind. You modeled non-judgmental love, and you made it okay for me to love myself as I was. I didn’t have to be “good enough” anymore; by my existence, I simply was good enough.

I took that and I ran with it. I take credit for putting in the work, certainly, but you provided the spark, and for that I am eternally grateful. Every day, you chose to be the best, most loving person you were able to be that day. And as you said, loving people is hard. But you did it. You did it in the best ways you knew how, and it changed people. It changed me.

b83ce800-be9b-4c2b-adfa-c2d67c21c9acThe fall prior to the last time I saw you, as you know, my body and my life were falling apart. I was barely making it to lecture (I’d considered not even coming back to UC Davis at all), I was fighting Kaiser to get any sort of treatment, and my then-fiance’s father had just been diagnosed with colon cancer. Yet there was one day, standing at the sink washing dishes, that I was able to look out my kitchen window and appreciate just how gorgeous the fall leaves were on the trees. I was able to hold the misery, frustration, and pain I was experiencing in one hand and still see the beauty in the world. I learned that from you. I had to put in the work to be able to genuinely do it myself, but you provided a great model.

I feel fortunate I was able to share that story with you the following spring when we met for coffee. We connected around that, and it felt like we shared this wonderful secret that few people ever get a chance to encounter. I’m grateful I was able to be another soul in this crazy world of ours who gets it, and to show you I get it. As wonderful as it can be, it can also get quite lonely. Practicing love, practicing compassion — it’s hard. It’s worthy work, but it’s hard.

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It was the first thing I read when I opened my phone that morning

One of the things that is still hardest to deal with is how sudden it all was. And the timing. I finished my last final of winter quarter on a Tuesday. I was gearing up to make my spring break pilgrimage the following week. And then that Thursday, I woke up to that text from Rachel saying you were dead. I wanted to hurl my phone across the room. I was supposed to be seeing you the next week! How could you be gone? You couldn’t be. I’ve been struggling with so much, had been struggling with so much, had changed so much over the prior year, and with no warning, you had blinked out of existence. Gone. Just like that. A few days before I was supposed to see you. We had crossed that line from teacher and student into friendship, and I valued my connection with you very much.

I’m thankful that while you were alive, you were able to see the positive impact you’d made on me, but I wish like hell you were still here. We resonated in a way that is rare outside of — and even inside of — meditation centers and various spiritual practices. As I said, it gets lonely. Figuring out how to be simultaneously assertive and loving, continually, is hard. Fighting against systemic injustice while practicing compassion is very, very hard, especially in the face of all the anger I feel in response to watching people be hurt. You were someone I could talk about these things with and get real advice, and now I don’t know what to do. I’m stumbling through on my own and doing the best I can, but it sure would be helpful to have you here.

I’m grateful I knew you while you were alive. I’m grateful that failing your class the first time around meant I got to have two semesters with you rather than just one. But I wish I could be saying these things to you in person.

As always – love and light,

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Nick, hard at work during our Zoology lab

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About Ian

Medically interesting. Disability advocate. Aerialist. Studying physiology with a focus on endocrinology and histology.
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One Response to On Origins, Transformations, and Nick

  1. Pingback: Cycles and Seasons | Veteran Zebra: My Medical Life

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