It is perhaps one of the saddest things in life to lose touch with a person only to later find that they have passed away – the understanding that there will never be a reconnection bears a heavy weight.
This morning, I felt the brunt of this sadness as I tried to look up a former professor of mine from the University of Washington. It was strange; when I failed to find his email in the directory I simply assumed he had moved on to another school – he was a young guy and, as far as I knew, in good health.
I decided to Google his name just to see where he might have wound up, only to come upon the ominous subtext of the first link, from the UW Department of Asian Languages: “The department mourns the passing of…”
I clicked the link anxiously, eyes wide as they jumped between the text and the black and white photograph of my former professor. I spoke aloud and disbelievingly to myself and to the silence of my apartment. Everything was making horrible sense – the emails that were never returned, and in front of me, the glaring fact that he had died last year.
Professor Scott Swaner was not someone I could call a personal friend, which seems quite obvious given my obliviousness to his death. But to me he was somewhat of a kindred spirit. He was my adviser and professor in 2005, and a great scholar of Korean literature.
We shared a common bond in our passion for the culture of the peninsular nation, and I always smile when I think of the comedy of two tall white guys with somewhat outlandish facial hair sitting in an office speaking in Korean. Professor Swaner always pushed me (and all of his students) towards a deeper understanding of Korean culture through literature and towards sharper language skills. He was one of the first professors to really teach me how to think, and he encouraged and further inspired my ambition to be a journalist in Seoul.
I remember fondly other things about him – the Korean movie poster covering his office door, the John Coltrane poster hanging on his wall, and the time we ran into each other at an anti-war rally in downtown Seattle. Professor Swaner was a confident, complex and wise man, and I regret that I didn’t take more time to visit his office hours, to just chat, to listen and learn.
While in subtle mix of disbelief and sorrow this morning, I followed the internet hypertext trail to a comment on an NPR segment on cancer about Professor Swaner, and from there to the blog that he ran from his diagnosis to his death. It’s called Do Not Go Gentle, the title inspired by the poem by Dylan Thomas.
Though I hardly have the heart to backtrack through his battle with the disease, his first post is perhaps one of the most sobering – I’ll re-post a bit of it here:
Imagine you’re moving through your life, beginning your career, enjoying some success and good health, and like anyone else you’re making plans. You’re 38–in many senses it’s the prime of your life. In any event, you’re young still. You liked reading and writing so you went to graduate school, you traveled a bit, in 2003 you started teaching poetry in a university in Seattle. You get halfway through your second year, gearing up to finish that “first book,” when your doctor calls to follow up on some tests about stomach pains you’ve had: “You’ve got cancer of the pancreas.” […]
It is both an unimaginable nightmare and a stark reality – that life, one day, ends. It is always sad, but for Professor Swaner and all good-hearted people who face death young, it is a tragedy.
Professor Swaner died of pancreatic cancer on December 20, 2006.
He was 38 years-old.