It’s been four years since my writing mentor died. It seems so long ago, and then it seems like yesterday. Cliché, I know, but believe me, it’s the only cliché in this relationship.
It all began in a classroom on the campus of Michigan State University, and as classes begin this week (as well as it being the anniversary of his death), his absence hit heavy in my heart. He was my professor in 1990 for an American Thought and Language course. I spoke to him the first day after class, and from there, we met for coffee at least once a week for years.
We discovered early on that he shared a birthday with my grandfather, and I with his daughter. That only strengthened our connection. Fate, he called it. I grew to know his family, and ultimately, he referred to me as a member of his clan, his non-traditional, one-of-a-kind family unit. His family dynamic was just that, dynamic.
He was fascinating, living a life that presented like a work of fiction, and writing with a passion unmatched by any other whom I have ever met. Yet all I see in my mind when I picture him is his tweed coat and matching cap, latte and a muffin, crumbs speckled across his chest without fail. He just left the crumbs there, never even noticing them through our entire visit. He was childlike, so in love with life and its experiences, and generous to a fault. And his laugh…so hearty and full of life. I miss that laugh.
Hugo, as I called him, wanted everyone to experience a perfect life. He even tried to direct the course to what he felt would lead to the best outcome, and at times, it caused great frustration for me. I teased him about taking on the role of puppet master of the universe; he cared so deeply for so many, and this was how he showed it. It was all with good intention, though, so it was difficult to remain upset. There was the time he felt I needed a nice Jewish boy in my life, so he blindsided me with an impromptu date at one of our coffee engagements. I was less than pleased. Looking back, though, I realize how amusing it really was.
He was my biggest cheerleader, from support of my writing to the bogus parking ticket I received in East Lansing, when he went to court with me to fight it. I lost, but in hindsight, I see my real win was in having Hugo for a friend. He supported me so often when no one else did, and I knew if I ever felt down, a call to him never failed to comfort me.
He was quirky yet so intelligent, in a way that most were incapable of following his thought pattern. Imagine five expressos and a strobe light…delightfully chaotic! He loved to mess with people, to walk up and begin talking to them as if he knew them. At first, I was shocked and appalled with his boldness, but eventually I grew to realize it was all in fun, and if you don’t have fun in life, what do you really have? That was his greatest lesson to me.
I researched his work for my final project at Michigan State while earning a degree in English-Creative Writing. I cannot begin to explain how valuable that experience still is to me, all of the time and tapes and notes. A few years later, when my first book was picked up by a publisher, he was already making plans for the next book. The puppet master was at it once again! He never settled, always planning the next project. We were so alike in that we had so many ideas in our heads, but not enough time to get through them all, an office full of notes and sketches and outlines. He pushed for me to go on for my Masters, and then, when I was hired by a local university as an instructor, he was the proud peacock. His prodigy blossomed.
When he was first diagnosed with cancer, I never entertained the thought of his death. I couldn’t imagine life without him. He defied the odds throughout his entire life, and I assumed this would follow suit. And it did. For years, he was healthy and vibrant, he was Hugo. He downplayed any negatives in his life, and this was no different. I embraced our time together, and the primary focus was never on his health or his longevity. It may have provided a false sense of security for me, but looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
I remember the day I received the call, Labor Day of 2011. We were supposed to have lunch that following week. It was common for him to call to confirm, but when I saw the number pop up on the caller ID, I knew. My heart sank, yet I mustered up a cheerful greeting when I answered, hoping my gut was wrong. It wasn’t, though. It was his daughter, and he had died earlier that day following his battle with cancer and an ensuing infection. My mentor, my friend was really gone.
I had over twenty one years of friendship with Hugo. I miss him immensely. Perhaps today, in honor of his life, I will sit down with a latte and a muffin, and I will let the crumbs fall where they may. Abrazos, my friend!