Gary Bellow was my friend. This does not make me special. Gary was a friend of hundreds of people in this room – and hundreds more who couldn’t be here today. I know that every one of Gary’s friends would like to say something today about Gary’s extraordinary capacity for friendship. But I have been given the responsibility -- and the honor -- of trying to do so. I will not speak as anyone’s representative. I will only speak of my own experience, hoping that it will resonate with yours.
Gary was not a saint. It’s not just that, unlike Mother Teresa, Gary liked to gamble — to mention only the most mention-able. His friendship was not saint-like either. Gary did not offer you a soft, enveloping embrace; he did not give off a warm-fuzzy feeling. Gary didn’t return your phone calls; sometimes he made you mad. Instead of being a soft, fluffy pillow, Gary’s friendship was electric. Like electricity, Gary provided you an enormous amount of warmth, along with a lot of light. Like electricity, Gary was a powerful, stimulating source of energy. His energy gave you energy -- sometimes so much that it felt like an electric shock. And, finally, again like electricity, Gary’s friendship was indispensable.
Not surprisingly, Gary seemed most indispensable at moments of crisis. In April of 1991, my wife was murdered a few blocks from where we are today. Just to utter that horrifying sentence should generate in your mind a virtually universal feeling: what could a friend say to me when something that devastating happened? Indeed, how could I begin to articulate myself the impact it had on me and my children? I want to make clear that there were many, many people – many in this room – who were wonderfully supportive to me at that time in my life. But there was really only one person I was ever able to talk to about this tragedy in any genuine depth. And that was Gary Bellow. What on earth did he say to me to make those conversations possible? The truth is that I really don’t know. We would be together, and he would say something, almost anything. And I would respond – and suddenly, without really knowing how, we would be talking in a way that was emotionally connected, that was imaginative and constructive, that got to the heart of the questions of the moment, that made me realize what the questions of the moment were. It’s not just that I could trust him absolutely, or that he cared about me. He was totally committed to being effective, to making progress on both the human and the practical level, to transforming the situation I was in. In doing so, he didn’t act unselfishly. He plainly got a lot out of our conversations himself, almost as much, it seemed, as I did.
Much the same story can be told when it was Gary’s crisis, not mine, that brought us together. Every time I visited him at Mass General before his heart transplant, I thought to myself: what can I possibly say that would be any comfort to him? What can he say about what he’s feeling? Gary was hooked up to more machines than I could count; we didn’t know -- no one knew -- when – if – a heart would arrive. I’d go into his room, I’d sit down and say something. And Gary would pick up on whatever I said, and we would suddenly be in an intense conversation that would range from his feelings to my feelings to issues in the world he was interested in. As we talked, you could actually see him gaining strength and optimism, not because of anything I said but because of the energy he got out of our human connection. Even at the hospital, our conversations were never -- not once -- just about him. I myself got ideas from whatever we talked about; I myself left the room more energized and optimistic.
Fortunately, our get-togethers were usually not at times of crisis. We would meet for breakfast or lunch at one of the absolutely terrible restaurants that Gary liked. When I would arrive, he’d typically already be there, with his messy pile of work before him. Often, he’d be in conversation with the staff working at the restaurant. He was plainly connected to them, like he was with every one else. I’d sit down and, sometimes, he’d ask me a question about something he was working on – a case or a problem with a student. Usually, I’d have no idea how to respond. No one knows less about law practice than I do, and any problem he’d raise about a student was sure to be a hard one. But I didn’t want to let him down, so I’d make an effort to say something that would at least not be embarrassing. And off we’d go. The topic would change, and both of us would get deeply involved in whatever we were saying. Gary would come up with lists of things he wanted to do because of what we’d said, and I myself would leave filled with ideas that were new, exciting, fresh. This energizing experience was routine with Gary. I never had a boring conversation with Gary Bellow. I never had a superficial conversation with him. I never had an unchallenging conversation with him. I never had a conversation that didn’t make our connection stronger.
What I’m trying to say to you is that Gary’s relationship with me was like his relationship with his clients, and with his students, and with his colleagues at work. His warmth, creativity, energy, and critical imagination infused the way he practiced law, the way he defined being a law professor, the way he thought about his own positions about issues. And it infused his relationship with me. Gary cared about his students and clients and colleagues the way he cared about his friends. And to care meant to challenge them as well as to give them support, to force them to think and rethink the basic issues that informed their lives, to demonstrate that there was no distinction between friendship and political activism. Sometimes, Gary’s critical stance would hurt his friends and allies, even hurt the people he loved. But the hurt was the pain of his constant challenge, a challenge he demanded of himself as much as others. We must be self-critical, he insisted. We must be open to changing the way we approach our lives.
I am a great admirer of Gary’s professional career. Like everyone in this room, I find his career truly inspiring, and I join with those who want to carry on the work he dedicated his life to. But for me Gary’s importance is greater than his work. I ask you to reflect, for a moment, about the twentieth century. How did we -- the human race -- do, do you think? If one focuses on things like improvements in technology – like, say, the provision of electricity – we did pretty well. But if one focuses on human relationships, I’d say we’ve made no progress at all, and probably moved backwards. The twentieth century, after all, was the century of the Holocaust; it was the century of conflicts from Sri Lanka to Northern Island, from Ruanda to the central cities of America, from the agricultural fields of California to Kosovo. Who in the twentieth century demonstrated how to live a life in a way that offers a standard for human relationships better than the general standard the human race has set for itself? Saints, I suggest to you, set too high a standard. It’s not realistic for us to try to be Mother Teresa. Creative geniuses set the wrong standard. Jackson Pollock did a lot to advance human creativity, but you wouldn’t have wanted to have dinner with him. The standard I want to offer you is the life of Gary Bellow. Gary was an ordinary human being, with faults and defects, who approached his life with energy, warmth, enthusiasm, and critical self-consciousness. We can all strive to do that. We all can learn to treat our friends with affection and transformative energy and do our jobs in the very same way. And each of us has the capacity to live this way not because it is selfless but because it is life enriching. To live the kind of life Gary lived, we wouldn’t have to represent the Black Panthers or help create legal services for the poor. We wouldn’t have to have the incredible courage with which he faced his heart transplant and its aftermath. We would simply have to realize that no aspect of our lives, no human interaction, no problem we face, needs to be treated as routine. Everything can be engaged; everything can be transformed.
I admit that living up to this standard is an enormous challenge.
On the morning that Gary died, he called me to say that he wanted to get
together that afternoon. He said he was coming in to teach, and that
we should see each other after his class. I was teaching that morning
too. In the middle of my class, my assistant came in and stood in
the back of the room. I went up to him, and he told me that Gary
had collapsed in his office and was asking for me. I raced out of
class and went to his office. What was I supposed to do when I got
there? I imagine that he wanted me to help him re-energize himself,
as our conversations always did. And if it didn’t work, I imagine
that he wanted me to realize that it’s my turn now — that it’s our turn
now. Now we must do what Gary did for us for each other. We
must honor Gary’s life in the way we lead ours. We shouldn’t just
remember Gary Bellow, although we will. Even if we fail, we should
try to be him.
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