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February 25, 2010

Are you alive?

I woke up Thursday morning to very disturbing news about a friend. The subject line of the email was: "Urgent re John Byron" (all names and potentially identifying details changed). This message came from a common acquaintance, a woman I've never met. The gist of the email was this:
"Dear Friends of John Byron: Have you seen or heard from John? I last heard from him on New Year's Day. I've tried contacting him but the email bounced. I am very worried. It's odd for him to cut off contact like this. I think he may be missing, as there is a police search going on for him. Please give me any info you have about him."
She provided a link to an article in a community newspaper, which was written in an elegaic tone and reported that John has been missing for a few months and left a suicide note. It cited a police search and sad comments from people who knew him.

I closed the email, frightened but unsure what to think.

Dead? Suicide? Missing?

John Byron?

I've known John Byron for almost a decade. He started as my teacher and mentor and has gradually become a friend. Whenever I pass through his city I have dinner with him, and when he met Mr. A he was stern but charming, playing the father figure. He's a stunning intellectual, savagely frank, occasionally too much so for his own good, and a kind, warm soul. He's one of the few people I know who have the courage to tell things like they are, always, regardless of the consequences. The writing I occasionally give him to critique comes back looking like it's gotten into an alley fight, scratched and scuffed and bleeding all over the place. "ASININE!!" or "DUH!" he'll scream from page. When I'm trying to sound sophisticated: "Write in English!" And occasionally, a compliment: "Between all this gibberish I can decipher the kernel of a good idea. Get to the point and go with it."

Some call him caustic, crude, harsh.

I respect him deeply.

I thought back to my last interaction with him. A few weeks ago, I told him I was making progress. "The dissertation is almost done!!!" I gleefully typed.

"Dissertation almost done?" he replied. "Hmmmmm ... but I will withhold comment until I see you."

I never wrote back.

Such exchanges -- fragmented, rushed, postponed -- are typical between us. Quick chats between long bouts of work. Could I have been self-absorbed, missed cues of loneliness or impending tragedy?

I checked out Google news, and as soon as I typed "John Byron" the autofill added the words "missing" and "dead." Numb, I clicked through. Relief. It was a different person, a young man who died while hiking in Yosemite.

I called. But the number went through to a voicemail in Spanish. "Dejame un mensaje," said a little girl.

Finally, I wrote an email.

Like nothing happened. Picking up the previous thread, I said I really am progressing on the dissertation. Then I added I hope our paths will cross soon and asked "[Will] you have time for lunch or dinner?" I also mentioned that a woman was searching for him and linked to the news story, but said I didn't want to give any info without his consent. Take care!

I read and reread and reread the message, then hit send.

Something stuck me as strange about the woman's email. She says they were professional acquaintances, but her note was frantic. Was she stalking him, or just worried? Was she right to panic? The news article was also fishy: no police sources directly quoted, and a bunch of hearsay and conjecture. Maybe it was all a mixup.

And then, an answer.

Short and to the point: He is alive and well, and we've made plans to get lunch next time I'm in his town.

He said nothing about her email or the article, and I didn't ask.
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