February 18, 2006
Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Leroy S. Rouner, my philosophy professor from Boston University, passed away on Saturday morning, February 11, 2006. He was 76 years old. He had bone marrow cancer.
I first met Professor Rouner when I was a sophomore at BU in 1994. He was the head of the Institute of Philosophy and Religious Studies, and I’d seen him in the “Loneliness” lecture series he organized, and in other on-campus functions. He was tall and had silver hair and brows and blue eyes. His physiognomy exuded authority and scholarship — he looked like the head of a philosophy and religious studies department. He was a graduate of Harvard College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia.
I’d also learned that he brought his German Shepherd, Maya, with him to his classes. I was a psychology major, and for the longest time, I’d wanted to take the existentialism philosophy class, which was usually taught by another younger, and more popular, professor. But like most popular classes, it was first offered to graduating seniors. It was only in my first semester of senior year that I was able to register for the class. And that year, 1996, Leroy Rouner taught the class.
By then, depression had already crept up on me. I had acute anxiety attacks and contemplated suicide. I exhibited all the classical symptoms of depression, but I wasn’t aware of it. I thought I was too special and too smart to be suffering from a mood disorder. At the same time, life was very difficult. Combing my hair took a tremendous effort. I felt alone – like Emily Dickinson’s “speck upon a ball.”
I remember looking forward to the existentialism class from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Thursdays. I often went to see Leroy during office hours. Sometimes I waited until all other students have left the lecture hall and walked him back to his office, as Maya led the way.
Boston was dark and cold.
He told me about India, where he taught philosophy and theology for several years, and about his family — his parents, his wife Rita, and his children, Rains, Timmy, Jonathan and Christina. Timmy died in a rock-climbing accident in Alaska in 1977. He was 18.
I told him about my preoccupation with suicide. I don’t know how it was possible for him to understand, but he did. The difference in age, background and culture didn’t seem to matter. People usually didn’t want to know or were otherwise incapable of knowing. But he got me, and it was OK that I felt bad.
And I learned the great joy of being understood by another person.
I left for New York in 1998 to enroll in a clinical psychology program. When I went back to see him in Boston, he took me to lunch at the Harvard Club. He usually had a glass of Chardonnay with his salad, and I had mine with Perrier. Then he drove me back to South Station in his “Sacred Benz.”
Timmy used to love to drive the Benz, and he’d kept the car for decades in memory of his son. The Benz finally broke down completely in late 1990s. He was still able to salvage the license plate which said “Appa” — “Dad” in one of the Indian languages — and put it on his new car.
I became more and more miserable training to become a therapist and wondered if I should quit. Leroy was the only one who said I should quit if I didn’t believe in it, or if I was that unhappy. So I did. It wasn’t until I walked away from clinical psychology that I realized how working with people with severe mental illnesses had worsened my own depression, instead of making it better.
I still remember waking up one morning, after I’d quit, thinking, perhaps it is possible to live.
When I didn’t get into SIPA the first time, he told me not to let anyone decide how good I was. He told me what “Ex Nemo Non Feces” meant and signed his correspondence “Blessings, dear. Ex Nemo and love, Lee.” I reapplied to SIPA and got in the next semester. I met some of my best friends there and now work in development like hundreds of other graduates.
He also stood by me whenever a boy broke my heart. He said my loneliness would go away, not because of a lover or a good job, but because I would have become good friends with myself. And he promised me that when I meet the right guy, he would marry me. When he told me a year ago that he had cancer, I felt like I was running out of time to find the right guy. And I did — I ran out of time.
I am so sad that he died. I am so sad that I can never see him again or hear his cheerful voice on the other side of the phone, calling my name: “Katrin!”
And I am so sad that his wife is having memory problems. If she doesn’t remember, no one else would know what he and I had shared. I have lost my Knight of Faith.
But I am grateful that I had the chance to see him one more time last November. I’d flown more than 30 hours from Banda Aceh to Boston to have lunch with him at “our old stomping ground.” I hadn’t seen him in three years, and he had lost a lot of weight. The same waitress served us lunch. Afterwards, we picked up truffles from New Bury Street for his wife and drove together to his house in New Hampshire. It was a sunny and unusually warm afternoon.
When his faithful German Shepherd Maya died eight years ago, he wrote a letter to his friends:
So my view is that when we get to heaven, St. Peter will assign an angel to each of us. God is, of course, omnipresent, but not very tangible, even there in heaven, so we need someone tangible to remind us that God loves us. And that’s the simple job description for angels. They don’t do much of anything. They are not there to be useful, or wise, or any of that stuff. They are just there to hang out with you and be your friend. And I suspect that when I get to heaven, and my assigned angel shows up, she will cock her head at me, and perhaps even wag her tail, and I will say, “Don’t I know you from someplace?”
I know Maya picked you up and walked you to the gates of heaven. And I know you have been reunited with your Timmy now.
Ex Nemo and love,
© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2006. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.