In Memoriam

Once more life is bent on teaching me to be humble. Being humble and learning about the joys of life is how it feels this evening on returning home after what was a rather full day.

Today’s Aikido practice was rather special. We all met to clean the dojo; there was no practice. We lifted the tatami mats and vacuumed anything and everything, did the windows, all nooks and crannies, cleared cupboards and shelves, got out all the weapons and sorted things out. Yesterday I had already excused myself from the friday physics evening as there was the need to meet with my colleague Dirk and discuss our joint work on policy.

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This is the first time that Dirk and I do a big piece of work together. The opportunity to do the work came about through paths that although obvious and transparent, seem nonetheless unfathomable.

Dirk and I have a common friend, Harald. I have worked with Harald, and Harald has worked with Dirk. I met Harald when he joined the not so called Swiss Patent Office and he ended up sharing an office with a university colleague of mine whom I had asked to join the Office. One day in the year 2000 his office mate, my friend Walter, suffered a massive cardiac collapse, was rushed to the hospital and passed away before modern medicine could do much for his life. Walter had been waiting for me with another colleague in town having a drink when he collapsed. I was delayed at the office and was late in joining them at the bar that day. When I arrived, there was nobody to be seen, I kept going and bumped into another familiar face and sat down to have a drink. My phone rings, our colleague’s voice was not the bearer of good news. She was at the hospital, and Walter was dead. In a moment of absolute irrationality I took a taxi and rushed to the hospital. There was nothing that I could do, yet I rushed to the hospital. I announced myself to the emergency hospital staff and the nature of my relationship to Walter, a friend and university colleague, somebody who had known him for almost two decades. I spent the next three hours at the hospital working with the staff and the police trying to locate next of kin. I called our thesis advisor, I called any former colleagues who might know more than I as to what family name his sisters might have. Walter just happened to have a very common Swiss family name, quite a few married sisters with other names, he was the youngest of seven, and the first to die; to locate next of kin was not evident, not even for the police. Of all his colleagues, I was the one who knew him the longest, and the best, and unfortunately I knew preciously little about locating his next of kin. He had one daughter, one of those precious children of chance, and she was in Australia, her mother’s country, the place where this girl was born, and I had no clue as to where to look for her. All I knew was that she was planning to visit her father, and that he was thrilled about that, as she was already in her twenties and he had never seen her. The next day, the police and I managed to find Walter’s next of kin. His life had ended abruptly, rudely, and irreverently.

Walter’s death significantly marked my own life. Walter was somebody whom I admired for his keen intellect. Nobody knew more about solitons than he did. He danced in electrodynamics while I plowed through it. Walter was brilliant, truly a brilliant intellect. Walter was also a very unhappy man, very lonely, and often very careless. When I was writing up my thesis and preparing for the doctoral exam, Walter was there with all the moral support and all the assistance in figuring out the intricacies of non-linear optics that I needed. At the time my own marriage was falling apart, my son was a toddler, and I wanted to have that degree behind me and was getting nothing but criticism and demands from home.

In the weeks and months following Walter’s death, Harald and I did our best to work through the grief and mourning the loss of an esteemed colleague; it brought as together, and we got to know each other and developed a friendship. Throughout the internet bubble we watched without surprise as one crash succeeded the next crash. We were monitoring several of the companies making the headlines using the business intelligence that can be gathered from mining intellectual property, in particular, patent databases. Harald and I had many a discussion on search strategies and effectiveness, and we certainly both enjoyed the great satisfaction of finding those hard to find documents that destroy priority, and will kill a patent in court.

When I left the office, Harald and I kept up our friendship and shop talk, and Dirk joined in the conversations. We wanted to work together and carry on with some of the fun work for which there was a clear demand, but not much of a commitment from his then employer, to offer. In an unexpected, but perhaps not too surprising, development, at the end of last year Dirk joined the ranks of the scientific staff of the Swiss government. I had previously done policy consultation for the Swiss government, and now there was some need again for this kind of work in another agency.

This evening Dirk and I met to discuss the review of our joint work, and the feedback from his department and the agency commissioning the work. It was good to look at the results of what we have produced in past few weeks, really good. We are not finished yet, there are revisions that need to be done tomorrow, and then by Monday, the work will be concluded. Working together has by far not been smooth sailing. We have driven each other to the edge on several occasions, and sworn that the other is out of his, or her mind, a few times. It has been an intense time, confronting, and absolutely enjoyable.

When Walter died, what became very evident to me once more, was how very short life is. One day you do not wake up, you are dead. Gone, that was it. I then asked myself some very hard questions about what it is that I want to leave behind when one day I lay there in a morgue, like Walter did the last time that I saw him, and there is nothing more that I can share with another person. Seeing Walter lifeless, his chin bound by a bandage for some reason that I did not care to find out about, and totally dead on the other side of the glass window of the morgue, I knew that that too is life. It is finite.

Tomorrow is another day if I wake up. If I do, I will work with joy.

One Comment

  1. Dannie,
    I found your blog through a common tag (lift), I started to read some of your posts, I loved the one at CERN, personal, and went on reading a bit, with a great pleasure. I also retained the conference about secrests & lies!
    And, finally, I read this post, which touched me, it has a personal and universal meaning.
    Thank you for this nice moment spent in your company!

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