Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Requiem.

Jonathan Abbey, my brother.
I've never really fit in with those around me. I accept this and don't need those around me to think the way I do. All I need is for them to accept me for who I am. I have had the good fortune to find someone to share my life with who does this. Barring some unexpected misfortune, by this time next year, she and I will be married.

The way I think about the world is very rarely linear. This has caused conflict between me and my academic advisor, as she wants me to construct lists of what I am working on and how I will set about completing then. I generally think in images, patterns, and relationships. When I am working hard on a puzzle, I tend to see my thought processes as some form of abstract math, even though I don't always have the vocabulary to convey that math to those around me. There are conceptual problems that I've thought about for a while and came to solutions that I'm absolutely certain are true, but I don't yet know how to show them to anyone else. Sometimes, I don't even have a glimpse of how to explain.

There have only ever been a few people that I looked to as role models, for inspiration. Athletes, artists, politicians, and other people who arguably have large positive (or negative) impacts on the people of the world have never felt like role models to me. The people I have ever felt this sort of connection with, that remind me of how I see and want to see the world around me, I can count (in no particular order) on one hand.
  1. Albert Einstein.
  2. Richard Feynman.
  3. Stephen Hawking.
  4. Jonathan Abbey.
None of them were biologists. Perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise, as I often don't fit the standard model of a biologist all that well. They all shared a clarity and depth of thought that I aspired to.

The first three are names you are probably familiar with. Well, you're probably familiar with them if you've had a long-running interest in science and how the universe works. Einstein and Feynman died before I became aware of them and I don't expect to ever meet Stephen Hawking. (I wouldn't know what to do or say if I did.) It was only when I started learning about how they came to the discoveries they're known for that I started looking to them as role models.

Jonathan Abbey was the older of my two older brothers, my parents' first child. A few weeks ago, he died unexpectedly. The proximate cause of his death was cardiac disease, atherosclerosis. This is what is colloquially referred to as "hardening of the arteries". The ultimate cause of his death was his inability or refusal to keep to the schedule for his medication. He had type-1 diabetes and ankylosing spondylitis, two auto-immune diseases which amplify the effect of high blood-pressure on the damage to cardiac arteries which causes atherosclerosis. He went to the emergency room in the week before with chest pain. They gave his heart a clean bill of health and sent him home.

He spent a great deal of time thinking about thinking (meta-cognition). He encouraged me to pursue a PhD and was very proud of the work I have been doing when I last visited with him. He lamented his own choice of not pursuing a higher academic degree for himself. His professional work involved designing and managing very complex systems. He liked video games, music, and poetry as hobbies. He spent time thinking very deeply about people and how the world works. He pursued knowledge and argued vehemently against "belief". He strongly felt that what was real, what was verifiable, was most important. He was a good father, but maybe not so good of a husband or boyfriend. Many people who knew him thought he was a genius. He was my brother and I'm having a hard time dealing with his passing.

I've gotten past the shock. I've gotten past the sporadic moments of denial. I've even gotten past the moments of anger. I never really went through a bargaining stage. Now, I mostly just feel old. I think this is a mix of depression and acceptance.

I don't believe in a soul or an afterlife and neither did he. Attempts to comfort me by saying, "he's in a better place", in any form or variation are misplaced. Such efforts will anger me, even if not obviously so. If I know you, they will discourage me from interacting with you in the future. If I don't know you, I'll just delete your comment and maybe ban you.

I'm in the very final stages of completing my PhD in the department of Genetics at the University of Minnesota. By the time I post this, I'll have handed off my written thesis to my committee for review. In another two weeks, I'll defend my thesis and be done with it.

I'm sad that my brother won't get to know.