There’s something really right about how people around the world are being moved to tears at the amazing end-of-life “The Last Post” published posthumously by my friend Derek K. Miller.
If you don’t know the story of Derek, you can read the Vancouver Sun’s tribute to him here.
I didn’t know him well. I had the good/bad luck of befriending him when he had less than a year left to live. We were in touch online for a few months before that, but we didn’t even meet until a year ago this week. After, I only saw him twice more. He invited me to his 41st birthday at his home, where I met his family, as well as his incredible Living Wake celebration of life in March of this year.
It’s with great sadness that I know now that Derek was friends with friends of my brother, more than 20 years ago, but we never met until 2010.
There are a lot of people I “know” today about as well as I knew Derek, but few could have me this devastated upon news of their death.
Did you see Harry Potter, the first movie? Remember the opening sequence when Dumbledore stands on Harry’s street, and plucks all the light from all the streetlamps, and the world falls dark?
I sorta felt like that when I woke yesterday and heard the news that Derek had passed. Few lights will ever shine as brightly as that man. Not for me.
On the page, erudite and expressive, profound yet simple when commenting upon the world around him, and in person, the warmest, kindest face you could ever see, with eyes that just drank you in because he was THAT interested in everything you had to say.
He was one of those rare people I consider a “hundred-percenter”. He absolutely gave 100% of himself to you, to his work, to his family, to his blog, to life. He did everything seemingly effortlessly, with grace and cool that people just don’t have anymore… even as cancer ravaged him, even to his final days.
In the end, I got to experience him the way the world did, electronically. Cancer’s not exactly awesome for one’s social calendar, so Derek wasn’t getting around much in recent months. His blog was all we got. But what a blog — an affirmation of life being worth living, death not being so scary, and how important little things are — from Diet Cherry Coke to walking the dog.
I knew he was dying, so I read his blog as he wrote it, but now I have years and years of archives to read, and I’m thankful his friends will be keeping that temple of Derek alive online for us all to experience.
Derek found me. He started following me on Twitter. I checked him out. There, in his bio, was “stage IV colorectal cancer.”
Me and cancer, we go back. My immediate reaction? I wasn’t gonna make the mistake of befriending this guy just so he could go and die on me.
And then I read his content.
I thought about it. Pretty fascinating guy. And, “it’s only Twitter.”
Followed him back. We engaged. He read my blog, commented regularly, and the exchange and mutual respect grew. Pretty standard digital story.
Then the Northern Voice conference came along in May, 2010, and I had to do a speech. The auditorium was packed with a lot more people than I’d imagined would come out, and my nerves were at Puke-Alert Level 3.
They tell you one of the public speaking tricks is to find the face of the kindest, most interested, most riveted, gracious-looking person in the auditorium, and look to them when you need someone to buoy you.
Instead of my friends, I made eye contact with Derek K. Miller and felt safe. I felt really, really safe, I let my guard down, and I had one hell of a successful talk. I don’t know if I could’ve had that same vulnerability without lucking into someone who was so incredibly responsive and supportive in the audience, like Derek was for me. He had this little smile throughout the speech, never broke eye contact for the whole half-hour, and now, whenever I think of Derek, I see him sitting left of centre in the front of that audience, his legs crossed, leaning on the armrest, his camera in his lap.
But, because the advanced stage of cancer left me unable to experience more tangibly the gift of his in-person friendship, the part of me that will mourn Derek the most is Me the Writer.
Even seasoned writers will tell you that ripping the Band-aid off and exposing your gaping wounds on the page is a tough, tough business. So many of us get wrapped up in the drama of it, dressing up the experience and making it so much more, or else totally missing the ballpark with this clinical detachment that “tells” and doesn’t show what’s going on. In those weak and affected retellings we lose the truth of the experience, and it’s nailing the truth that makes for great writing.
Derek, though, he had this incredible balance, an economy of language, and it just worked so well. His scientific predilections made him irrepressibly truthful, always, and frankly straight about it, but his heart infused his passion in his words, and his boyish wonder of the world would be inescapably obvious. Few writers can offer that combination of heart, passion, matter-of-factness, and childlike wonder, and Miller brought it all with a bang. His voice was rare.
And he wasn’t afraid. He had no pride getting in the way of telling us he was wearing diapers at the end, or in explaining physicality of the disease itself. He didn’t play the sympathy card. He simply wrote.
He wrote for the purest reason a man can write — to share his story because he knows he’s not alone in the human condition, and even if he would never meet that face on the other side of the world, he’d have told his story. A ripple in the pond. That’s all most writers really want to make — a ripple in the pond.
Derek K. Miller had one of the earliest online presences in this country. He had a legendary history on the web. He kept a weblog for almost as long as they’ve been around — 14 years now.
He wrote because he simply had to write.
He’s the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.
And he doesn’t exist anymore.
We, the Vancouver community, will forever remember you, Derek. You used the internet in the way we dream the whole world would — to teach, inspire, communicate, shed truth, entertain, build community, record posterity, and, most of all, just plain make friends.
Another good man’s done and gone, too fucking soon. Rest in peace.
**** **** **** ****
My Dream For Derek:
I love that Derek’s The Last Post is causing people to stop and rethink life around the world — from Roger Ebert all the way down to a housewife sobbing as she reads it on her iPhone in the WalMart parking lot (like a friend back east told me she did). He was that good a writer. He deserves the audience, even if he’s gone.
It’s his ripple in the pond, and I hope it ripples forever.
I would love a publisher to take his work and make it into book form. I would buy that book. I would gift that book.
I would love his amazing daughters and wife to receive royalties on his life’s work.
If Derek’s work could have a life after him, and provide a life for his daughters, it would be a beautiful, wonderful thing to behold.
The world would be a far, far better place if it were men like Derek that we all aspired to be, not celebrities.
Derek K. Miller, a man for the ages.
PS: The photo’s caption isn’t displaying for some reason. It’s a self-portrait taken in the photo booth at Derek’s Living Wake, about 6 weeks before his death. He chose it as his last Facebook profile avatar, and I think it was Derek’s funny way of toasting his friends for being a part of his life. ‘Cos he’s that kinda guy.