Brett Foster, beloved of many, passed away Monday evening at his home. A man of many gifts, Brett wrote feverishly, taught diligently, and loved with a passion for extending his ever-widening circle of friends. It was hard not to be drawn to Brett, charmed by his endless curiosity and inexhaustible well of dreams. Conversations with him could move fluidly from Shakespeare to Sports Illustrated to the rumor of a new Half-Price Books opening in Chicagoland. It was abundantly evident that, for Brett, friendship was a spiritual gift.
I was continually amazed by Brett’s ability to multiply his time. Where did he get the energy, at the end of a full day on campus, to run like mad to the College Ave station to make the 4:57 train into Chicago to attend an evening reading at the Poetry Foundation? Where did he get the energy to correspond with so many far-flung friends, the courage to face down an inbox constantly filled to capacity? Whence the power, in a single week, to write three poems, a piece for HuffPo, a chapel talk and more?
Recently I shared with Brett my excitement at having discovered an out-of-print joke book. For as long as I can remember, humor has operated as legal tender in our relationship. Besides being just plain fun, humor was our currency for conveying deep emotion. When it was difficult to express our fears or longings or our frustrations with each other, wit was there to lend a ready hand. We delighted in outlandish turns of phrase. We enjoyed skirting, without falling into, offensiveness. We enjoyed groan-inducing bad jokes. Looking back, our conversations seem to comprise a taxonomy of comedy, as we reveled in irony, word play, intentional mishearings, and subversive indecorum. If humor can say more than a plain translation, why say it straight? Humor worked like the doctor who palpates the swollen abdomen, getting closer and closer to the source of the pain while preferring to leave it to X-rays and imaging scans to deliver the cold, hard, unlaughable facts.
When I discovered the out-of-print joke book, I was delighted by its juvenile word play and abundance of puns which would now be considered irrelevant or indelicate. Countless times, when someone unwittingly uttered a pun or double entendre, I would pounce on it with a smirk, prompting Brett to groan and shake his head, “Low hanging fruit, Galbraith. Low hanging fruit!” But these puns were not just groan-inducing. They were strange, even baffling. Take, for example, the question: Why are pianos noble characters? The answer: because they are grand, upright, and square. Or consider this one: How is a woman who faints in public like a good intention? The answer: they both need carrying out. To my mind, puns are sort of like engine oil, a way to keep the conversation running smoothly. They also draw attention to the many layers of our language. They suggest that we always mean more than we think we say.
Lately, I found deep sustenance in one pun in particular, and I was able to share it with Brett. About three weeks ago, after an evening spent visiting with a dear college friend just in from Berkeley, I texted Brett a pun I had come across in the joke book. His reply was welcoming: “Ah that wd have fit well our joke telling last night!” But as I continued to think about the joke, I found it strangely wonderful, for which reason I want to share it with others:
Q: When day breaks, what happens to the pieces?
A: They go into morning.
Although I did not see it at the time, the pun on “daybreak” speaks to the truth about Brett’s death. His passing is, indeed, a dawning of sorts, freeing him from the pain which only continued to grow in recent months. And while we might think about death as dissolution — the body deteriorating, or breaking into “pieces” — the Scriptures tell us that Brett has gone into a new day.
Reading the joke in this way gives me great consolation. At the same time, it strikes me that the pieces can refer to the brokenness of our community in his absence. Brett’s morning is our “mourning.” In this moment we cannot but feel the full weight of a seeming contradiction. We feel a mixture of pain and joy, the unity of hurt and rejoicing.
We miss you, dear friend. And yet we will see you again.