One of the biggest problems with getting older is that many of the folks you care about don’t. The Rector of one of the churches I attended many years ago reminded us that “Life is a terminal disease: everyone who gets it dies.” We are taught from an early age that life is fragile, and that “the hour of our death” is unknown.
I was reminded of this recently as a consequence of my ongoing search for people from my past. Ever since I learned I had colon cancer way back in 2004 (surgery and chemo were apparently successful – I’m still here!) I have been on a mission to find and thank all the good souls that have had a significant influence on my life…sort of a reverse of steps 8 and 9 from AA ( Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.  Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.)
Several years ago I discovered that Thaddeus Koza, a close friend during my year at the University of Chicago, had died in 2010, just short of his 70th birthday. Thad was then a doctoral student in English at Northwestern University, but he lived in married student housing at the University of Chicago with his wife Barbara, who was a grad student at UoC. Then-wife Carol and I became friends with Barb and Thad, socializing, entertaining, dining, and generally sharing our lives during that frustrating year. Barb and Thad were instrumental in our choosing the University of Michigan to continue our graduate studies (see my earlier posts on “Zig-Zagging Towards a PhD). According to his obituary Thad had not pursued English as a career but had established a well-regarded reputation documenting and photographing the world’s existing tall ships. Strangely, none of the tributes to his life mentioned that he was once married to Barb.
My attempts to locate Barb were hampered by not knowing what last name she might be using. I found nothing on “Barbara Koza” but using her maiden name “Barbara Babcock,” I found a professor at the University of Arizona, but an email to her went unanswered. Over time I found that the UA Barbara Babcock had obtained her PhD degree at the University of Chicago at about the time that Barb Koza would have finished, and that her field was the same. Again, there was no answer to an email. Yesterday I found this: “In Memoriam: Barbara Babcock.” The picture confirmed that this Barbara was the one for whom I had been searching. What a life she led!
I knew Barb and Thad as young marrieds, before any of us discovered our lives’ passions. We played endless games of Racing Demons (Thad was unbeatable, even when we forced him to use miniature cards). . We shared meals. We talked about life. We rummaged for antique furniture in old barns around Bellefonte, PA, Barb’s hometown, where we discovered many treasures. Ultimately, they convinced us that we would be happier at the University of Michigan. What a difference that choice made in our lives!
I think of Barb frequently. She confided two kitchen secrets to me that I value to this day. The first was to make tuna salad with mayo, lemon juice, dill pickles, and onions (both chopped small), without mustard, celery, or parsley (and definitely no sweet pickle relish!). The second was to make a paste of brown sugar and Dijon mustard, slather it over the top and sides of a corned beef brisket fresh from the pot, and bake the glazed brisket in a 375° oven for 20 minutes. Man, that is superb!
Thank you, Barb and Thad, for enriching my life. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to tell you in person how important your friendship is to me. May you rest in peace.