On Death

July 13, 2016  ·  death, ysu, math

This post is about death. More generally, it’s about losing loved ones.

Part of growing up is losing people who matter to you. It is a sad truth. People die, people fall out of contact, people move away and make new connections. This post is about the first scenario - you have been warned.

I am not good at handling death. Frankly, I suck at it. I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t know how to process it, who I can safely talk to about it, what things to avoid (and for how long) so as to get late loved ones out of my mind and be able to move on, or if that is even a healthy thing to do. I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t know how to safely channel emotions out into productivity so that they don’t get bottled up.

My father died when I was 13 and while I wasn’t very close to him, it was the first time in my life I had felt what it meant to lose someone important to me. In the several times people important to me have died since then, the feeling has always been the same and processing it each time never gets easier or less confusing.

After my father died, I would occasionally come across things that reminded me of him, or things that I had taken from him when I got mad at him (I was a child at the time), and instantly a slew of emotions would run through me as I tried to further process the loss in my life. This still happens on occasion, though after moving several times, less physical things in my life bring me back to that place.

When my friend and co-worker Seth Vidal died back in 2013, I was crushed beyond words. He was one of the first people I got to know in the Fedora community, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. Every time I see his name come up (on old tickets, in commit logs, old IRC logs, etc.) I am sent back to that place and filled with emotions. It’s been three years, but I don’t think that will ever go away.

A few months ago, the Youngstown State University community lost Eric Stone, a brilliant young Electrical Engineer who had everything going for him and wanted the world for everyone he knew. My best and only memories of him are filled with nothing but him laughing, joking around, being there for friends, and always trying to brighten the mood when someone was having a bad day. He was incredibly talented, always willing to try new things (like swing dancing), and just an all-around great person to know.

And today. Today, both the Youngstown State University community, and the mathematics community at large, lost another brilliant mind who made a difference in the lives of everyone who knew him. Dr. Fabrykowski was perhaps my favorite math professor at YSU. He genuinely cared about his students and wanted the best for them. When taking his Discrete Mathematics class, I would go sit in his office with him and two or three other students and we would all talk and laugh about anything and everything. He would always show really interesting number theory and other math results and motivate students to succeed. He loved what he did and he loved his students. A while back, the paper entitled “A Mathematician’s Lament” surfaced and described problems with how mathematics education is handled in general. It explains in detail, among other things, the fact that in order to maintain an interest in math, students should be allowed to discover mathematics, rather than the subject being taught “to the test.” (This is just one point the paper makes; seriously, go read it.) Every point that that paper makes, Dr. Fabrykowski made at one point or another when I was sitting in his office and talking with him. He hadn’t read the paper. But he reached the same conclusions. That is, he wanted his students to genuinely love mathematics for what it is, not because the test said they have to. He didn’t care about the test. He cared that his students wanted to learn. And any time a student would come in and hint that they might not want to learn, one could easily Fabs (as we often called him) get genuinely sad about this before he would try to motivate them if they were willing to give it a chance. And if they were, ten times out of ten, they fell in love with the subject, and started hanging out with us in his office all the time, too.

Dr. Fabrykowski is one of the reasons I decided to add my math dual-major. He was one of the most genuinely caring professors I have ever known and would go out of his way to help each and every student he talked with. He would help people in any way he could, not just math, not just number theory. And while I never did get to take his number theory course, he instilled an interest within me to learn more about it. He had that power with a lot of people; he just knew how to make things like that interesting to people.

Words do not do my feelings justice. I am not good at handling death. I never will be.