I wanted so much to be at Dennis Freeland's memorial service Wednesday, but 500 miles and job obligations kept me from attending. I wished I could be among his friends as they shared their favorite stories about him. Everyone who knew Dennis has a story. Most of us have dozens.
I met Dennis more than a decade ago, when we were both struggling freelance writers so desperate for gigs that we accepted assignments from a godawful Elvis magazine. Before long we ended up working together at the Flyer. There, Dennis instigated a revolution, persuading the company to ditch its Antiquated MS-DOS computers and typesetting equipment and replace them with Macintoshes. He insisted we could create a better-looking paper with less time and effort, and he was right.
As an editor, he was extraordinarily generous. He spent uncounted hours nurturing young reporters, helping them to polish their work (and giving some of them more chances than they probably deserved). With me, because I was already an experienced writer, he took a hands-off approach and trusted my judgment.
"I'm sure whatever you turn in will be fine," he would say. I appreciated the respect and confidence he showed in me.
And it was Dennis, in his gentle way, who pushed me to make a career leap when I was hesitant to take the plunge. In 1999, I was offered the opportunity to move to the mountains of northeast Georgia and cover environmental and medical issues for a daily newspaper. I felt guilty about abandoning the Flyer, especially since Dennis was recovering from a recent stroke. Yet he was the one who encouraged me to go.
"I'll miss you, as a colleague and even more so as a friend," he said. "But you need to do this."
So I did. I literally would not be where I am today if it weren't for Dennis Freeland.
But my fondest memories aren't about Dennis the boss; they're about Dennis the person. I remember how happy he was when the government paperwork finally came through and he could marry his Indian-born wife, Perveen. I remember his profound joy six years ago when his daughter Feroza was born. How he loved being a dad! I can still picture the way he lifted the days-old infant out of her bassinet, holding her as carefully as if she were a porcelain doll, as he kissed her sweetly on the forehead.
I remember how, while I felt compelled to go jetting off to the Rockies every summer, Dennis was content to spend his vacation time at the Anytown camp in Arkansas, working with teenagers of all races and faiths. If everybody in the world embraced the concept of diversity as wholeheartedly as Dennis did, there would be no wars.
I remember his grief when his beloved German shepherd Spencer (aka "Bubba") died on the bathroom floor one night, right in front of him. And I remember how supportive he was of me four years ago when my own dog was critically ill. Fortunately, she recovered completely. But Dennis never failed to ask, "How's Sunny?"
I remember how distraught he was when one of his best friends died of multiple sclerosis. He confessed to me that this was his worst nightmare -- to be incapacitated by a disease like MS.
And then, the nightmare came true. At first, the doctors thought his mysterious neurological symptoms might be attributable to MS. I tried to reassure him that a diagnosis of MS would not be a death sentence. After all, my mother lived with MS for 20 years, and there are new and promising therapies on the horizon.
But then it turned out that it wasn't MS. It was much, much worse: glioblastoma, the most malignant and fastest-growing type of brain tumor. It is not curable. Dennis knew he was going to die no matter what he did, but he opted for the most aggressive course of treatment in order to buy a little more time with his family.
He endured so much: delicate brain surgery, weeks of radiation, even the new gamma knife procedure. None of it worked. He lived about the same amount of time he would have if he had done nothing at all. He had gambled and lost. But he didn't regret having taken the risk, and he accepted his fate philosophically.
I last saw Dennis on December 14th, during a brief trip to Memphis. He was tired, but he summoned the strength to talk to me for almost two hours. I knew he couldn't see me very well because the tumor had destroyed his sight. But at one point he looked at me and flashed that sly yet angelic smile, and for a moment the old Dennis was back again.
Before I left, he had a gift for me. He had been prescribed the antinausea drug Marinol, which contains the active ingredient in marijuana. He knew that I had been diagnosed with a stomach ailment that causes chronic nausea, and he wanted me to have his pills. Reluctantly, I had to decline, explaining that I'm very sensitive to drugs and my system just couldn't handle something like that.
"I've been looking forward to giving these to you for a long time," he said, clearly disappointed.
That was Dennis. Even when his own condition was about as bad as it could possibly be, he was thinking about others rather than himself. His compassionate and giving nature was what inspired such loyalty and affection from his friends.
That, and his impish sense of humor, is what we'll miss most about him. And what we'll remember.