Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Death of a friend

On Monday an old friend died. Todd Varness was a brilliant physician, teacher and friend. He was a pediatrician in Madison, 36 years old, and his wife Deirdre is expecting their first child (a boy) in just a few months. On Good Friday he was diagnosed with lung cancer - the apparent return of a cancer he'd beaten years earlier. He died 4 months later.

Todd and I were no longer close friends. In college, however, he and a handful of others formed my community. He and I were lab partners (until he quickly passed me by and became my TA); dance partners, housemates, and good friends. So many memories of that time have come flooding back in the last few days. Acrobatic dance moves on the sticky floor of the Phi Psi house; debates over the true meaning of life after death as told by Dostoevsky; Ad hoc Chemistry lessons in the library; nights sitting on the roof of Homer Court. Not all of the memories are positive. He was also probably my first attempt at love, though it was never so clear, and my heart broke many times throughout our friendship. But the memories are all - every single one of them - incredibly full of life. Those were such vibrant times and the growth that occurred then has been a blessing for my lifetime.

Todd ultimately built a life rooted in community, faith, medicine, service, sports, and the love of his family.

I didn't know him well in this new life. But as I've been reading the testimonies of the vast swath of people who count themselves blessed to have known him, it's clear he was the same old Todd. Always up for adventure, fun, kind, spirited, driven, faithful, dedicated to his work and to the people he loved.

To grieve, I did what I do. Some people start baking or playing an instrument or exercising when they need to work out emotions. I preached. If you passed a jogger talking out loud and gesturing animatedly on Wooton parkway yesterday, that was me preaching a sermon to myself.

I centered my imaginary sermon on the text from last week, Luke 12. God reprimands a rich man foolishly storing up all these things for the future saying "this very night your life will be demanded of you." I thought about how Todd had lived his life as if other people had demanded it. People needed something from him - healing, friendship, wisdom - and he gave it. He might not have the future anyone had expected, but the life he gave while he had it was truly extraordinary. Todd packed more into his too-short 36 years than many of us do in the scores of years we've come to expect as our due. The tragedy of his death has touched many lives because Todd touched many lives.

It helped me remember that death is not the end. God's love is bigger than any grief, no matter how bottomless it might feel and a life that was vibrant on earth is even more vibrant now.

The overwhelming feeling I've had in the last 2 days is gratitude. I'm grateful that I got to be so influenced by someone as dynamic as Todd. I'm grateful that the people I met at good ol' Valpo created a community with me that still exists, despite years and miles of separation. Jill, Kelly, Dave, Tim, Rachel, Tiffany, Hope, Leanne and Jeff, Angela - I'm hardly in regular touch with any of these people, but I feel the influence of their friendship as a buoy, especially right now. I'm grateful for our professors - Dean Schwehn, Professor Contino; Margaret Franson, Olmstead, Piehl - are just a few. They took such care with us that they came to our parties and treated as if we might change the world.

I am grateful for this life. And plain old sad for his family and this world that Todd's ended so soon.


  1. I am sorry to hear of the death of your friend, Sarah. I (and so many others) lost a dear friend from PLTS in April, and it just seems like a lot of really young, really awesome people are dying this year. Maybe that's just how it always is. Peace to you and all who mourn Todd's loss.

  2. I have often noticed how gratitude, the most basic religious response, enters at odd times...


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