I’m having a Scotch tonight for my friend Ben Burns, whose funeral was today. Half the town was there; I arrived 20 minutes before the service started and had to sit in the balcony. A bagpiper played on the steps of the big Presbyterian stone pile on the lakefront, one of those too-GP-for-words churches, although Ben wasn’t like that at all. He grew up on a dairy farm up near the Thumb and lived all over the U.S. before he came back to Michigan and worked his way up to the editor-in-chief’s position at the Detroit News. I didn’t meet him until just a few years ago, long after he’d left the paper (sale to Gannett; need I say more?). He was one of the three partners in GrossePointeToday.com.
It was a beautiful service that struck a delicate balance between sadness and celebration. Ben was 72, past the usual threescore-and-ten we consider a full life, but it still seemed too soon. He’d been living with a blood condition for 15 years when it morphed into leukemia, and he died in less than two weeks. Two weeks! He was scheduled to teach a class at Wayne this term. I got the email, went to see him in the hospital and missed him. Left a note. Called him, but he was resting and not taking calls. So I wrote him a note, mailed it and he died the next morning. Two weeks. You think you have time for these things, but people? You don’t.
This is good Scotch. Macallan, 12 years old. Like 80-proof candy.
Ben made the best of his life. He was funny in a quiet, droll way, which made his stories even funnier — like the time he took a woman he was dating to a big, loud party, lost track of her and discovered her in bed with the hostess. He had a big Spinone Italiano named Mac, after a photographer he’d worked with. The photog thought he was having a nervous breakdown, so Ben took him to the psych ward for the rest cure. They had to sit for a few hours, as even psych wards have to practice triage, and it must have been a full moon or something. The photographer watched the passing parade all the time, and when his name was finally called, stood up and decided he was feeling better and wouldn’t be checking in. I guess something in the animal’s face reminded Ben of the photographer, and every time I looked at his big, goofy muzzle I would try to see the picture-taker within. The dog laid by Ben’s hospice bed until the very end. I don’t know what happened to the photographer.
When someone dies, we talk a lot about legacies. Ben’s: Four spectacular children, a beautiful wife, career accomplishments to fill 10 glory walls. (My fave: a photo of him standing next to Arthur Ashe, autographed by the tennis star: “Ben — Stick to basketball. — Arthur.” Ben was 6-feet-8.) And a reputation for friendship and mentorship, service and all-around decency that streamed across the sky like a comet’s trail.
The opening hymn was “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” The closing was “Lord of the Dance.” Joy. Dancing. That was his life.
(If any of you read the obit I linked to and like it, please know the best parts — the pickle fight, Kwame’s recalcitrance — were Ben’s, written as a brief autobiography for a speech introduction or something a while ago. I wrapped them up with a new top and bottom. I hope he would have appreciated the irony of writing his own obit, but who else would come up with details like being voted one of Metro Detroit’s “most woman-friendly men?”)
No links today. The Macallan is all gone, and I’m headed for bed.