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The Way I See It: Death and Regret

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The death was my father’s.

On June 22, 2014, in a room at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, my father, Jim Lambek, lay in a bed, no longer able to move his body, let alone stand up, and when he was awake he was very hazy.

At some point during the evening when my father was relatively lucid, my brother (or was it I?) told him we had arrived at that moment when it made sense to decline further treatment, and we asked if that was what he wanted. It seemed to all of us that he indicated yes, that is what he wanted. My brothers and I had a hallway conversation with the doctor about stopping treatment, aside from medication for comfort. She concurred.

The decision may have had no consequence, as he died the next day, and probably would have regardless. On June 23, my brothers and sister-in-law and I were in his hospital room together. The old man was in the bed by the window, asleep with narcotics. We talked amongst ourselves, I don’t recall about what. My brother Larry looked over at our father and asked if he were still breathing. He was not.

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There was nothing sublime about this. There were no revelations. His life had slipped away quietly. 

One of the hospital staff whom I had spoken with a few times over the past days walked by me in the hallway and asked, “Comment va votre père?” I struggled a bit with finding the French words. “Ah, il est mort maintenant.” He is dead now.

The regret was mine.

He was 91 on the day he died. The next day was my 58th birthday. I’d been an adult for 40 years, and still I had not been able to overcome the childish dynamics of our relationship. I had not been able to appreciate the full magnitude of the man.

I knew of his brilliance and his renown in the strange, refined world of mathematicians. What I had not recognized, what was not apparent to me in the confines of our father-son relationship, was the warm affection felt for him by the members of his mathematical tribe.

“It makes me so sad to think I will no longer have my friend Jim’s wise counsel,” wrote one colleague. “Brilliant scholar,” wrote another, “and one of the most generous human beings I’ve ever met. He was the best PhD supervisor I could ever have had.” “As a student,” wrote a third, “I appreciated your clarity of mind and the volume of your knowledge, but most of all your gentle and cordial code of conduct.”

“I met him for the first time in the winter of 1966–67,” recalled another mathematician. “I was visiting Chicago for the academic year, and he invited me to McGill for a few days to give lectures at the category seminar. At that time he was already a well-known mathematician with important contributions. But at that first meeting I discovered the man. A man with a vast culture in many non-mathematical domains, a lot of personal charm, a big sense of humor, full of life and love of life.”

The dissonance between these accolades and my own experience of my father puzzled me. I noticed a nuance when I re-read this remembrance: “Jim played a special role in my mathematical development: he invited me to come to McGill for a short visit when I was still a master’s student, to work on our paper on sheaf representations of toposes. Soon after, I suppose he must have played a decisive role in the offer I received to spend the year 83/84 at McGill. It was an unforgettable year for me, very important for my mathematical development, and very enjoyable as well, not in the least because of Jim’s hospitality and mathematical generosity.”

That last term, mathematical generosity, caught my attention.

I read through the memorial tributes yet again, and stalled over another contribution: “Jim was my PhD supervisor many years ago and had a profound influence on me as well as on his other students. He was very patient and set an example by his hard work and the excellence of his research. His quiet manner also taught us that mathematics came first and that all the complexities of life, while not to be ignored, should not interfere with the quality of the work.”

A grainy image resolved into sharper focus. I was never a member of the tribe of mathematicians. That was our problem. Mathematics came first, and I was one of the complexities of life, not to be ignored, but at the same time not to be allowed to interfere with the quality of the work.