“There is no such thing as a synonym!” my professor lectured from the whiteboard. He consistently had crisp syntax and a paced reading voice that would lull you to sleep if you weren’t careful — not out of boredom, but out of gentility.
The brick room was tiny. It held only a small table where the 8 students sat listening to the professor who would talk about all sorts of things, from iambic pentameter to the latest piece he was reading on NPR. This guy was a poet’s poet. He was Denver’s poet laureate at the time, back in 2011, and was telling us why synonyms don’t exist.
“Every word is unique, or else it wouldn’t exist,” he continued. “When you write, you must choose the right word, don’t just settle for a synonym.”
I learned a lot more from the late Professor Chris Ransick than this, but the synonym lesson is one I won’t soon forget. Each week, we had to bring in our own poems which we had constructed from thin air and would share them with the class. Prof. Ransick was generous despite his award-winning past and could have been harsh and haughty. Instead, he openly shared projects he was working on and gave us critiques on our own.
Today I was invited to a poetry group, 8 years after I had Ransick as a teacher. Truth be told, I had remembered the class and his face, but forgotten his name. Here, it came up in conversation with one of the other attendees that he had been friends with a poet named Chris Ransick. He handed me one of Chris’ books and when I saw the picture on the back cover, it all clicked into place.
“No way! I had him as a professor!” I told the new friend.
The man’s face sank with bad news. He began telling me that he had been close friends with Chris and his wife for many years. They had exchanged poetry despite their religious differences — Ransick was a strict atheist and this guy is a Christian.
He told me about how Chris’s wife had been diagnosed with a unique lung condition which forced them to relocate to Oregon, away from the elevation of Colorado. A few years later, Chris was diagnosed with cancer and just last month (November 2019) lost his life to it.
I searched the man’s face for any hint of redemption in this story. I eagerly awaited something like, “Shortly before he died, Chris called me and told me he had come to know God…”
But it didn’t come.
There was no redemption to be found here. My poetry professor — a creative man with eyeballs which saw the world as vividly, fitfully alive—had died without knowledge of God.
I process this with another death from last month. A close friend of my family’s had been struggling for the past two years, also with cancer. He too was taken by this disease last month. He too was lowered by his family into a wet ground watered by streams of tears.
But unlike Chris, my friend knew and was known by God. Unlike Chris, we have hopeful expectation that we will leap from our graves and dance together someday, liberated from sin, fear, and death (because when people are freed, they dance).
It’s hard to sit here and process the permanence of death, especially for one who had some influence on me, yet whom I don’t think I will ever see again.
When I eulogize people, they tend to be Christians, but this eulogy is different. It is hung with a sort of weight the rest are not. There is a permanence to the loss which I don’t sense as much when talking about brothers and sisters who have departed.
How do you eulogize a man who did not know Jesus, the humble carpenter from Nazareth? I don’t know.
I hope we are wrong about Chris — I hope he encountered Jesus in the most spectacular way in his dying moments.
If nothing else, may this be a wake up call for us. May we keep in mind not only our own death, but the death of all those surrounding us. It comes swiftly and quietly and no dramatic music builds up to our demise to let us know something bad is about to happen.
If there are people around you right now, keep in mind that one day they will all be dead.
As will you.
And will you be dancing in liberated joy? Or will you be tucked into yourself, eternally filled with longings which will not be satisfied, returning again and again to yourself as a savior, like a dog to its vomit?
How should we live? We should live as if we, and everyone we know, will one day die — poetry professors and all.
So let’s invite them to the dance.