It's Memorial Day plus one and it has taken me all this time to write about my co-author and friend Bruce Kramer.
Memorial Day means visiting the graves of my grandparents long since gone. This year, I tended their graves as I usually do, all the while thinking of my friend Bruce. It has been a bit more than two months since Bruce died due to complications of ALS. Two months. That doesn't seem possible. I think of him almost every day, as I also think about my father who died a year ago.
It has been very difficult for me to muster the energy to write about my friend for this website. It feels as if I'm moving through my days wearing an unbearably heavy cloak of sadness and any creativity has been sucked out of me. Grief is like that I guess.
I have no profound thoughts at this point about what became an extraordinary series of honest conversations with a dying man that bloomed into a beautiful friendship. I've been transformed in a way I can't fully describe right now.
If you've read our book (and thank you if you have) you know Bruce asked me awhile ago to eulogize him. He jokingly said I was perfect for the job because I'm a broadcast professional and not given to extreme emotion before an audience. Bruce wanted someone who could "hold it together."
I delivered what I hope was a decent memorial for my dear friend, and I tried hard to "hold it together" This is an edited version of that eulogy delivered April 11, 2015.
"Since Bruce’s death, this quote from Pulitzer Prize winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay keeps rolling around in my head. “THE PRESENCE OF THAT ABSENCE IS EVERYWHERE.” It is from a letter Millay wrote to friends after her mother died.
“THE PRESENCE OF THAT ABSENCE IS EVERYWHERE.”
That sentence sums up the emptiness those of us close to Bruce feel after his passing. Bruce carefully tried to prepare us for his eventual death but you really can’t brace yourself for such an impact.
There is a great void left in his absence that will linger for quite a while because Bruce was such a powerful presence in our lives.
Fred Rogers, yes—that Fred Rogers from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of PBS fame-- used to say: “There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
If the outpouring of sympathy and heart felt messages in the days after he died is any indication, Bruce most certainly left a little bit of himself with everyone HE met.
Bruce Kramer was a wordsmith. He chose his words carefully and was a lovely, lyrical writer. There are many words one could use to describe Bruce. Vibrant comes to mind. Bruce lived a vibrant life and loved all it had to offer.
Many of you know that music fed his soul and he was the type of guy who could be brought to tears listening to the exquisite masterpiece that is Bach’s Mass in B Minor but then rock out to Led Zeppelin.
Bruce gravitated toward ridiculously spicy hot food that mortified many of his Nordic Minnesota friends. Ev (Bruce's wife) says she bought Crystal Louisiana hot sauce about as often as a quart of milk.
Bruce was energized by travel…ideas…and interesting people.
He liked vinegar and sea salt potato chips---whipping up improvisational and incredibly tasty dishes in the kitchen-- and the feel of the wind in his face while riding his bike.
He got a kick out of introducing people he figured would hit it off and do good work together.
He was sneaky that way.
He enjoyed a good beer and would savor a fine wine. One day he was rhapsodizing over a red wine he thought I should try describing in incredible detail its flavors and aroma, how it flowed on the tongue and filled the mouth with luscious bursts of oak and cherry and whatever else. It was an impressive lesson in fine wine but I told him he was wasting his breath on a woman who guzzles Diet Mt. Dew. Always the teacher that Bruce.
Indeed, Bruce was first and foremost a teacher.
He ADORED teaching and the energy that came with engaging his students...he relished working a room and working a problem.
Bruce cherished his friends and above everything else…he loved his family beyond all human measure.
That love was never in doubt.
In the almost 70 hours of taped conversations I had with Bruce for Morning Edition, very few did NOT include at least one reference to his family and his beloved Ev: How much he loved them and how much he’d miss them. That love will always remain.
Yes, I think vibrant is a good word for Bruce. His brother Kris once said that Bruce “lived life large” ---and if you had the chance to look at that wonderful slide show that ran prior to today's service, there’s photographic evidence Bruce was a force of nature…a vortex of energy. He sped through life at what seemed to be 150 miles an hour.
And then there was ALS.
Bruce said it helped make him more human. What a statement that is.
Bruce once said “ALS does not triumph. Yes, it takes the body but it does not win.” And he was right.
Two things have always amazed me in the four years since I’ve known Bruce and have been privileged to be with Bruce and Ev in the crucible of a terminal illness like ALS.
Even while Bruce’s body was diminished by this evil disease, his spirit INTENSIFIED, his life EXPANDED! It was truly a transcendent experience to behold.
And while the disease was slowly claiming his body, Bruce did more in five years than most of could ever hope to do in a lifetime.
Just LAST year--He wrote two books…Helped incubate a major wellness initiative…did interviews...had meetings with doctoral students, health care industry leaders and a small army of friends. He continued to explore the mind/body connection with his adaptive yoga community…and was blessed by the Dali Lama for goodness sakes. I don’t know where the energy came from. It was as if he was on a mission from God. He knew time was short. Of course it is for ALL of us.
I want you all to know what a rare thing it is to have a person share, publicly, in the way Bruce shared his life. It is such a raw and holy time and to allow a journalist access to chronicle one’s life while dying is extraordinary and it is a testament to Bruce’s character and understanding that these are lessons we all need to hear and absorb. He considered it his greatest teaching.
I’m thankful that Bruce’s family had the courage to share him with the wider community during a time that understandably most people would turn inward and seek privacy as they wrestle with their pain. Their trust and the trust Bruce and I had with each other allowed for the creation of lasting and meaningful work.
A brief few words about that work.
I knew four years ago, that our radio project was going to be different than any other I had ever done when as we were talking before we did mic checks in the studio, Bruce was chatting about ALS and some of the odd things that had happened to that time…and he said “You know, I’m finding that ALS is a chick magnet." You see, old women loved to give him hugs and kisses after church. That "chick magnet" comment was my introduction to Bruce’s quirky sense of humor.
People are surprised to learn we laughed often during our interviews and certainly when the mic was off. If you didn’t, you’d be a sobbing mess given the circumstances, something Bruce didn’t wish to dwell on.
Those first interviews started with me asking "So, how are you?" Bruce would answer: "Well you know….I have ALS." Or "I still have this ALS thing going" and we'd laugh, but I understood that often when we ask “How are you” we really don’t want to know and Bruce knew that. He wanted people to be brought into his reality if only for a moment.
Subsequent interviews, all the way to the end, started with me asking ”What’s in your heart today Bruce” or "What’s on your mind?” Different questions….deeper answers…and Bruce was always willing to go deeper with the goal of being honest and speaking his truth.
Bruce, to his everlasting credit, was willing to be vulnerable which is really how we learn and grow, and what began as a professional assignment, became something we never saw coming: it became a graduate course in living to the fullest taught by master teacher--so gifted a teacher--and the professional became the personal with our relationship blooming into the most beautiful of friendships.
It was an honor and privilege to join Bruce as he navigated the geography of his soul and then shared his thoughts —laying himself bare-- in the most elegant way-- before an audience of strangers that numbered in the tens of thousands—more than that really---on line with his blog “The Dis Ease Diary, on the radio and on our MPR news website…and now…through his book.
Bruce graciously allowed us to experience the beauty and meaning of disease, disability and death. He proved that a diseased life IS a worthwhile life and while you can’t be cured, you can be healed.
In the end, I’m so glad that Bruce Kramer’s grace was amplified and that it touched so many. We’ve heard nothing but words of praise, thanks, gratitude and awe for our conversations. Bruce was in awe himself over the impact.
Yesterday, after our final recorded conversation aired, I heard from a listener, Gretchen Pick, who wrote:
I had the radio on a couple of weeks ago in the car, and my 7 year old son heard the conversation with Bruce. He asked me many questions - about illness, about life, about what Bruce and you were talking about. I still haven’t followed up with him, to tell him that Bruce has died. But your final conversation gives us both a way to talk about it. These lessons will last all of us the rest of our lives. I can’t thank you enough for this gift.
Bruce would be so pleased. As he told me, in one of his final days “There’s a lot to learn in what we did.” Certainly he felt that it was the most valuable teaching he could ever offer in this life. And he was right.
I started with Edna St. Vincent Millay and I’ll end by quoting another lyrical, very poetic writer….Bruce H. Kramer who wrote, shortly after his diagnosis:
“Out of the emptiness that was once the surety of my life came the question “What will you BE from here into eternity?”
I love that question.
Bruce did a lot of hard work, deep introspection and reflection to try and answer it. At the time of his death, Bruce said he was very close to becoming the person he always wanted to be…full of love and compassion…fully human.
He felt that by facing his death, embracing it, he got to focus on this task of becoming the person he was meant to be….and he felt that it was a tremendous gift. He said….”That’s how I want to die….I want to die fully alive.”
And he did. His hope was that we explore what it means for all us to be fully alive. "
The Blog Authors
Bruce started writing about living with ALS shortly after being diagnosed in 2010. The blog is called the "Dis Ease Diary."
Cathy is a journalist so she's used to writing. Blogging is different because it feels so personal and that can be scary. Bear with her. She'll figure it out!
You may hear from Ev from time to time. Ev is Bruce's beloved wife. She's a music teacher at a French immersion school.