I was in Brattleboro Memorial Hospital for an extended stay last December.
I had complications from the surgery, but I didn’t care. I was in good company. Conversation was lively the whole time. The nurses took wonderful care of me. I had no obligations. I was hooked up with tubes: so, I didn’t even have to get out of bed to go to the bathroom in the morning. It felt like a vacation, except that I didn’t once even open one of my books.
So, when people ask how my surgery went, I say, I had a wonderful time.
And a lasting gift to me from that time was my short friendship with my hospital roommate, Andrew Eames.
* * *
Andrew was a victim of the war on drugs and lost four years of his life in prison, which he recounted in a congenial tone. He shared his anthropological perspectives on life and prison culture, on nature and history, and his desire to use his education for public service.
He actually recounted his prison stories with a note that he valued the experience. I was probably angrier about it than he was.
He had education and motivation, but he had lost his career at a young age and could hardly find any work at all because of his drug conviction. I told him about a justice-related project and other work of my organization, Brattleboro Common Sense.
I thought BCS could help him by giving his academic career a fair start and could serve the public good by repairing what the war on drugs had done to him.
We left the hospital without getting anything started, but Andrew called me up a few weeks later, wanting to devote the rest of his life to climate rescue and to volunteer with us. I thought it was odd that he said “the rest of my life” as if he were an old man.
He talked with the same eagerness that I saw mostly from the side when we lay in our hospital beds, but I heard an almost boyish impatience in his conversation, since I now took in his bright, wide-eyed gaze face to face. He was a terrific student and shined that gaze on everything.
I think that people gain a certain power after a close call with death. I think he made two momentous decisions: to make the most of life, and to do good with life. These are the things that bring strength and happiness when apathy and desperation are all around.
Looking at him, I easily raised my own ambitions. There was an equal energy that he brought when he worked with other people in the group. He and I found new ways of pursuing larger projects, and we discovered new projects in little ideas.
* * *
Andrew took on new ideas with uncompromising energy. He became a town representative, telling people that his only issue was climate change. He surveyed of the public on denial and sacrifice, and he quickly applied the lessons to his own life.
He learned respect and compassion for climate skeptics as he struggled with his own denial of the climate emergency, which we all have. We even found a way to combine the climate crisis and the drug crisis together into a new project, FFAA — Fossil Fuel Addicts Anonymous, a self-help group for addressing denial and addiction to fossil fuels. It’s amazing how the two addictions line up. For Andrew’s sake, we will continue this work.
Sometimes he would disappear and miss his appointments for a day or two. He got ideas started quickly when he returned.
But Andrew wasn’t interested only in his own ideas. He worked hard on other ideas that went through starts and stops: for instance, sustainability.
Since this effort was started by the climate action group Post Oil Solutions, assisted by Spoon Agave and me in 2010, it restarted as the Peak Oil Task Force in 2011, as Spoon’s “Futures Committee,” and as an energy committee. BCS promoted it by petition in March, and Spoon, who is a director of BCS, got funding approved for an official position at Representative Annual Town Meeting.
Since then, Andrew attended every possible meeting to advocate for this position. It is one of Brattleboro’s long-term needs, without his name on it, and he was on it as a team player or as a star player, whatever was needed.
Still, he was clearly focused on the emergency. He started xrsvt.org, a chapter of the fast-growing climate-crisis movement Extinction Rebellion, and he planned more than one XR protest.
* * *
Andrew’s earnestness is the heart of a BCS climate-emergency declaration. He fully comprehended the emergency, and he reflected it in the pace of his work.
Sometimes he would invite me to throw Frisbee or go for a hike, saying I needed exercise, and sometimes I would invite him for a slow dinner, saying he needed a rest. But almost everything we did was about the climate crisis.
I did not understand how the emergency reflected his life.
When I asked about his frequent disappearances, he warned me that my questions would ruin our friendship.
His sudden anger should have clarified things for me. Instead of trusting our friendship and pressing on with my questions, I backed away. I denied what plainly needed a light shined on it.
Now I wonder: Is this what we’re all doing, denying the emergency?
Andrew died of a drug overdose two months later.
* * *
How can we not see the threats to what is most dear, our lives, our world, our friends, even when we see their energy and light is too bright to be sustained?
§My candle burns at both ends;
§It will not last the night;
§But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
§It gives a lovely light!
Is this how a town takes in the light of a dedicated servant, by living and working in that light, or by learning to reflect that light back on the crude causes that extinguished him?
At Andrew’s wake, a family friend praised his dedication and asked if we had failed him. His brother Adrian said, “He was too busy saving the world to take care of himself.”
Another friend suggested that those people who give themselves completely in to public service are exactly the most vulnerable.
Maybe in opening their hearts to the world, they also open themselves to their own tragic faults and weakness.