Philip Stearns was my English teacher in my final semester of high school. He was far and away the best schoolteacher I ever had! I was so taken with the man's teaching style, that I remained in touch with him for fifteen years after I graduated.
Phil read everything I ever wrote and offered insightful critiques that often – in fact, usually – improved my work. He introduced me to literature and foreign films. We took road trips to New York City, Ithaca, Niagara Falls, Vermont and Cape Cod (among other places). And I spent hundreds of hours at his West Hartford condo, talking about whatever came to mind. (We were both only-children and lifelong bachelors who had grown up with mentally ill mothers, so we had plenty of conversational fodder.)
Unfortunately, we lost contact in 1999. It was not a conscious decision on my part, nor do I believe it was Phil's intent. These things can just happen, even among the closest of friends.
Recently, I started thinking about the man a lot and attempted to get his phone number, but I came up empty-handed. So the other night, I typed his name into Google and found a five-year-old link on the Hartford Courant's website.
It was from the Obituary page:
Phil once told me, “I plan to live another thirty years after I retire from teaching.” He lived three; and I don't even want to think about how much of that time he spent in mortal agony with the goddamned cancer that invaded his system.
In the same conversation, Phil said, “They'll have to drag me kicking and screaming out of this life.” Here was a man who clearly yearned to live to a ripe old age, as his parents had both done. Tragically, it was not meant to be.
Phil was only allowed 62 years on this earth; but they were 62 wonderful years, during which the man's passion for his work and his love of humanity (even those who viciously opposed his views) touched many thousands of lives. Cliched as it might sound, I don't believe that Phil had an angry or hateful bone in his body. He was the kind of person that I dream of someday becoming. (Unfortunately, with my foul mouth, explosive temper and anger-management issues, I don't see it happening any time soon.)
I only wish I had known about Phil's condition in 2007 so I could have seen the man one last time. Unfortunately, I had no idea that one of the kindest, most warm-hearted humanitarians I had ever met was sick and dying. But now that I do know, my heart is broken. The world is truly a poorer place with Phil no longer in it.
Just what I needed: one more regret.