I’m writing this following the call I’ve been dreading for 6+ years.
“It could happen tonight.”
It’s 10:30 pm and even if I headed over there right now, it’s highly unlikely they would let me in. So I’m stuck here, hoping he can hang on until the morning. If so, I’ll take the day off and drive up to see him one last time.
I left a message with Lawson letting him know the situation, if he wasn’t aware already. My guess is that he doesn’t so hopefully my morning voicemail will be the first time he hears about it. He needs to see him too.
Hang on, Doc.
If there is one thing that Doc does very well, it’s being stubborn. He knew his age and repeated it constantly, but he didn’t let it change his routine too much. His mind was always sharp as a tack because he never let slow down. He was still reading Dante and Augustine into his 90s because he refused to take life easy. He kept walking even when he needed a walker and a oxygen tank with him. He kept going to breakfast and doing a book study with us, even as his body couldn’t keep up. He has to hang on. He’s never been one to back down from adversity.
A tried and true New Yorker, Stuart Ryder attended the prestigious Yale University in the late 40s. By his own recollection, he was not the smartest person in the classroom, but he worked hard and took his education seriously. He took advantage of every opportunity that interested him, including learning from Rudolph Bultmann when he came to speak at the school. I’m not sure if he ever told us what kind of grades he received, but I’m sure he never asked why he didn’t get an A. He knew what work was needed to succeed and he always made the effort to accomplish it.
After school, Doc had a few stops, including as a teacher at an all-black school in Texas, before he accepted an offer from a new, tiny Baptist college an hour outside of Chicago. Why a Yale grad would accept such a position in Elgin, Illinois at a school hardly anyone knew the name of (even today!), I’ve never been able to figure out. Maybe it was because he felt a calling. Maybe he was simply young and naive and jumped at the miniscule opportunity. Perhaps, as I suspect, it was the thrill of the adventure that enticed him the most; the unknown future being on a campus with only two buildings. One thing is for certain: Judson College got more than they ever could have imagined when Stuart Ryder signed on to the faculty.
I’ve come to find that a common theme in Doc’s life, because I too received infinitely more than my wildest dreams the moment I opened the door to Doc’s small campus apartment on an early autumn night in 2013. I went because I felt obligated. I went to simply say thank you and then leave having done my due diligence. I thought that saying goodbye would be no more difficult than leaving a restaurant.
Eight years later, at 10:30 pm, my only prayer is that I will have the chance to say that last goodbye.
Against the doctor’s expectations, Doc made it through that night. I was able to visit him the following morning and even though he was not awake, I was able to say the goodbye that I expected to say eight years prior.
After leaving his room, I made my way to Big Skillet for a short breakfast. As expected, I had to bring the bad news to the hostess and the servers – a task which had me choking on words and holding back tears. As I sat there alone, I realized that everything in the restaurant remained the same. The french toast and bacon were as crispy as always. The sounds remained joyous and familiar. The coffee was still my favorite – I even took it without cream. But I knew that it would never be the same.
No more after breakfast conversations. No more laughing at memes that Doc would never understand. No more spontaneous singing of songs from the 30s and 40s. I wouldn’t be able to park in the handicap spot anymore. I would have to pay for all of my meals from here on out. All these memories that made Big Skillet what it was to me would become only that: memories.
That’s the funny thing about life. Things don’t become memories unless you’ve already lived them. You only get to miss the things that you at one time experienced. If I never left my mitt on that Judson field; if Doc had not broken his golden rule of finders keepers; if I didn’t have the ego to leave things at an email, then today would be no different than any other day. There would be no pain, there would be no tears. I would not be saying goodbye to one of the dearest friends I’ve ever known – a mentor unlike any I will meet again. Memories come from living life, from taking chances, from jumping into the unknown in search of adventure.
This book is written today because, like Doc, I took a step not knowing what to expect. I chose adventure over safety. I chose to take it slow and listen. I got the privilege of spending the last eight years of Doc’s life getting to know him, hearing his memories, and learning from the exceptional life that he lived. I’ve tried to capture as much as I can here because Doc’s memories, and the memories of him, need to be shared with as many as who want to know about them. It is these memories that keep him alive, even as he has passed on.
Stuart “Doc” Ryder passed away only a few hours after I left his hospital room. I completely believe that he held on so that Lawson and I could have that last goodbye. Though he didn’t get to see us, he certainly knew we were there. He fought for us. He hung on for us. What an incredible last memory to have.
My hope is that I have honored him with every story I have been able to write down. In a way, I’m glad he won’t get to read this – I would hate to have this as the book of conversation at one of our breakfasts. But I have hope that one day, I will get to see him again. His mind will be as sharp as ever and his resurrected body will allow him to at last be able to swim and jump. And in that moment when I see him again, I’ll bring up this book to ask him what he thought, and I’ll get to hear from him why I didn’t get an A.