Eulogy for an old friend

This week I found myself thinking about a friend I met during my PhD at the University of Birmingham, Dr Jonathan Maxwell. I met Jon (as he preferred to be called) when he was still an undergraduate via the karate club I joined there. For several years we’d been friends, but a few years after I’d left Birmingham, around 2002 or 2003, we lost touch: the email I had was no longer valid and he’d moved on from Portsmouth University where we’d last been in contact.

On Thursday I decided to try and get back in touch. A few years back I’d come across one of his papers (he’d gained his PhD in Sports Psychology, studying implicit learning) during a search for papers on machine learning. This paper indicated he was based at the Institute of Human Performance at the University of Hong Kong. I looked up the web site of the institute but he wasn’t in the staff list. I double checked the paper and he’d definitely been there.

I figured he must have moved on again, but searching for him or his papers or looking at his co-authors’ institutions and checking to see if he’d moved to one of them shed no light on the matter. Eventually I did an image search and I found a picture of him! His hair had turned grey and had receded a bit but it was definitely him. So I clicked on the picture…

The link took me to his obituary at the Institute of Human Performance. He’d died in January 2009 at the age of 39, leaving behind his pregnant wife and two sons. I was, of course, shocked and saddened to hear this. Someone only a few years older than me, who’d been a good friend of mine at Uni and who kept himself in good shape, had died suddenly and unexpectedly. So many thoughts and questions have gone through my head since finding out, but in the end here is what I have to say:

Jon, I’m sorry we lost touch and I’m sad you’re gone.

I’d like to tell you about the things I’ve been up to since we last saw each other, when I stayed for a weekend and we watched Gladiator on DVD at your flat in Birmingham with a meal (pizza or curry, I can’t quite remember) and, of course, a few beers. Could that really have been 10 years ago?!

I’d love to tell you about my 2 years in Groningen, the Netherlands, using neural networks to model an aspect of language acquisition, whilst in my spare time researching Dutch and Belgian beers, and even learning some Dutch!

I’d love to tell you about my return (for 5 years) to my home town of Glasgow, including buying a flat there and getting involved in a political campaign, NO2ID.

And of course,  I’d love to tell you about my present life in London working for an exciting start-up company.

I’d love to hear about your life and work in Hong Kong.

I’d love to have met your family and friends there.

In other words, I’d love for us to catch up and share some beers over a curry again…

However, now it’s too late, and I am sorry we don’t have that chance now.

I’m sorry it was over 2 years before I found out you’d passed away and I’m sad you’re not around for your wife and children.

I am sorry you passed way due to a rare medical condition, one which physical fitness and general good health are no protection against. It was a condition you didn’t even know you had, one that is difficult to diagnose. Sometimes  life  really  sucks! But on the other hand

I enjoyed the curries, the beers and the bottles of wine (you chose the latter particularly well!) we shared.

I enjoyed the nights out we shared at pubs and clubs in Birmingham and watching the 5 nations (for it was 5 back then!) with you, even when you teased me about how England would beat Scotland (I hate to admit you were usually right!)

I apologise again for the black eye I accidentally gave you when we were mock sparring on the dance floor at the Guild! (How drunk were we?) Black-eye aside, that was a good night, one of many…

I was also happy to have been a subject in one of your PhD experiments on implicit learning and found the work you were doing very interesting.

So thankyou Jon, for some great times and good memories.

I am glad to see that you established a strong academic career with a solid record of publications in your field.

I am glad you found someone to settle down and start a family with, and had the chance to experience the sheer joy I’ve seen in the friends and relatives of mine who have also started families.

I’m glad you and your wife made a big impression with the people you met in Hong Kong, and I’m glad that you made good friends there who, I was so moved to learn, looked after your wife and family in their time of need after you were gone.

I am glad that, in the time you had, you made a good life for yourself and your family in Hong Kong and that it looks like you were very happy there.

For if there is a lesson to be learned from your life, it is that we should strive to make a good life for ourselves and those we care about and to make the best use of our time in this world not just because that time is limited and we don’t know when it will be up, but also because we can have a good life and we can be happy if we work at it.

So finally, it’s time to say goodbye Jon. You were a thoughtful, generous person and it was my privilege to have been your friend.

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