This past Monday morning, I woke to the very sad and unexpected news that my friend, George Hickenlooper, had passed away. George and I knew each other from our days together at Yale. Although we were not close friends, each of us was a regular presence in the other’s life owing to fact that many of George’s friends were also friends of mine and in some cases my roommates. So back in the day, it would not have been at all unusual for me to come back to my room to find George there hanging out with guys, enjoying the leisure of college and plotting his next film project.
In truth, George and I might not have known each other had it not been for the overlap of our social circles. We were different people with divergent interests and sensibilities. But I always liked George (it was hard not to) and saw him as something of an interesting character. He was, for me, a study in contrasts and juxtapositions who always surprised me with the richness of his character.
In appearance, I remember how George often looked the part of the preppy nerd with his shirttails-out oxford button-downs and perpetually unruly hair. But he always impressed with the effortless orderliness of his intelligence and ideas.
He was also notorious for moving at his own slower pace and habitually arriving late at rendezvous -- for which he took quite a bit of goodnatured ribbing. But he never seemed to delay when it came to helping out his friends.
Never one to intentionally seek the limelight, George could even be painfully shy at times. Yet, he always seemed to garner attention, and his willingness to put himself “out there” when it came to manifesting his artistic vision was an inspiration to me and an example of what it means to truly love what you do.
By the time we were in our junior year, George had already attained a certain campus-wide reputation as a very talented film maker and was widely known and admired. Nonetheless, he always maintained the humility that was such an integral and beautiful part of his character.
Where my impressions of George have never held any contrast or juxtaposition are also what I most remember about him -- his gentleness and his kindness. He exuded a genuine warmth that was undeniable and that always made it a pleasure to engage with him.
After we graduated, George went out to LA to follow his film-making passion and I went off to Manhattan to attend law school. I only saw him a couple of times after that and for a long while didn’t really know much about him except for the random tidbit of information that someone would share or, as time went on, the increasingly frequent news story about his latest movie making efforts. Eventually, we did connect again on Facebook and every now and then would share a message or comment. Even in these brief communications, George proved to be, as always, gracious, kind and caring.
During my college years, I thankfully did not have too much experience with the death of loved ones. But many years have passed since then, and now as I live through my middle age, it is a very different story. I have lost friends, relatives, my father, my sister and my mother. I have also felt the loss of acquaintances, friends of friends, beloved pets and even of people that I never met but who in life had inspired me or touched me in some way.
When we lose someone close to us, we expect to feel deeply the pain of the loss and the disorientation of the emptiness that they leave behind. But even when the ties appear to be more tenuous, the sense of loss can be unexpectedly palpable.
I was very deeply moved by the news of George’s passing. We may not have been the closest of friends and we may not have had much contact in the past 25 years, but I felt the loss of him as if I had just seen him yesterday hanging out in my college suite.
What I have taken away from these different experiences of death is that everyone we meet on our journey from cradle to grave has an impact on us no matter how brief or insignificant the moment of contact my otherwise seem to us. And sometimes it is the fleeting contact that leaves the most lasting impression.
In the end, what matters is not really how much time we spend together or how much we know about each other. What matters is how well we’ve loved -- ourselves, each other and our life. The George I knew did all of those well.
George, a heartfelt thank you to you for having been a part of my life and for having made my life better for it.