Robert Irwin, my father in law, passed away earlier this year after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He would have been 66 today. I wish you could have met him.
I met Bob nearly two decades ago, in the days when I was falling deeply in love with his daughter and carefully trying to earn the respect of her parents. Early on I recognized he was a man of intense pride, whose sense of purpose was derived from his ability to help others and serve as a rock for the family. He was strong and stoic, an early riser, always in control, always prepared, with a meticulously-kept house. Some of this, I figured, must have reflected that traditional New England Catholic culture of a generation ago that he’d grown up in, which hung its hat on uprightness and discipline, and was understated and reserved in terms of outward emotional expression.
But I also knew that wasn’t entirely it. Bob was also, it seemed, limitlessly capable. He was full of answers, and could troubleshoot nearly any problem, especially those that were mechanical in nature (Bob was a talented engineer who, even in his 60s, was constantly being headhunted by firms in the area). Oftentimes, after Zina and I had bought our first house, he’d pay us a visit and would within minutes busy himself with fixing something — a leaky toilet valve, a loose base board, and unhinged closet door. If there was a problem, chances were that Bob could fix it for you, and I knew he felt exhilarated when he did.
The irony was that Bob was a deeply passionate and, I came to learn, emotional human being. He was the antithesis of one’s stereotype of a rigid-thinking, robotic engineer. He loved truth and was unusually imaginative and curious. This extended to his spiritual life, and as a teenager he embarked on a religious journey which ultimately culminated in his becoming a lifelong Baha’i. I can only speculate how bizarre this must have seemed in those days, no matter the degree of love and support from Bob’s family, in what I would imagine was a heavily-Catholic community of Woburn, Massachusetts in the early 1970s. But, knowing Bob, I also can not imagine it having gone any other way. He was the embodiment of the phrase, “Let us be lovers of the Sun of Truth, regardless of the horizon it emerges from.” In becoming a Baha’i he had found a way to keep honoring Christ and to keep believing in God, in all of His beautiful mysteries, while embracing a Faith which exalted things like scientific inquiry, intellectual humility, and open-mindedness. He grabbed on early in life and never let go.
He was, of course, unusually loving and attentive with his three grandchildren, to whom he was known as Buppa. On many occasions he and Alhan would come to our house and hustle Zina and me out the door, eager to play with the kids. He would spend hours with them, particularly our oldest son, Kenz, constructing something out of blocks, or Legos, or whatever was available. He delighted in teasing the kids with jokes and puns. He was tall and strong and ready to lift them up and toss them playfully in the air whenever he came through the door. Zina often joked about what a mix of excitement and terror it must have been for them to be hoisted in the air by this giant human. One time Bob had taken the kids out to the backyard swing set while Zina, Alhan, and I chatted inside. Suddenly, I heard Zina yell something as she stared out the window. Bob had been swinging our two-year-old daughter Aya, with a comically-inappropriate degree of velocity and height for a toddler, the kind of swinging that makes you wonder if centrifugal force could ever make a swing flip all the way around. There were many “oops” moments like that, when Bob’s enthusiasm for the kids needed to be reined in for the sake of child safety.
Every now and again I saw these two sides of Bob’s personality — the stoic, capable engineer and the passionate, emotional man — collide, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. The first time I visited his and Alhan’s house in Nashua, New Hampshire, I brought a fancy pie I had picked up from a gourmet bakery down the street from my apartment. Bob volunteered to heat it up in a glass dish in the oven. “Will that break?” Alhan asked. Bob confidently assured her it wouldn’t, but in fact it did, and the heat cracked and splintered the glass. Zina asked if there was any way we could salvage the pie; he begrudgingly said there wasn’t. I could tell he was embarrassed and furious with himself as he apologized and threw the whole thing in the trash.
There were some problems, in other words, that even someone like Bob couldn’t solve, and this heartbreaking reality must have fallen with a heavy weight on him in his last year-and-a-half living with cancer. I remember speaking with him a few weeks after his diagnosis and feeling surprised by how confident he was in the face of such challenging odds. He was reading books, scouring forums, consuming various health foods, exercising vigorously, all in addition to his chemotherapy. In other conversations we had those days he talked about praying to God and accepting His Will, but I couldn’t help wonder if his immense talent for finding answers and solving difficult problems had now become a massive spiritual test. It’s one thing for any of us to profess detachment in the face of our own mortality, to say we will be ready to give up our physical garment when the time arrives. It’s another thing altogether to keep that perspective when death is on one’s doorstep, especially when one has become accustomed over decades to succeeding in the face of nearly every challenge.
COVID-19, in many ways, took a difficult situation and made it worse. This, I think, is one of the hidden catastrophes of the pandemic, that so many individuals were essentially stripped of contact with their loved ones during the time in life when such contact was most urgently needed. Bob and the family made the best of it, when conditions allowed; being outside with a mask on goes a long way, as we have all learned. Yet we also learned that for people living with potentially terminal illnesses, there is a fine line between living with urgency and accepting defeat. Striking the right balance between the two must be agonizing even in normal times, when a terrible virus isn’t standing in the way of an ill person reaching out and embracing his loved ones.
In one of my favorite passages from the Baha’i Holy Writings, Baha’u’llah asks:
Whither can a lover go but to the land of his beloved? and what seeker findeth rest away from his heart’s desire? To the true lover reunion is life, and separation is death. His breast is void of patience and his heart hath no peace. A myriad lives he would forsake to hasten to the abode of his beloved.
Bob passed away in his home on February 13th, 2021. His wife was by his side, praying for his soul as he went. His daughter and grandson were a floor above, having held his hand and told him they loved him minutes earlier. Given the life Bob lived, it was fitting. May we all be so deserving, that when we are called to the land of the Beloved, we might be surrounded with the same grace, dignity, and love.