The Adam Schmitz I knew was by no means a model of perfection. He smoked too much, he swore like a sailor, and good luck trying to nail down plans with him. But he was a kindred spirit and, in the end, my greatest inspiration.
Adam and I met as students at Knox College in the mid-1980s, and it wasn’t long before we became friends. We were both dreamers, sometimes to our detriment. We’d while away the hours talking about literature, music, movies and baseball when we should have been engaged in something more practical, like studying for the next day’s exam. The conversations were heady and illuminating, and I always figured that a lesser grade on an exam was a small price to pay for them.
One year at Knox as finals were approaching, we set up shop in Post Hall, where our friends Melvy and Angie resided. Never mind that Post was a females-only dorm with the requisite rules about the presence of males—Adam and I commandeered two study rooms in the basement and remained there for four straight days and nights, sustained by meals that Melvy and Angie shuttled in for us. We each had three big papers to write, and the going was slow. Invariably, I would wind up in his study room or he in mine so that we could discuss literature, music, movies and baseball.
In the midst of one of these conversations, with the sunrise an hour or so away, Adam paused and said, “You and I are different. It’s going to take us longer than most people to get where we want to in life, to be successful. But we’ll get there eventually.”
Those words always stuck with me. Whenever I’d suffer a setback, I’d replay them in my mind like a mantra, and they’d give me solace: I’ll get there…I’ll get there…I’ll get there.
I also took them as a license to occasionally veer off the beaten path, such as when I learned to play the guitar six years ago. Even though I didn’t have a lick of talent, my hobby quickly turned into an obsession, and I began writing songs with a zeal that should have been reserved for something more practical, like my job. Pretty much everyone laughed off my musical creations as the meanderings of a middle-aged man futilely trying to recapture his youth—but not Adam. I’d send him a song, and he’d respond with a copious, joyful analysis that dissected every note and lyric. It was as if we were back in those Post Hall study rooms again: You and I are different…You and I are different…You and I are different.
About a year and a half ago, I was reminded of Adam’s words once more, except now they brought me neither solace nor joy. He had just been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. It was the rawest of raw deals: a death sentence. In a cruel twist of fate, he wouldn’t be afforded enough time to “get there.”
Despite the depth of his illness, Adam and his wife Wooten came to homecoming at Knox last month from their home in North Carolina. Adam said he wanted to catch up—“transcend life,” as he put it—with some of his old college pals: Xan, Melvy, Gossrow, and me. I drove down to Knox that Saturday with trepidation, like I was en route to a wake and not a party. Some things, I reasoned, just couldn’t be transcended.
Man, was I wrong. He was wearing funky headgear that was accompanied by a cumbersome portable battery pack (an experimental treatment from Israel), and his equilibrium was messed up from all his meds, but otherwise he was the same old Adam. Still smiling. Still laughing. Still swearing like a sailor. Still having a blast.
At one point we were out on the patio at a bar, talking about music and sharing a cigarette. (I came out of smoking retirement for that night, as did Adam. I made no apologies for that, and neither did he.) Two scruffy guys were standing next to us, the types who looked like they hated the world and everyone in it. But they were curious about this man with the funky headgear who was talking about music as if he didn’t have a care in the world. They asked Adam about his circumstances, and without a trace of self-pity, he told them his story. When Adam was finished, one of the scruffy guys, nearly moved to tears, gave him a hug that lasted every bit of 10 seconds.
Adam was like the pied piper that night. Undaunted by the battery pack he was carrying and his messed-up equilibrium, he led us from place to place to place. Along the way, he and I had some of our best conversations ever. He told me that while he didn’t want to die—and was fighting like hell not to—he had never been so happy. His illness, he said, had taught him exactly how to live in the moment. He explained that love is strongest when you accept that you’ll have to let it go at some point, and his smile grew brighter and more convincing with each word.
A few days ago, Adam let go of this world. It’s a devastating loss, but at least I know this: Adam was able to “get there”—he figured life out. And he was indeed different: He was better than all of us, the kindest and gentlest soul I’ve ever met. As for me? I’m still a work in progress. But thanks to the hard-won wisdom that Adam passed on to me, I’m further along than I was before.
I make my living writing articles about people. Over the years, I’ve profiled world-class athletes and civil rights attorneys and captains of industry. Getting to the heart of the matter here, however, has been among my biggest challenges. I hope I didn’t fuck it up, Adam.