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Speaking of Farewells

This piece originally ran in the Metro Section of The Boston Globe on 02/24/2003

By Adrian Walker

Last Thursday, I finally told my Uncle Fred that I loved him.

I was one of the speakers at his funeral in New York. A playwright, screenwriter, and teacher, he had died at 74 a few days before. He was the first writer in our family, and I guess I was the second. We spent a lot of time together, as much of it as possible watching movies.

He lived in Manhattan, where he ran a center that offers courses in writing and acting to aspiring artists, mostly African-American artists. He and his partner, Budd Schulberg, had founded Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Watts after the riot there in the 1960s; it moved to New York in 1971.

Uncle Fred was an award-winning playwright, and had a screenplay filmed in the 1970s. The center's writing students have produced close to 100 books and dozens of plays; the alumni of its acting program include Danny Glover and S. Epatha Merkerson, the crusty DA on "Law and Order."

At Fred's insistence, I've never seen his movie, which is called "The Education of Sonny Carson." Its subject is a real person, a controversial community activist in Brooklyn. Fred liked to refer to the work as a "youthful indiscretion."

When I was putting down my remarks for the funeral, it occurred to me that I had never, in his life, said some of the things I would say at the time of his death. That's usually the case, I know. He knew how I felt, I knew how he felt - and talking about it would only have embarrassed us both. Still, the thought of words unsaid left a hollow feeling.

This has been a season of farewells for me. In November another uncle died. The most devastating loss was in December, when my father died at 81, from a stroke. He'd been sick off and on for a couple of years, but still.

Fred and I shared a lot of enthusiasms, but the most important was our love of telling stories. His screenwriting students laughed the other night when I described going to the movies with him. These outings tended to be marked by extensive post-movie criticism: weaknesses in character development, subplots, and -- a favorite Fred theme -- how it all went wrong in the last 20 minutes. I'll miss those lectures. As one of his favorite students said to me later, "Fred hated everything."

Though just shy of 75, he was still working long days, with no intention of easing up. He knew what he wanted to do, and pursued it with energy and single-minded ness. He was not a person who ever complained about going in to the office - only about not having enough hours in the day for all the things he wanted to do.

My father's lessons were different, and more personal. They were about things like perseverance and determination. I never said I loved him, either. He was an educator, with a huge passion for seeing kids learn. Education might have been the last field I would ever have gone into, but his example of doing something you feel strongly about has served me well.

They were both teachers, and they both taught me things they didn't even know they were teaching. Even though they are gone, their examples will never leave me.

We think of death as an ending, a departure. But I'm starting to wonder if it's really the end of anything. My visits home to Miami will never be the same, certainly, and neither will those double-feature afternoons in Lincoln Center. But in another way, they aren't gone, and never will be.

After the funeral, I decided that my memorial wasn't finished. And that there was only one way to complete it: in the dark. I went to the movies yesterday, and as the lights went down I idly pondered plots and subplots and character development. I thought, also, of love, and loss, and what survives.

I made a point of enjoying myself. Fred would have wanted it that way - as the departed so often do.