οἱ ὀρθῶς φιλοσοφοῦντες ἀποθνῄσκειν μελετῶσι
“True philosophers are always preparing to die” (Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedo 67e).
Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, my advisor, friend, and mentor, died early in the morning on Saturday, June 14. Her death was graceful and peaceful, as was her life. Many of her friends, colleagues, and students have shared memories of Ellen on her Facebook page, which now serves as a fitting memorial to a life well-lived. This is true because Ellen was always enthusiastic about the possibilities of scholarship in the digital age, but especially because memorials are as much for the living as for the dead. We ‘share’ and ‘like’ to support each other, so I want to do my small part in preserving her memory among the living by sharing my experiences of her life—and her death.
My relationship with Ellen was always serendipitous. I first met her in 2002, when I was a master’s student at Harvard. As my de facto advisor for matters related to the study of the New Testament, she gently answered my naïve questions about the value of historical scholarship. She did not have to take the time for this, but she did—always. When I was considering Ph.D. programs several years later, after she had moved on to McGill, she suggested that I apply there. I am embarrassed to say that neither McGill nor Montréal had been on my rader before that moment, but the decision was easy. Over the next nine years, in addition to regular meetings in her office or over lunch, we would have many chance conversations in the foyer of the Birks building at McGill. I vividly recall one such conversation, in which she explained with a warm smile that she need only stand in a certain spot for a short while and whomever she wanted to see would invariably pass by. Call me superstitious, if you like, but I believe that she is standing in that very spot right now, smiling warmly and waiting to see whomever she wants to see.
Even my thesis topic seems to have come to me serendipitously, although in truth I had long been wondering how best to integrate Ellen’s interests into my own scholarship. I recently explained this to an inteview committee during a coveted campus visit (I did not get the job), and one or two members chuckled, as if it were a strange and amusing thing for a newly-minted Ph.D. to express such concern to carry on his or her advisor’s work. They did not know Ellen. Everyone who knew Ellen also knows that they owe her a debt of gratitude for her patience, her gracious and diplomatic manner, and—especially for students and former students like me—her tireless advocacy. That is how she lived.
I visited Ellen twice in the hospital before she died. The first time she was tired but lucid. She looked well for someone who had recently undergone a nine-hour surgery. She explained that she had been anointed several times (for healing), and that she and her husband, Bill, were starting to think about end-of-life matters. I prattled on nervously about a newly ordained priest at the parish I attend and about a paper I had just given. The second time I visited her she was in the ICU for treatment of the infection that would hasten her death. She was awake and aware of my presence but unable to talk very easily since her breathing tube had only recently been removed. I held her hand tightly but said little, not knowing what to say. Then she showed me a small boat of sculpted marble resting on her lap. Bill explained, at her request, that they had seen a similar boat at a funeral they had attended (sadly, I forget whose funeral). Each person at this funeral was asked to breath into this boat, which was later buried with the deceased. Ellen put the little boat into my hand and asked me to breath into it. As I did, the image of an Orthodox priest breathing three times over the waters of a baptismal font appeared to me—strange but somehow appropriate. I have since thought also of the Ferryman of souls, Charon, from classical Greek culture. Whatever the association, what stands out most in my memory is this simple and beautiful ritual. When I could not find the words to say goodbye, Ellen provided a way forward. That is how she faced death.
If Socrates is right—if true philosophers are always preparing to die—then the highest compliment I can pay to Ellen is that she was a true philosopher. This is true because of the graceful way in which lived and the graceful way in which she faced a vicious illness, but above all it is true because of the graceful way in which she prepared others for her death. I know, too, that Ellen would appreciate the fact that the role of Socrates is taken over by a woman, Macrina the Younger, in the Orthodox Christian tradition. Gregory of Nyssa calls Macrina Teacher—διδάσκαλος—for her fortitude in the face of death. It seems fitting, then, to dedicate Macrina’s words to my Teacher, whom I pray is free from all pain and suffering in the God who is Love:
“Love is the foremost of all all excellent acheivements and the first of the commandments of the law. If ever, then, the soul reach this goal, it will be in no need of anything else … For the life of the Supreme Being is love … ” (Macrina the Younger, in Gregory of Nyssa’s Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection [J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca 46.96–97]).