My friend Scott Leighton died from cancer on August 4th after a roughly yearlong battle with the disease. I went to his funeral last weekend. The funeral had the unfortunate but necessary effect of making Scott’s death real for me – up until I walked into the church on Sunday and heard his wife’s incredibly poignant eulogy for him his death had been an abstraction, something not real that was gnawing away at me quietly in the background. Sunday I had to confront it and it was sad and hard to bear. One of Scott’s wishes was that we all celebrate his life with a pseudo Irish Wake at one of his favorite bars, Napper Tandy’s in Northport. It was brilliant – simultaneously sad and invigorating, the rush of many drinks combining with the raw emotional state of the folks crammed into the bar in a potent mix of sadness, laughter, and ultimately reconciliation with what had happened in the company of good friends. I hope it worked as well for Scott’s family as it did for me.
As in the past when those dear to me have died I’m going to post some of my favorite memories of Scott. I’ll start here with when I first met him and an overview of my relationship with him over the years.
My family moved to Northport in 1979 and I soon met Scott’s brother Patrick, whose family lived around the corner from me. Scott was a little (6?7?) tyke at that point and my earliest memories of him are of this little kid brother Pat had, shy and usually quiet, with a squeaky little voice. The Leightons had an Intellivision and I remember we used to tease him because when he played hockey or the car racing game he would lean his whole body in the direction he was trying to will his on-screen character to go, including usually his arms which he’d sometimes whack you with. He was good at it though, especially Hockey – the Leighton brothers got to the point where they could pretty much always whip me in Hockey.
We were geeks back then – videogame nerds, comic book nerds, computer nerds, dungeon and dragons nerds – you name it, if it was nerdy we were into it. We could sometimes convince one of our parents to take us to comic book shows back then and now and then Scott would tag along when one of the Leightons was driving us. I can’t remember what comics Scott was into back then, but unlike most of us he stuck with it over the years and as recently as last summer I was shooting the breeze with him about old Marvel characters.
I also recall Scott being big into Soccer when he was young. Both the Leightons were growing up, but by the time Pat and I had become friends Pat was no longer playing. Meanwhile though the Leightons were frequently off to games and practice with Scott, and I remember him practicing/playing in the yard on the side of the Leighton house.
My earliest vivid memory of Scott is one I share with several of my friends. We were sitting around the Leighton pool and Scott’s Dad had just taken him to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Scott was usually shy around us, watching more than talking, but we asked him how the movie was and he became animated and enthusiastic, running us through the movie plot from the perspective of an 8 or 9 year old, with run on sentences, gaps in the story, and a fair amount of gibberish, along the lines of ‘and THEN he fell in a room full of snakes but they burned them, and THEN he knocked over a giant statue and ran away, and then the box moved, and THEN their faces MELTED!’ It cracked us all up.
As we all graduated from high school and moved on to college I lost touch with Scott, running into him now and then through my college years but never spending any significant time in his company. Scott’s a year older than my younger brother though, and I heard tales of him now and then. What I most remember is that he was renowned for the parties he’d throw during his high school years.
After I got out of school I reconnected with all my old Northport friends. For a couple of years I lived in my Mom’s house and Scott played in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign we got rolling. His character had a secret and central role in this epic, hackneyed plot I had cooked up (I was the dungeon master) which sadly he never got to act on because I took a job in Maine and moved away, but of all the players in that campaign Scott was the most engaged – willing to read through the extensive background material and understanding and attempting to role play his character.
After I moved to Maine I again lost touch with Scott for a couple of years, but both of us started going to an annual camping trip some of my high school friends had started in 1985. Scott and I attended (I think for the first time) in 1995, and for most of the years after that I’d see Scott once a year for most of a week in the woods/on a lake/etc on the camping trip. We also played online games together – a short run in Everquest II, a longer one in World of Warcraft, with dabbling in other things, I guess most notably Neverwinter Nights. As in the pen and paper campaigns, Scott was a solid, reliable player. He was usually pretty quiet when we played, but you could count on him to understand his character and what role it played in the party dynamics. Usually you listened when he spoke, too, because it took something important for him to speak…unless it was because he was mocking you for doing something dumb 😉
You wouldn’t say Scott and I were close over the years – while we’d trade the occasional emails, and I’d see him some years at parties or during the holidays, he wasn’t someone I was in constant touch with. Yet at the same time he was someone I’ve known most of my life, someone who I admired and liked. There were similarities between us too – we’re both observers in a room full of people, watching rather than sitting at the center of attention, making quiet comments at the periphery, better in one on one conversations than in a group dynamic. We’re both also hopeless videogame addicts. One year for the annual camping trip Scott and Pat came up a day early and we bounced around Saratoga Springs. That night Scott found the game I of the Dragon on my computer and he played it for hours. After the camping trip he extended his stay at my place first for one additional night, then for another, because he got so hooked on it. Out of our circle of friends only Scott and I would do something like that and it makes me smile to think of it.
I’ll pass on talking about the details of Scott’s death aside from saying how tragic it felt to miss him by only a few days this year. We moved our annual camping trip to a beach house on Fire Island in NY this year in the hope that Scott could make it for a day or two, but by the time we got to the house Scott was seriously ill and he never made it, dying only a few days after our trip ended.
I feel guilty that I never got to speak to Scott about his illness before he died, and I’m angry with myself for not reaching out to him. At first I figured if he needed a shoulder to lean on he’d reach out to those he felt could help him, and I wasn’t a likely candidate for that – best to let him spend as much time as he could with his intimates rather than inserting myself into things. Then I figured better to see him in person than to email, which felt so impersonal and inappropriate to the circumstances. In the end that inaction on my part cost me and I’m the worse for it. A real lesson learned there for me, though it’s one I hope I never have to use.