Byron J. Preston

My first memory of Byron is from the spring semester of 1997 at SUNY New Paltz. This was my graduating semester, and Byron and I were both enrolled in Historical Archeology with Joe Diamond. Dr. Diamond had gone off on a tangent about collections, and had shared with us his theory that men have a greater tendency to be collectors than women. To support his claim, he asked for a show of hands from anyone in the class who made a hobby of collecting something. Byron’s hand went up, though I don’t think he expected that he’d be asked to share the exact nature of his collection, because when Dr. Diamond did ask this he seemed caught off guard. “Oh!” he said, “well, firearms.” This, in turn, caught me completely off guard. We were in New Paltz, hippie haven, liberal stronghold, home of the tie-dyed in the wool pacifist, and here was this intelligent, calm, quiet, articulate man casually mentioning his collection of weaponry. It was surprising, to say the least, and firmly fixed Byron in my mind as an iconoclast.

Unfortunately, my memories of Byron skip a bit here. After university, I moved to Maryland for a few incredibly misspent and unpleasant years. Eventually, I decided I’d had enough and I moved back up to the New Paltz area. Shortly after returning, I began spending my afternoons at the Bakery, and here is where my memories of Byron pick up again. In those days – circa 2003-2006 – there was a group of us who would meet there in the evenings for discussions on a wide range of topics, very few of which I can remember now. Mostly, we met there for companionship. This is where and when I really got to know Byron. I discovered that he was not only well-read and thoughtful, but also had a wicked sense of humour, and was always interested in planning some sort of well choreographed prank, whether he intended to bring it to fruition or not. I remember once we were bemoaning the gentrification of New Paltz and wondering what we could do to stem the tide of moneyed newcomers (and in so doing, make it easier for the working class to be able to continue to call New Paltz home). We came up with two ideas: we could try to popularize New Paltz as a retirement destination for ex-circus performers, and we could start spreading stories about a local mythic creature (a river monster, a mountain demon, or the like) in order to add cryptozoological tourist appeal to the area. Neither of these ideas would have explicitly excluded the well-off, but both, we hoped, would create the sort of carnival-esque environment that the self-identified elite of society would probably prefer to avoid. We even thought about pranking the New Paltz Regatta (when many, many eyes would be on the river) with a rubber dinosaur head poking out of the Wallkill, to lend credibility and witnesses to the idea of a local river monster.

Usually, I arrived at the Bakery in the evenings before anyone else, and I would sit and read or write for a while until others arrived. Once, Byron showed up while I was working on a poem. He told me about how he’d read his father’s writing (poetry and/or short stories, if I remember correctly) after he’d died, and how this had helped him to get to know who his father had been, and had helped him to make peace with him.

Byron and I shared an interest in Eric Sloane’s writing and artwork depicting early American life. I remember once we ran into each other just as I was leaving the Bakery for an appointment with my therapist, and I ended up arriving for my session ten minutes late because we’d somehow gotten into a conversation about Eric Sloane, and we’d both been so excited to talk about it that I couldn’t pull myself away. We talked about planning a trip to the Sloane museum; unfortunately, we never did make that trip.

Another time at the Bakery, I told Byron about my idea to put LEDs on the blades of wind turbines to ward off birds; I’d read an article about birds flying into the turbines at night because they couldn’t see them, and I thought that attaching low-cost, low-power LEDs illuminating at wavelengths that only birds could see would be a solution. A few weeks later, Byron told me that he’d been thinking about me and my idea at some later point during a conversation with his father-in-law. I remember feeling a rush of surprise at the realization that Byron had thought of me. It was a great honour to be thought well of by him. I still feel greatly honoured that he thought well of me.

I don’t remember how it came up, but Byron once told a story at the Bakery about a road trip he’d taken through the South. Out of concern for his safety, he’d brought a firearm with him. At some point during the trip, he was at a rest stop or gas station, and someone either tried to convince Byron to give him a ride or tried to force himself into his car. After arguing fruitlessly with the man (who was getting worked up into greater and greater states of agitation) and seeing no other option, Byron revealed the firearm without saying anything (he opened the glove box, or pulled away whatever was covering it on the passenger seat – I don’t remember the exact details). The implicit threat quieted the man, and Byron drove away. He said he wanted to puke afterwards. That told me a lot about who Byron was. He had courage, restraint, and a desire to avoid even the suggestion of violence except as an absolute last resort. It is still difficult for me to reconcile Byron’s interest in militia and armaments with the kind, thoughtful man I remember. He was complex, as all interesting people are; he had a fascination with weapons and military ritual, but I find it difficult to imagine him harming someone or enjoying the strictly defined life of a soldier.

I haven’t shared this next memory with many people. In the spring of 2005, shortly after Nora was born, I dreamt of an apocalyptic disaster. A volcano was erupting, turning the sky red and covering the land with lava. In the dream, I was with Byron, Kathy, and Nora, at their house, and I remember feeling unafraid despite the chaos unfolding before us; we were simply watching it through the window. I wish I’d written about the dream at the time (poring over my journal entries from that period reveals that, surprisingly, I did not record anything about it) because my memory fails here. Still, I think I understand what the dream was about, at least in part. I was looking for a greater sense of connection, family, community, to help me deal with the challenges I perceived from the outside world, and I could recognize that sense of family in Byron, Kathy, and Nora. The dream, perhaps, was also prophetic of the coming intense hardships that they would face because of Byron’s illness, and that Kathy and Nora (and I, and everyone else who cared about them) would weather the storm, no matter how difficult it was.

Eventually, of course, Byron was diagnosed with lymphoma and began receiving chemotherapy. He was spending a great deal of time in the cancer ward at St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, and a group of his friends (organised by Celeste and Mark) chipped in to buy him a laptop so that he could stay in contact with us. In an email he sent to me shortly thereafter, he wrote, “You bastards made me cry,” to which I responded “I always know I’ve done something right if someone’s either in tears or calling me a bastard afterwards.” Later in my reply email, I mentioned some vague plans I had to enroll in yoga teacher training eventually. I told him about my recurring daydream to kayak or dog sled across the Arctic, teaching yoga wherever I went. I concluded my description of this daydream with the phrase “Have mat, will travel.” Several years later, shortly before actually enrolling in a yoga teacher training programme, I decided to use this phrase as the name of my blog, in honour of Byron.

My second to last memory of Bryon is from the early summer of 2006. He’d been receiving treatment for lymphoma for about a year at this point; maybe longer. He was going to be heading back into the hospital again before long, but before going, he took a trip to the Rosendale Theatre with me, Mark, and Celeste, to see the movie Wordplay. Mark and Celeste took their own car, and Byron rode with me; I remember worrying whether his immune system would be able to handle whatever germs I might be sharing with him in the confined space of the car. After the movie, we all went next door to the Alamo for drinks and chips and salsa. The Alamo was the site of my last proper conversation with Byron, and I wish I had recorded it word for word because I’ve often returned to it in my mind and my memory is fading. We talked about my work and living situations; I’d been working from home since returning to New York in 2001, and my latest house mate was about to move out. I told Byron that I wasn’t planning on looking for a new house mate; I would live alone for a while and see how it went. This was, I believe, the only time Byron gave me any sort of unsolicited advice. He urged me to find someone to live with. He told me about the years he spent living with Brendan, and how much he enjoyed it. I remember feeling slightly troubled by his counsel. I knew he was right, but this was not the advice I wanted; I wanted platitudes about how I’d enjoy my time alone. Byron was not one for platitudes, though. He was gentle about it, but he said what he thought. I did end up living alone for the next few years, but I thought about Byron’s advice often. I remember thinking about it years later when I asked my girlfriend to move in with me. I spent a great deal of my life thinking of myself as a loner; perhaps Byron saw that that wasn’t so before I did.

The last time I saw Byron was about a month later in the hospital in (either ironically or appropriately) Valhalla. A group of us from New Paltz, the group who met at the Bakery in the evenings, drove down to visit him there after he’d had his spleen removed. I recognized the hospital as we pulled into the parking lot because it was where my mother had had spinal fusion surgery when I was in grade four. Those early memories of the place were not pleasant; neither are these later ones. We went in to visit him in pairs; I went in with Dale. Later, Kathy told me that when we’d arrived en masse and she told him that we were all there to see him, he’d said, “Please, I just want to see Franklin and Dale.” This still chokes me up when I think about it. I felt this tremendous sense of camaraderie with him; a sense that we saw things from similar perspectives and fought similar struggles as a result of similar experiences. I never talked to him about it, though, and I never knew whether he felt the same until after he’d died and Kathy shared some of his thoughts and feelings with me. Anyway, we didn’t have much of a conversation at the hospital. I remember telling him I looked forward to seeing him at the Bakery again. When I left the room, I remember standing outside the door with my back to the wall, crying.

This last memory is the most painful for me. Eventually, Byron came home from the hospital for hospice care. We all knew that hope for recovery had evaporated. Byron sent me an email (Kathy told me later that it was the last email he sent) – it read “franklin, i want you to come up to the house. the numbeer here is XXX-XXXX. iwant to see my friends. byron”.

I didn’t go. Instead, I ran away to visit a friend in Canada for a few days. There were other, unrelated issues haunting me that I didn’t want to deal with, and in cowardice I ran away. I thought I’d have time to see him when I got back. I called the house and left a message before I went, hoping I could see him before leaving, but no one called me back. Perhaps I should have just stopped by.  Probably, I should have just stopped by. But I didn’t. I got back from my trip on Monday night, and early on Tuesday morning I got the call from Mark that Byron had died.

I don’t know if it’s possible to pass through adulthood without accumulating some regrets; certainly I have gathered a few. Not saying goodbye to Byron is my biggest regret, bar none. That is the one thing I most wish I could have done differently in my life. I wish I had said goodbye to him, and I wish to god (a god in whom I have wildly fluctuating degrees of faith) that I knew what, if anything, he wanted to say to me when he asked me to stop by the house. Perhaps all he wanted, too, was to say goodbye, but I would trade almost anything to know for certain. And I wish I was able to tell him how highly I thought of him, and how close I felt to him.

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3 Responses

  1. Franklin, you are a good friend and I am proud to call you my brother.

  2. What an amazing relationship the two of you shared. How lucky he was to have you as a friend and how lucky you are to have known this man!

  3. I would love to get in touch with you regarding Byron. He was my cousin and he is missed dearly. Pls contact me@ XXX-YYY-ZZZZ.thank you so much.

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