Thirty four years ago last November, my former roommate, Dan Cohen died at the age of 25. He was an extraordinary individual, and if you have a moment, I’d like to tell you a little bit about him.
Dan had the misfortune of being born a Thalidomide baby. He was significantly less than five feet tall, slightly hard of hearing, nearly blind but for his exceptionally thick glasses, and he had purple tinted teeth — which were always on display since his lips did not easily close over them. But the worst of it was that he had an exceptionally weak heart.
At the time I knew him, Dan could walk only a few hundred yards without stopping to rest because his heart would within that short distance pound like he’d run a marathon.
At an early age — maybe nine or ten — Dan’s doctors told his parents that, because of the weakness of his heart, he would most likely not live beyond 25 years old, which proved to be an accurate prediction. His parents made the decision to tell Dan what the doctors had told them, so Dan knew early on that he wasn’t going to live a long life.
I met Dan in college. He and I lived on the same dorm floor for awhile. We became roommates because no one else on the floor wanted him as a roommate. Frankly, Dan was one of the messiest people I’ve ever known. But when he asked to become my roommate, I figured I could handle it on the one condition that he didn’t let any of his mess stray to my side of the room.
It wasn’t long before I learned that Dan’s one ambition in life was to learn everything he could possibly learn as fast as he could learn it. Because of his circumstances, the university allowed him to study anything he wanted to study without pressuring him to graduate. His official major was biology, but he took courses in every major field of science along with many courses in the humanities. He was an engaging thinker, and introduced me to many ideas that were new to me.
The only thing Dan seemed to like more than learning something new was a good joke. Most of our conversations were laced with his wit, and even to this day, I can hear in my mind his laughter.
He also had an well-informed empathy for the underdog, the oppressed, that I myself at the time did not fully share with him. For instance, he was deeply concerned with injustices suffered by the Palestinians.
We only roomed together for one year before I left the dorms. Then one freezing winter night, Dan got a phone call from the hospital. My brother was seriously ill and had been taken to the emergency room. Could Dan give them my new number?
As it happened, Dan only had my address, but not my phone number. Without apparent thought for himself, he set out past midnight, in the middle of a blizzard, to walk to my new home because he didn’t have cab fare and couldn’t find anyone who would lend him the money. It took him, he said, almost two hours to reach me. He had to stop every block or so and rest his heart in the freezing wind.
What impresses me most about the man was not the selfless, heroic effort he made to inform me of my brother’s hospitalization, but rather his extraordinary love for life, his courage, and his sensitivity to others.
Dan knew he didn’t have much time in this world, but I never once heard him complain about it. You can say life was unfair to him, but that’s not a judgement he himself ever gave an indication of harboring.
Instead, I only recall his passionate enthusiasm when he would toss out to me some new idea he’d had, or some bit of knowledge he’d discovered that day. I think he made the most of the tragic hand he was dealt in life, and over the years, he has become something a personal inspiration to me.
Thank you for listening. I believe Dan deserves to be remembered.