They call it reentry, I suspect, because of the perils and stress experienced by astronauts reentering the earth’s atmosphere. If the calculations are off, you either burn up or bounce back into the void. Neither is a pleasant prospect. It is also the feeling many of us experience at returning to work after the holidays. We’ve had a taste of life without gravity, then suddenly you’re back into the thick of things. It didn’t help that among my accumulated emails (I do not check work emails during my few allotted vacation days or holidays) was the notice of the sudden death of fellow scholar Gary Knoppers. Gary’s interest early on included Ugaritic, before shifting to Second Temple Studies. I once asked him over breakfast if he recalled the question I posed as a grad student when he presented an Ugaritic paper back in Kansas City. Of course he didn’t; I don’t recall any questions I was ever asked either. (With one exception.)
Gary died prematurely, just back before Christmas. The usual venues for finding out such news, like the Society of Biblical Literature portal, were also on vacation. It is maybe best that I didn’t learn about it until reentry. Still, it didn’t make it any easier. I can’t claim to have known Gary very well, but the suddenness with which someone you know dies can lead to shock. Not so much the fact of death itself, but that it has claimed someone you knew. I was working with him on a book idea for my employer. We had traded health complaints about not being young men anymore. It’s all so very human.
On Ash Wednesday a couple years back one of my colleagues asked if I was going to get ashes. I replied that I thought about death every day and that I didn’t need ashes to remind me. She thought it was a funny response, but it is actually true. One benefit of my religious upbringing is that it early took away the fear of dying. Since all people have to face mortality, it never made sense to me to fear it. That doesn’t mean the same thing as wanting to die, but the price to pay is frequent visits to the valley of the shadow in my mind. I was merely being honest that Ash Wednesday; my interest in horror is, by the way, related to that constant awareness. Gary was a productive scholar and a kindly man. Learning of his death so soon after the holidays became its own kind of reentry. And a reminder that January looks both forward and back.