When the rubber meets the road: The man I never met, but will never forget
It might seem a bit vain, but every few days I do a quick search for my book titles. Most of the time it brings up very little, but every now and then it shines a spotlight on something I find reassuring—the best compliment I can receive is to know that my work brings joy into people’s hearts. That’s what I mostly find on these little indulgences of mine.
At least, I thought that was the best compliment I could receive, until I stumbled across this New Zealand op-ed on loss throughout 2022. At first, I thought there was an advertisement or a link somewhere on the page that mentioned Ecology of Souls. There are a lot of “false positive” hits like that.
But as I read on, I discovered that the author had been deeply touched by loss this past year. Over the course of a few paragraphs, he sketched a loving relationship with his friend, Dr. Dean Ballinger. It seems as if Dean was a bit of a polymath: academic, cartoonist, and musician. Motor neurone disease took him far too early, at the age of 48. He left behind a wife and three sons.
As I read on, it became apparent that Dean had been beset by a few synchronicities surrounding his passing. From the article:
Dean's long interest in the paranormal should have been recognised with a couple of stories relevant to his passing. Back in November 2014, as we were posing for post ceremony wedding photographs in the Te Awamutu Rose Gardens, Dean became fidgety and evidently distressed. When I pressed him as to the reason, he explained that he had just been overcome with a strong sense that he would die prematurely. We laughed it off at the time - or at least I did - but when his MND diagnosis was confirmed some six years later, Dean brought up the incident, certain that he had foretold his own destiny.
Exactly a month before he died, Dean and his wife Kelly witnessed and photographed a rare albino tūī in their garden. He was sufficiently excited to post the images to social media, seemingly missing the significance of the white bird as a harbinger of death in both Māori and European mythology.
The themes from Ecology of Souls were staring me in the face, specifically the universal motif of the bird as a harbinger of death. Then—to my shock—the next paragraph, which landed like a gut punch:
Whether such poetic notions provide solace or provoke incredulity, in his last days Dean was reading Ecology of Souls, a book which he described as "an ambitious attempt to develop a unified theory for all paranormal phenomena based on the conceit that they have something to do with the dead". With a critical if always open mind, he was trying to understand what was immediately ahead.
I’m processing this in an odd way.
First and foremost, my heart goes out to his family and loved ones. It’s become a trite Hallmark Card, but we really don’t have enough time with one another. Everyone you know will either die in your lifetime or you’ll pass on before they do. Either way, every relationship meets the same end. Make the most of the time you have with your loved ones.
But the emotion I’m struggling with the most is one I can’t put my finger on. It’s profound, heavy, and humbling, but I’m not sure it has a name. I am forever connected to this man—a man I never knew. Odds are, throughout our lives I was never closer than a few thousand miles from him.
And yet my words were one of the last things he ever read. In his final days, he was living in my head, as it were. In his last few weeks of existence on planet Earth, he chose to read me. It’s bittersweet and strange. Above all, I don’t feel worthy of such an honor.
Given his condition and interests, I can only assume that he picked up Ecology of Souls full knowing what awaited him, that it might be the last book he ever read. That is a heavy thing to consider (sorry to use that word again, but all others fail).
It’s easy to write about death when the idea consists of nothing more than a speck on the horizon—even if it comes tomorrow, that’s how most of us conceptualize it. Inevitable, but distant.
Dean reading Ecology of Souls with his own departure so close at hand profoundly reframes the subject matter for me. What is it like to read about death when there’s a psychopomp only a few feet in front of your face?
Here’s what troubles me the most: did my writing help him in his final days, when the rubber met the road? If so, was that help literal or figurative?
Is there anything objectively true about the ideas in Ecology of Souls? Was Dean able to navigate the afterlife more deftly, having had the map so recently etched into his memory? I hope so. If not that, then at least maybe it provided some comfort to a man who, by all appearances, had already found some semblance of peace in his fate.
Dr. Dean Ballinger—whom I never met, but now will never forget.