This one's only tangentially about comics. It's about living.
After a spirited fight against pancreatic cancer, my good friend and sometime college roommate Dionisio (Dio) Sanchez died last Monday. His family had been keeping vigil with him; he had been confined to bed for the week previous. He was forty-four, about my age. I loved the man, and I'll miss him terribly.
Michele and I were able to attend Dio's memorial and funeral this past weekend, up north in San Jose under looming gray skies, where we joined with his family and friends, very many friends, to celebrate a life well lived. It was a powerful experience, beautiful, sometimes difficult, and haunting: something I would not have missed for the world.
Dio was a dedicated friend, someone who understood that friendship isn't just something that happens to you; it's intentional, a way of being and relating. He practiced the art of friendship well and was large-hearted, optimistic, and full of humor. He was, as his wife Jeanette said in her eloquent eulogy, a seeker, a person with a keenly active, questing mind and undogmatic spiritual nature. He had a desire to connect to the big things, and an unquenchable curiosity.
Dio and Jeanette built a loving family of eccentric originality and courage, nonconformists all, and I was blessed to be able to visit them a few times since moving back to California in 2001. His children, Olivia, Gabe, Shannon, and Cassie, comported themselves with strength and humor at the memorial, playing a leading role in all events.
I'll quote here from a statement that Dio's family sent to me before the funeral:
A graduate of Mt. Pleasant High School, Dio also attended UC Santa Barbara for several years as a physics major and spent a lifetime studying science, literature, and practicing the craft of writing. He holds his AA in English and Technical Writing from De Anza College. Dio worked for the Santa Clara County Department of Social Services since 1991, most recently as a Supervisor. Both in his professional and personal life, Dio took great pleasure in mentoring his staff, peers, friends, and family.
Dio loved literature of all kinds, especially science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Ever a seeker, he left an extensive library of sacred texts ranging from The Bible to the Mahabarata, the Social Theory of Magic to the Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet. Humor and laughter were rarely far away as Dio had a broad sense of humor. He truly leaves a legacy of love, laughter, and respect with his family, friends and co-workers. Though he will be greatly missed, his spirit and love continues to shine bright and fill those who knew him.
On a selfish note, Dio had something to do with my dedicated comics buying in the mid to late eighties. I had started reading and buying new comics again circa 1985, after about seven years away (I quit at about age twelve when Marvel and DC books were at 35 cents, then came back at age twenty when they were typically 75 cents; I bought no new comics between my last issues of Kamandi and the first of Eastman & Laird's TMNT). When I resumed buying comics regularly, I was about to return to UC Santa Barbara for my third year, and that year Dio was one of my roommates (along with our mutual friend Steve). During that year, Dio and I, and often our friend Benson, made weekly trips to downtown Santa Barbara to the (now long gone) Andromeda Bookshop, on the De La Guerra Plaza next to the old mission. Andromeda was a haven for SF and genre and comics buffs, in fact a place I regarded as a SF bookstore long before I came to regard it as a comics shop. Our trips there, most often on Fridays, we called "Andromeda runs." Those trips, and the sense of camaraderie they instilled, were a big part in my growing enthusiasm for comics circa 1985-86.
It was during 85-86 that we would tear through borrowed runs of comics like Cerebus, and get up to speed with what Alan Moore and others were doing. The memories of our frankly crappy student apartment and all the reading that went on there will stay with me always, attached to my enjoyment of those mid-80s comics. Sitting in a ratty armchair with dozens of issues of Cerebus on the right armrest (the in basket) and more on the left armrest (the out basket), listening to Hawkwind or Camel or some other such trippy music, making the weekly Andromeda run, and talking long into the night--this to me was the romance of a deferred adolescent rebellion, a time of self-formation, deep confusion, great hope, and delightful craziness.
Besides our love of comics, Dio and I shared an enthusiasm for other geek-culture genres including SF, fantasy, and art rock. Dio had a prog-rock radio show, called Willow Farm, on the campus radio station, KCSB, usually on the graveyard shift circa 2 to 6 a.m., and I sometimes went with him to the station and helped out, at one point even subbing for the show (I had gotten my FCC license, inspired by Dio).
Back when we first met, during our initial year of college at UCSB, Dio, for all his nerdy interests, had a better gift for sociability than I did, and I benefited from his friendliness. I recall fondly how a small klatsch of students, including Dio and me, used to gather round a rock outside one of the UCSB lecture halls and wait for our Science Fiction professor, the late and much-missed Frank McConnell, to get to class. I doubt that would have happened without Dio being there; he was constantly making new friends and introducing me to people.
I was blessed to be able to visit Dio and his family back in June, when they held a Wopila (a ceremony of thanksgiving and gift-giving) in their backyard. Dio, I know, was much depleted by his cancer and the treatments, but, honestly, it would have been hard to tell: other than his thinness, and a few spells of tiredness, he didn't seem like someone fighting for his life. But he was, with unquenchable fire and optimism and love of living. He gave me his worn copy of a Doc Savage novel at the Wopila, one of the very first novels he ever bought for himself, and I took it home and read it promptly:
We both knew that it wasn't a great book (I remember Dio's cautious comments about the book's datedness and racism), but I'll be damned if reading it didn't mean a lot to me. Doc Savage has meant something to me since I was a little kid. And over this past weekend I came to know, much more clearly than ever before, that reading heroic fantasies like these had a huge and lasting impact on Dio, fortifying his ideals and sense of ethics and encouraging in him that love of the untrammeled imagination that guided him in life. It was no accident that a big Spider-Man stand-up was placed outside the entrance to the memorial chapel. It was no accident that, inside, Jeanette placed comics, SF books, and volumes on spirituality, religion, and esoteric philosophy alongside Dio's own stories, scripts, and notes. Dio took the best ingredients of SF and fantasy as genres--both the visionary,forward-looking elements and touchingly old-fashioned ideas of heroism and honor--and shaped his life with them. Even his musical tastes, I now see, were extensions of those genres, bringing the iconography of fantasy and SF and Romanticism and paganism into sound.
One of the sad limitations of the academic study of Literature is that, at least until very recently, it has had so little to say about the kind of reading life that Dio led. The powerful exclusionary frame that has made "Literature" what it is, academically, has cut off a great many of the most passionate and committed readers, and is poorer as a result. To hell with the frame.
Burroughs, Howard, Heinlein: in these oft-criticized yet still academically under-studied writers, Dio found the rudiments of a heroic ideal that enabled him to shape the life lessons he had learned close to home, from his loving family, into a consciously articulated philosophy of life. To a very great extent, his life was a project of self-creation, one that used elements from bygone popular culture as well as elements culled from scripture, imaginative literature, and daily living. In my view, he dignified everything he liked, finding even in shopworn pulp the inspirations for a generous, passionate way of life. Remarkably, he was able to do all this, and to pursue a different path from that of his birth family, without alienating or losing close touch with any of them. He followed his own way, but honored his parents and siblings and their families. Their closeness was much in evidence this past weekend, and I was honored to stand among them.
I spoke to Dio by phone a few times these last few weeks, though the last two times he wasn't able to reply (it was just me gabbing into a speakerphone, to tell him he was in my thoughts). To think that such a spirit could be stilled at such an age is still a shock to me, even though I knew, intellectually, that his death was coming. We are never ready for the irrevocable change.
Dio has gone on, with great courage, to what he called the Great Mystery, leaving me behind, wondering.