Let’s say one day you’re at work, maybe feeling a little under-engaged with whatever it is you do. Someone you know crosses your mind, and you say, “hey, let’s give ‘im a Google!”
And about 20 seconds later, you learn that they recently died.
Last month, this happened to me. (“Local Author, Former Scribe Passes Away.”) Bryon died of a “massive heart attack” in his home on St. Patrick’s Day. He was discovered by his housemate. He was 48 years old.
Over the last few weeks since I went a-Googling, I’ve been ruminating over every detail about Bryon I can remember. Searching in my records for notes sent, remembering details, trying to make sense of how a close friend could be gone just like that. Having the random crying jag when I remember another detail of something that’s so important to me, that I may not know about if it wasn’t for him.
In Summer 2001, I met Bryon Burruss when I was in a Portland production of The Famous Tuscan Springs, a play he wrote with his friend Joe Hilsee. We started corresponding shortly thereafter, and the last time I heard from him was via text in August 2010, about two weeks before I was to move to Canada and start my graduate program. The last time I sent him a brief email was the following summer, when I was in Montana and my brain was starting to work again after a tumultuous year.
He had a master’s degree in theater but lived in rural California. Yet he managed to open a theater company and keep it running for five years. The theater encouraged aspiring playwrights each year by holding a new plays festival—submissions came from around the world. Those plays that didn’t quite make the stage were sometimes adapted for radio, which he produced.
Theater was Bryon’s love, possibly more than anything else in the world. The pains he took to keep that theater running were great.
Perhaps those are the facts that most people could tell you. What I alone could tell you is this: Bryon once suggested a medicinal tea which is still my go-to for colds, a decade later. I sent him the script of a favorite play—Killer Joe by Tracy Letts—and a year later his theater performed it. Bryon suggested I might like a Canadian television program called Slings and Arrows, which was about a Shakespeare company in Ontario. When I got the first season on DVD, I anticipated watching the first hour and then doing the dishes. Six hours later I was exhilarated, watching the final few minutes after I just could not turn the thing off. When Bryon was desperate for readers for his slush pile of new plays, I gladly helped out, reading in one case a rather large box of scripts over the course of just a few weeks.
Aside from theater, Bryon had another special project as well. The Famous Tuscan Springs, the play I was in, was a real place that existed outside of Red Bluff, California. In addition to writing a play about the place, Bryon knew pretty much all there was to know about the resort that sat there in the early part of the 20th Century. At one point, I helped him locate a booklet held in a medical library in New York City that he was previously unaware of.
It turns out that when his life ended unexpectedly, Bryon was having some success with his Tuscan Springs research. Tuscan Springs was released by Arcadia Publishing under their ubiquitous “Images of America” series.
There are plenty of other things I could say about Bryon too. At times, he seemed to be anti-feminist. Once, when I offered a feminist take on something, he snarkily asked if I would start talking about herstory. My vegetarianism also seemed to make him uneasy—he tried to convince me that in the town he lived, you just couldn’t be vegetarian. And yet, I never had any problem feeding myself when I was there.
The worst thing I could say about Bryon is, I never got to say goodbye to him.
Naturally, I purchased a copy of Tuscan Springs. I never saw Bryon’s collection of imagery and artifacts on the few occasions we visited, but so far I’m impressed by what he managed to dig up over the years.
Readers, friends, to everyone I say—you make sure and take care of that heart of yours. Treat your body well. Cherish the relationships you have, even if they’re not perfect—one day you may wake up to discover that person you’ve known for years is gone.