There are moments in time, the significance of which we miss because we are too young or naïve or inexperienced to see them for what they are. Years and experience throw a glaring light on those missed moments as if to highlight what could have been, what you could have done, if only you knew then what you know now.
Dennis Cokley’s passing this week takes me back to one of those, “if only I could turn back the clock,” occurrences. It happened at a lunch that I shared with him my first semester of law school.
Dennis loved teaching and learning moments, so to honor him I will share with you a story that I know would make Dennis chuckle… because that is exactly what he did when, a couple of years ago, he and I remembered together what happened at that lunch.
I first “met” Dennis in the mid-1990’s while I was working for the Utah Community Center for the Deaf. We were introduced when he came to teach some workshops in Utah. Over the years he and I talked and faxed (oh children this was back when email was science trying to prove it was not fiction). He and I really got to know each other when I was accepted to law school at Northeastern University. I sent him a note and he responded that when I had settled in and found the time to come see him and he would take me to lunch.
A few months into my first semester I happened to have some time open and I wandered across campus to Dennis’ office to see if he was free. As I walked into the Deaf Studies Department he was walking out to go to lunch with a colleague, but he kindly invited me to join them. I told him I didn’t want to disrupt his lunch. Dennis gave me that smile (if you’ve ever met him you know the smile I mean) and signed, “we would welcome you to join us, I would love to introduce you.”
So I went.
Dennis introduced me to his colleague as “my friend from Utah.” Dennis went on to give “a proper Deaf introduction” to this hearing colleague and I realized that he knew things about my history and background that only a person who took an interest would know. His introduction was gracious and complementary in a way that can only be described as, “with the manners Dennis was known for.”
Then we ate. We ate and talked about Deaf culture, interpreting, law, policy, the past and the future. They asked my opinion. They listen to my input (I am cringing as I remember how much I thought I understood that day compared to how little I actually knew).
It was a very enjoyable lunch. But I admit, to my embarrassment, I did even begin to grasp the enviable position I was in that afternoon.
With the benefit of years and experience I now realize that I had a singular experience that day. I relive that afternoon and think of all the things I should have asked if only I had understood that for two and half hours I sat between two of the greatest minds in my field. For those brief two hours he gave me a place at the table, seated between Dennis Cokley and Harlan Lane.
Thank you Dennis. Your kindness equaled your intellect.
That is the greatest complement I think I could pay him.