David Breakstone was the kind of reader every reporter dreams of.
He was kind and erudite, full of humor and righteous indignation. A gifted writer himself, he would pick out for appreciation just the turn of phrase I had labored over most, or he’d put things so much better than I had that I’d be kicking myself.
A column I wrote on my love of possibly carcinogenic deli meats prompted David’s meditation on the Hebrew National hot dog of his childhood, “plump, aromatic, and filled with sweet juices that plumed skyward when punctured by my sharp fork...”
He was from Pittsburgh — the Squirrel Hill section, I learned, from an anguished note he sent after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the tight-knit Jewish neighborhood. His devotion to the Pirates and the Steelers was unshakable. He taught writing and communication to college students, and doted on his sons Ben and Joel. He and his wife Sharon Bauer met on a blind date in 1965, when they were grad students at Harvard. They worked in the anti-war movement, and for candidates in what Sharon called “all of the impossible campaigns.”
We exchanged hundreds of e-mails over a decade or so. He recommended articles or books he thought I might like, and he was always right. When I wrote on an especially brutal topic, or shared something personal in print, his e-mails were extra supportive, making sure I was holding up OK. He would always find something nice to say, even if a column was clearly a dog (“My colleagues used to chide me for being an easy grader,” he offered, when I ribbed him about it).
“Avanti, sister,” was his typical sign-off, or “Keep on truckin'.”
After I’d written yet another tirade on yet another mass shooting, he offered: “Don’t stop until the cowards begin to hear the drumbeat of public outrage and are retired to Wayne LaPierre’s vacation ranch on Elba.”
Occasionally, he took gentle issue with something I’d written, but we mostly agreed, especially when it came to Donald Trump.
“Let’s hope (pray, if you do) that come dawn on Wednesday, we can sob in relief together,” David wrote, just before the 2016 election. There was no relief, of course, but plenty of virtual sobbing of the wrong kind in our exchanges after that.
By then I had come to expect his notes, even count on them. Often, I’d put a sentence on the screen and think, “David might like this.” We’d met only twice in person, but I treasured his friendship. We talked about getting together for lunch, but it never seemed to work out.
In the summer of 2018, when I fell and got a concussion that kept me out for weeks, David sent a worried e-mail. He had tripped trying to catch a trolley in Brookline the year before, and had taken a long time to recover from his brain injury. He became a kind of coach for me: “Welcome, sort of, to the post-concussion society of Eastern Massachusetts.” On days when I felt hopeless, he promised, to my immense comfort, that I’d come through.
“Thinking of you on this grizmal morning,” he wrote. “I’m sticking by you come rain or come lightning. I’m impervious to calamity. So will you be!”
We were going to get together, for sure this time, as soon as I was well enough. But then I got a note from Sharon: David had fallen boarding the 71 bus near Mount Auburn Hospital, and was recovering from another head injury. Sharon was reading to him — he liked plenty of writers, his notes to them were surely delightful, too — and e-mailing on his behalf, until David could write himself.
I tried to offer the same encouragement he’d given me, but his recovery, he said, was “agonizingly slow.” Last summer came yet another fall, and David’s e-mails got rarer.
In early March, Sharon wrote to tell me David was in hospice with Parkinson’s disease, the likely cause of his falls going back a couple of years. Sometimes, he’d be drifting as he lay in his bed at Belmont Manor, and she would share something from The New Yorker, or by my colleague Jeremy Eichler, and “he would just wake right up again,” Sharon said. Dozens of friends streamed in from all over the country to say their goodbyes.
“There was time for him to have last conversations with everyone,” Sharon said. “It was so vivifying for him to be in the presence of a friend, or a good writer.”
On March 13, the end in sight, Sharon took David out of Belmont Manor just before the pandemic locked the facility down, so that he could die at his Watertown home, with Sharon and hospice aides tending to him. He passed peacefully there on April 1. He was 81.
The Jewish ritual washing he wished for took place virtually, via Zoom. Neighbors lined the street at 6-foot intervals to say goodbye as his pine box passed. There was a small graveside service. Sharon is grateful for all of it.
“In this time of plague, those are little miracles,” she said.
He left behind countless letters, notes, and e-mails, full of his wisdom, his sweetness, and his supple prose, words to treasure.
“Keep on making the comfortable uncomfortable,” read his last one to me, “and we will see how much that may help our current dire situation.”
I’ll try, but it won’t be easy without you, my friend.