Losing Dalian

Last week, after a prolonged battle with leukemia, I lost a friend.

He introduced himself to me, and many others, as The Josh, as if to ensure we would neither readily forget him, nor confuse him with any of the other, run-of-the-mill Joshes we may encounter. The play worked, but more because he himself was unique, and less for the addition of a definite article.

He was the kind of person who was just always there. If there was a game night or some kind of church gathering, he was there. We would happen to bump into him at DragonCon, because he was always there. 

He was a nerd, and a winsome nerd at that. He would show up early for games, hang around with our daughter, apply awkward conversation, and drink tea. Often talk steered towards his family and people we ought to know, or homebrewing, or we would spend a great deal of time talking about why Deep Space 9 was the best Trek. Josh was open about his Asperger\’s, but never leaned on it. It was simply this small part of who he was that came out from time to time.

I knew Josh best, though, as a fellow gamesman. We had wonderful conversations about theology, politics, history, nerd stuff, ourselves, but they were mostly before, during, and after a game. And he was a tremendous gamer. He played to win and almost always did, either by deep tactics or aggravating twists of fate. We played a lot of poker, Munchkin, Attack Wing, Hobbit Tales, all the euro boardgames, and more, and he seemed to come out on top more often than not. Needless to say, he was a boon in cooperative games, and we played a lot of those, most especially Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator. Having rote knowledge of Babylon 5 and Star Trek made him an apt captain.

The game we played most was The One Ring RPG, in which he portrayed Dalian the Woodman. Josh was a spectacular storyteller. After his diagnosis, sessions were fewer and further between. Within that first year, a session took an unexpected turn that remains in my mind. When the other characters failed to investigate an orc stronghold, Dalian opted to go it alone. He snuck into the fortress, overheard the necessary plot points from the bad guys, and snuck out. But on the way out the dice started to fail Josh. He kept rolling, and when the orcs came for Dalian he kept rolling, even when there was an opening for escape, and the dice kept failing and Dalian didn\’t make it. 

In the context of a game night, it was a fun bit of drama. Josh said he just felt like gambling. But, it impressed upon me a sense of existential anger and unfairness. Things just didn\’t go his way. I don\’t know if Josh had a similar feeling in that moment, that of the unjust, cosmic parallel, but it has stuck with me. He took on the role of a new character, Dalian was honored in memory, and our sessions continued for a time, until they couldn\’t anymore.

The looming recollection, though, is not this isolated episode, but the stories we told together and the adventures we shared; the light and enjoyment he brought to the table, and the ways he pushed the narrative. The harebrained schemes he and the other players just barely pulled off to stop the bad guys.

Besides that bond we shared as deep nerds and gamers, I will forever remember Josh as someone who embraced the mystery. He was a richly educated and thoughtful man, but he did not need an explanation for those mysterious things that come with belief in God and life on this planet. He was content with things being what they were.

In spite of the horror of cancer and 16 months of treatment, and the existential wrestling, and seeing the people you love so hurt by this thing, I believe this acceptance of mystery eased some of the nonsense and injustice. He once said, \”I have cancer because I have cancer,\” and that seems an apt and very Joshy way to put it. He chose to focus not on the disease and the why of it, but on what was more important and tangible: namely, those he loved and who loved him.

So, my buddy is gone and I\’m sad, but I\’m glad to have known him, and I doubt a game night will pass that I won\’t think of him.

Death is nothing at all.

Cheers, Josh.


  1. Derek, Thank you so much for your thoughts and words. They are so meaningful to us. I feel you described Josh and his journey very well. He did so much enjoy the time spent with his friends playing community games. Cancer took him, but it did not define him. He was and shall be forever so much more. We miss him terribly and always will. Thank you again for being his friend.Ken Derby


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