February 12, 2005, was the day I first met Allan Glenn. It was near the beginning of my second semester in graduate school, in New York City, and on that day I was playing host to a meetup of people from the Internet Infidels message board who lived in and around the city. Time inevitably blurs memory, but as I recall, it was a clear, bright Saturday afternoon, with the crisp chill of winter not yet past, but a brilliant sun shining that foretold the arrival of spring.
Early in the afternoon, the people from IIDB began to arrive at my modest graduate student’s apartment, a fourth-story studio walkup on Manhattan’s upper west side. Some I knew well, having participated along with them in discussions on many topics. Others I knew less well, perhaps as a name on a message board, as a fellow nonbeliever somewhere in the wilderness of this vast world. But I was glad to meet them in person, one and all, to see the human being behind the words and put a face and a voice to those writings which, however eloquent and expressive, rarely give the complete picture of a person in a way that even a simple in-person meeting can so easily do.
And among those who came in person that day was Allan Glenn, a.k.a. WinAce from the IIDB, and his girlfriend Jessica. I honestly cannot recall if Allan and I had spoken directly before then, but I knew him by reputation and I believe he knew me in the same way. I did know that he was the author of The Wonderful World of WinAce, a collection of wickedly satirical and laugh-out-loud clever essays confronting religious fundamentalism in all its forms, and that he was one of the best-known and most popular contributors on the IIDB and its associated chat rooms. I also knew that he had been having health problems, about which I will say more in a moment.
I have to confess that I was slightly shocked by my first sight of him. When you know a person only through their written words, you often build up a mental picture of them that turns out to be very different from the reality. The subconscious mind and the preconceptions it accumulates play tricks on us all, but from the tone of his essays, I had expected someone tall and robust, loud-voiced and full of laughter, as quick with a wisecrack or a quip in real life as he was on the Internet. Instead, Allan turned out to be a small, wispy young man, pale of skin and watery blond of hair, with a pronounced accent and a soft-spoken, reserved, almost shy manner. At the time, I remember thinking that he seemed somehow undergrown – as if his mind had matured while his body stayed like that of a child. It did not occur to me until later that the illness he had carried within him all his life might well have affected his growth.
I had always known that Allan had cystic fibrosis, but prior to that first meeting, I had not been deeply involved in the story of his life. I knew he was seeking a lung transplant, possibly his only hope for long-term survival, but I had not known how imminent his dangers were. Understandably, it was not a subject that came up at our meeting. We were gathered that day to celebrate life and the pleasures of the moment, not to look ahead to the darkness that loomed in an uncertain future.
After the four-story climb to my apartment, Allan was noticeably winded and had to rest to get his breath back. This is still one of the things I feel guilty about. It should have, but did not, occur to me that stairs might be difficult for him. Had I been more mindful, I might have proposed our initial gathering be on the sidewalk outside.
We went out for lunch and then toured the city, perusing the studios and bookstores in Columbus Circle. Allan and Jessica left early, however. I heard that they needed to make preparations for a move to North Carolina, to be near one of the few hospitals that might potentially be able to perform the transplant he needed.
Over the next several months, Allan’s condition took a turn for the worse. He had acquired a nasty infection, Burkholderia cepacia, a common bacterium that poses little threat to healthy people but is a major risk to CF sufferers. Until the infection was cleared from his lungs, a transplant was impossible; the required anti-rejection drugs would have further compromised his already weakened immune system and would almost certainly have led to his death. His doctors put him on a cocktail of strong drugs, but B. cepacia is known for being antibiotic-resistant, and the infection stubbornly lingered and threatened to spread to his bloodstream.
In September 2005, there was a rare flash of good news: the News & Observer, the largest newspaper in Raleigh, contacted Allan and offered to do a front-page story on his plight. But just as events were set in motion, a cruel twist of fate intervened: Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and for the next several weeks, all the nation’s eyes were on New Orleans. The paper did eventually run its story, but I do not believe it brought any substantial donations to his medical fund.
Allan suffered through fevers, and his lung function began to deteriorate. Throughout mid-2005, he slipped in and out of the hospital. As eating became difficult, he finally consented to the surgical implantation of a tube into his stomach, a painful and frightening procedure, but it failed to stem the decline. He still posted on IIDB, showing spirit and good humor until very near the end. But the infection and fevers grew worse, and his girlfriend Jessica took over posting to keep us updated on his condition. Finally, as his lung function plummeted and his blood filled with carbon dioxide, his doctors resorted to putting him on a ventilator, heavily sedated, in a last-ditch effort to keep him alive. But in the end, it was to no avail. On the morning of November 4, 2005, one year ago today, a body that had already endured so much could endure no longer, and Allan Glenn passed away. He was 21 years old.
Who, if anyone, bears the blame for Allan Glenn’s death? A grinding and impenetrable bureaucracy that stymied him and kept him from getting the early medical intervention he needed? The germs that took up residence within his chest? The implacable forces of nature that diverted attention from his cause at the worst possible time? His parents, for choosing to bring him into existence despite knowing that they were the carriers of a potentially lethal genetic defect? (I have been told that Allan was the youngest of four children, all four of whom died from cystic fibrosis.) Was it some combination of these factors? Or was it merely a thing that happened in a vast and uncaring world, a turn of bad luck for which nothing and no one incurs responsibility?
I make no claim to have the answers to these questions. If there are lessons to be learned from Allan’s death, they are beyond me. All I know is that the world lost a brave, intelligent and sensitive young man, and he will be missed. Farewell, Allan. I know you can no longer hear me, but nevertheless I cast my farewell onto the winds.