Mr Cummings, who taught me English at school was an almost registered “Odd Man.” You could see even then, and I was about eleven when he taught me, that most of his conversations were with himself, which he engaged you in if you were in his room or class, but they were not quiet conversations. He was always urgent, engaged, non-conformist and anxious not to waste a breath on just getting by. “Live it” he used to say about almost everything and being young boys, we laughed at him behind his back, and sometimes to his face, but he never seemed upset or distracted by our callow behaviour.
Gradually we understood he was about values, and caring, and looking for the details most of other people miss. He was as urgently alive as anyone I’ve met, and behind that mad eccentric engagement was also the most “knowing” person I knew. There was another side to him, perhaps a darker side, it’s hard to say. He had an empathy with souls who were suffering: if your life had plunged into shadows or been overpowered by grief he was the man you looked at and you knew he understood where you were. He didn’t talk in platitudes; he talked in experience and his compassion was beautifully constrained.
Years later I heard he took his own life using alcohol and pills, and the outpouring of love for him at his passing told you so much about his life. I realised, as well as telling us about the possibilities and beauty in our lives, he was also trying to protect us from those ghosts which haunted him constantly with a powerful stealth.
He made me realise that troubled people are often the bravest and most determined people you will meet. That for them to wake up and live an unexceptional day takes a level of courage and will-power few of us will ever have to demonstrate. He was the kindest and bravest man I met, who fought against demons all his life, and never lost that compassion which suffering gives to us.
Many of us don’t know what we mean to those around us. How our thoughts and routines form part of a pattern that sustains them in their lives, but for Mr Cummings, the whole world was his neighbour, and taking out their trash and passing the time of day with anyone he came across was the simplest expression of humanity. He never married and had no children but those of us who met him feel like orphans at his passing.