Sunday, September 7, 2008
I was on an airplane coming back from who-knows-where in June 2002 when I picked up that day's copy of USA Today and saw a photo of Brett Parkinson directing volunteers in an organized search for missing Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart.
Brett Thomas Parkinson.
To his brothers, he was Tommy.
Everyone has that one indefinable person in their life; for me, that person was Brett Parkinson. I doubt his memory of our first meeting has faded any more than mine has. We were in Larry Best's Honors Freshman English class; I'd just read for the class my essay on Muffin Miller about my exploits as a 16-year-old cooking for a hay crew on a cattle ranch in southwestern Wyoming, and Brett, intrigued by the whole thing, pressed me to skip my next class, Poetry Writing, with Elouise Bell, to hang out with him in a booth in the Cougareat.
He was a bad influence. But lots of fun. I won't soon forget the first time he took me up to the Sundance Summer Theater in a VW he borrowed from his brother, and predictably ran out of gas. I won't forget doing laundry late at night with him and Thayne Larson. I won't forget our taking over Lorna Nielson's English class one day in her absence to read Woody Allen's "The Whore of Mensa" to the class.
Brett went off to Brazil by way of San Diego after our freshman year at BYU. I had the distinct privilege and great honor of seeing him off at the Salt Lake City Airport with extended family and friends and being his personal correspondent for the next two years. I won't forget that his aunt, Jackie Nokes, was "Miss Nancy" from Romper Room (I'd actually been a guest as a young child). I won't forget when he left. I won't forget when he returned, or the years that followed with a wider circle of ragtag friends at BYU. It's all fairly impressed in vivid memory.
Those were formative years.
The missives from Brazil were precious treasures--tales of Ipanema, and Copacabana, running on the beach, getting unauthorized tans, sipping much-too-bubbly guarana, waltzing on the edges of Carnival, noting the poverty of the Brasilian people perched on the mountainside in glaring contrast to the wealthy lower down, unfortunate and unexpected calamities, and of course, the colorful mission president who was a former Methodist minister, Helio da Rocha Camargo--sometimes accompanied by photos, or interesting cards, and the occasional highly entertaining and not easily forgettable audiotape, and all signed off in the same memorable signature. They contained much love for the father and mother he adored, a progressive, fit and well travelled physician father he greatly admired, and a strikingly beautiful and talented mother who reminded him of a young Marlene Dietrich.
I won't forget walking around the Joseph Smith building discussing the latest issue of Dialogue, singing Saturday's Warrior tunes, spending late nights at Perkins Cake and Steak, babysitting Aerie and Miel, or driving to Ogden to see our mutual friend Diana Sather. I won't forget him sitting outside the communal bathroom in our girls-only Heritage Halls apartment while I was soaking in the bathtub, which for BYU, seemed fairly provocative at the time. One of our first late night walks outside Deseret Towers mused on topics mixing the urbane and the theological in ways that were decidedly consciousness raising for a 17-year-old, and that typified many of our subsequent conversations. He was the face and sensibility of Ralph Fiennes atop a Trevor Southey mannekin, with equal parts of Ryan O'Neal from "What's Up, Doc?"
He was a runner, running from the desert palms of Indio and the Coachella Valley to the hills of Provo and the beaches of Rio and beyond. And he had an amazing facility for languages (as a freshman he came into BYU with the high score on the National Spanish Exam). He had a restless spirit, an inquisitive mind, and a generous heart, all gifts to those who knew him well.
Somewhere at the bottom of the Amazon is my copy of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" loaned to him, with copious notes in the margins.
Brett came back from his mission to Brazil not knowing whether to go into medicine (as his father and oldest brother had), or law (as another brother had). He eventually finished his degree in English at BYU, married well, violinist Kelly Clark, and went off to Tulane to medical school. I was working at the University of Utah Medical Center some years later when I saw her perform in concert on local television, with images of Brett in the audience and their newborn son.
Many years later I became friends, quite coincidentally, with one of his former missionary companions from Chicago; to identify that person with the "Elder West" in Brett's always colorful missives from Brazil was somewhat of a disconnect.
Dr. Brett Parkinson is now a radiologist practicing in Salt Lake City, Utah, and one of the leading authorities in the field of breast imaging. He recently led a medical mission to establish the first breast imaging and breast cancer clinic in the African nation of Tanzania.