The news came to me from Citadel cadets via Facebook about an hour before midnight: LCpl Anestis had died.
I immediately went through several stages, from thinking it was some sort of sick joke to hoping it was someone other than my former student Cameron Matthew Anestis — selfishly hoping it was the loss of a young man I didn’t know rather than one I’d grown to respect so deeply.
After midnight, I had the confirmation I feared via a brief online obituary:
ANESTIS Cameron Matthew, 21, Georgetown, KY, loving husband of Tiffany Elaine Anestis and father of Isabelle Skye Anestis, died Mon, Aug 17, 2009. Born in Manchester, NH, he was the son of Emmanuel John and Dawn Sidway Anestis of Lexington, KY. Cameron attended The Citadel Military College of South Carolina and served in the Iraq War for 8 months as a U.S. Marine. Survivors other than his wife, daughter, and parents include a sister, Kalyn Anestis; two brothers, Evan and Christian Anestis, all of Lexington, KY; paternal grandmother, Irene Anestis, Boston, MA; and maternal grandparents, William and Delores Sidway, Enfield, CT. He was preceded in death by his paternal grandfather, John Emmanuel Anestis.
I know no details of his passing beyond these simple facts, but more information would do little more than add footnotes to the terrible, tragic, undeniable fact of his death.
It is unlikely that I’ll be able to attend his funeral in Kentucky tomorrow morning, and of course they’d hardly know me if I did. I had Cameron twice in my classes here at The Citadel, but I’m not so arrogant as to think that his family heard about me one way or another. At the same time, I feel a duty to say something here about Cameron, if only for the chance that perhaps his family in their mourning might read it and know something more about the impact their son made in his time here. Perhaps one day even young Isabelle, wanting to know something of the father that was taken from her too soon, will read it, too. I fear it’s all I can do.
I met Cameron in my first semester here at The Citadel, in the Fall of 2006, in one of my English 101 courses. In a sea of trimmed hair, grey uniforms, and slightly shell-shocked faces, he impressed me at once. There was a self-confidence in the way he carried himself, a strength that made itself apparent on the very first day. I remember that there were two female cadets in the class, and one of them decided to sit right up front, right under my nose. When no one else would sit at the table beside her — because of her gender or my looming proximity, I don’t know — it was Mr. Anestis who did so. I liked him right away, of course, but I found even more cause to like him as the semester went on. Whenever there was a question or a call for volunteers, no matter the task, I could count on Cameron to raise his hand. Whenever a fellow student needed help, I could be sure that he would do whatever he could to help them. No matter the day, no matter the occasion, I could count on him to be, in every sense of the word, present. Cameron was a “red badger” — as I fondly call our Marine-contract cadets — and you could see the aspiration to serve his country well in nearly every aspect of what he did in my class, in every occasion we sat down to chat in my office. Disciplined, controlled, kind, and clever, he was, in a word, professional. For a new professor, lost at sea here in so many ways, Anestis provided a steady anchor. He could not possibly have known how much easier he made my life that first year.
I got to know him well through that semester and the following one, the Spring of 2007, when he insisted on enrolling in my English 102 course (“I stayed up all night to be sure I got in yours, sir,” he told me). I learned about his love of baseball and his excellence at the sport as a young teenager. I learned how his joining the Armed Forces had been difficult on his family, but I also learned how they had come to accept his choice. One of the greatest things that had happened to him, he once said, was learning that his father was proud of him.
In the Spring term we studied Woody Allen’s play “Death Knocks.” The play is a simple one: New Yorker Nat Ackerman is surprised one evening when a man dressed in black falls in through his window, claiming to be “Death.” Though Death insists that it’s Nat’s time to die, Nat parries him off again and again with witty twists of logic. The two of them decide to play gin rummy with Nat’s life as the stake — a mock of the Death-playing-chess scene in cinema — and Death loses badly, with Nat sending him off into the wilds of New York to return again another night. Several students wrote papers on the play, all of them seeing it — as indeed I had presented it in class — as a light-hearted piece: Allen, they said, was one way or another dismissing the human fear of death. All of the students, that is, but Mr. Anestis. In an essay entitled “The Meaning of Life,” Cameron eloquently argued that Allen’s point was not to dismiss our fears of this world, but to learn from them that the central message of life is to embrace what little time we’re given.
He was right, of course. And for all that Cameron Matthew Anestis gave in life — for his service, for his kindness, for the words and memories and people he leaves behind — I cannot thank him enough.