The weekend’s major activity was a trip up to the Sierra foothillls, near Grass Valley, to go to a memorial for our former neighbor Bret Tilson, who died of cancer at age 68 earlier this month. I think the main reason we went was to see his wife, Christine, who went through a rough couple of years with Bret sick. Although they lived next door for 13 years — they moved in about six months after we did — I never felt I got to know Bret very well. He avoided crowds, partly because he was sort of shy and partly because he had suffered profound hearing loss and just couldn’t understand what people were saying when they all started talking at once.
His work — he was involved in advanced mathematics research most of his adult life — also might have made him something of a recluse. Christine’s sister said that once, in a show of interest in Bret’s work, she asked him if he could explain the work he was doing. “He looked at me, and didn’t say anything. He looked at me and looked at me and looked at me, and finally he said, ‘I don’t think so.’ ” He wasn’t putting her on. The dissertation for his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley was titled, “Group-Complexity and p-Length of Finite Semigroups.” With another mathematician, he’d been working on another paper that had been published and presented over the past several years, “Categories as Algebras, II.” An advanced math illiterate, the very first sentence in the abstract throws me: “A theory of the semidirect product of categories and the derived category of a category morphism is presented.”
So, yes, he was kind of a stranger to us, though extremely friendly whenever we had a talk over the back fence or commiserated about computer problems. But really, we got to know him better yesterday than we had in all the years he was next door. Just one thing that astonished me: His parents were killed in a plane crash when he was 18 and had just finished his first year at MIT. He had three much younger brothers — age 4, 6 and 8, I think — and he somehow managed to keep them all together and more or less raise them by himself with help from various relatives. Maybe people always rise to the occasion — but hey, no they don’t; a pretty amazing feat for an 18-year-old.