Emru Townsend - In Memorium

me and Emru at CES 2006

It is one of the great regrets of my life that it took me so long to get to know Emru Townsend, and that I will never have the opportunity to know him better.

I'd known about Emru for years. He was part of PC World's extended family of misfits and misanthropes, otherwise known as the magazine's freelance contributors. I knew he lived in Canada, wrote about video and animation besides computers, and was a friend of Harry McCracken's (former top editor at PCW, now The Technologizer).

[UPDATE: Harry has posted his own moving tribute to Emru here.]

I also knew he was very very good. You assigned it, he wrote it, the magazine printed it. Doesn't get better than that.

So when I finally met Emru, three years ago at CES in Las Vegas, I was expecting, well, a dweeb. I had a mental picture of him: skinny, birdlike, pale bordering on translucent, big glasses, painfully anti-social. Just like many smart people who write about tech.

When this handsome, broad-shouldered black man with a baritone walked up and introduced himself to me as Emru, I was tempted to check his ID.

I was expecting Urkel. Instead I got Shaft. At least I was right about the glasses.

There are rare people in this world you meet once and feel instantly at home with. Emru was one of them. This guy was sharp, funny, fast with a quip, totally candid. He could riff on any topic, lofty or sophomoric. He was up for doing anything, got along with everyone. There is a tendency to exaggerate the good qualities of those who leave us too soon, but I'm not exaggerating.

So we spent much of the next three days together hanging out in Vegas, along with my pals Steve Bass and Dave Landau. Walking the show floor, attending press events, schmoozing and getting schmoozed, hitting the parties. The photo above was taken around 10 pm on a night that ended at 4 am at the Palms. Afterward I thought, that was a blast, but I am way too old for this.

The next year we did it all over again.

Last December I got in touch with Emru to coordinate our Vegas plans. A week later he had to beg off; he'd been diagnosed with leukemia. Still, he was so upbeat, so positive, I felt certain he'd shrug it off like a bad cold and keep going.

For most people, simply fighting leukemia would be all they could manage. But Emru, a true journalist, saw this as an opportunity for reportage. So he documented the whole process and posted it online.

Emru's accounts were fearless, unflinching, relentlessly optimistic, and often painful to read. I admit I could not get through many of them.

Here's an excerpt from an entry Emru made on October 3, after doctors “rebooted” his heart to keep him from going into cardiac arrest:

Once everything was ready, I was told what the present course of treatment was. They were going to inject me with adenosine and flush the line over about six seconds, which would get the complete dose into me in moments. What it would do was, essentially, stop my heart for a few seconds; when it restarted, the part of my cardiovascular system that regulates things would restart it at its regular rate.

"Until your heart restarts, you'll feel pretty awful," said Tom, the doctor who would be doing this to me with a smile. At the same moment, I was asking, "What will this feel like?"

Almost instantly I had trouble breathing, as invisible rhinos sat on my chest. I knew I wouldn't last much longer, when suddenly I felt my heart beating again (oddly, I'd never felt it not beating—but apparently it had).

Meanwhile, his sister Tamu mobilized an army of people in Montreal and across the Web to find Emru a bone marrow donor (and they continue to do so for others who need transplants). People of African and Caribbean descent are woefully under-represented in the donor registry, and no one in Emru's immediate family was a match. Miraculously they managed to find a match, but it was too late. The leukemia refused to go into remission. The heroic efforts of Emru and his many doctors were not enough.

Last night, at 10 pm eastern, Emru said goodbye. Tamu sent out this message to the thousands of people who have been following Emru's story.

Emru took his last breath just before 10 pm tonight. He died peacefully surrounded by his family.

He taught me how to live. He taught me how you are supposed to die.

Emru's name means RESPECT.

Emru, the person, also means compassion, learning, teaching, sharing, love, integrity, honesty, and inspiration.

He taught a lot of people a lot of things, but he spent 2008 teaching people how to reach out to one another in a whole new way. If you carry some of this forward, it will be a year even better spent.

Thank you for being part of his journey.

If you wish to honor Emru's memory, please sign up to be a bone marrow donor.

On happier days, Dan Tynan writes about technology for Culture Crash, his own Tynan on Tech blog, and numerous publications.

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