Talk by Sarah Borwein at the funeral of Jonathan Borwein, August 10, 2016:
My Brother Jon
Jon was a brilliant man. We all know that. I can’t speak about his work or the incredible impact I know he had on the world of mathematics. I knew Jon very simply as my big brother. When I was very small, and he was still Jonathan not Jon, I couldn’t pronounce his name properly, so I called him Jofnan. I don’t think I ever went rock-fishing with him, but I do have a vague memory of him taking me swimming in the North Sea while our mother sat on the beach wrapped in furs. Later, Jon became an avid swimmer and I became afraid of cold water! I know he got stuck with babysitting me quite often, and that sometimes my parents would come home to find that I had had a nightmare or an earache and crawled into bed with him. I’d spread myself out like a starfish so that he was left clinging to the edge of the bed or even sleeping on the floor. I’m sure I did many other annoying little-sister things, but I never felt that from him; only love and brotherly care.
Jon was not only a decade older than me. He was also very precocious, so by the time I was 5 he was already in university and not living at home. By the time I was 7 he had met Judi and I had acquired a sister. I was not allowed to visit Jon and Judi after they moved in together because they were ‘living in sin’. But Judi won me over by sewing me clothes! Clothes my mother wouldn’t buy me. Like a red wet look outfit that was the height of fashion in the late 1960s and that I got to wear with white GoGo boots. After that Jon was not just Jon to me, he was Jon and Judi. And so it has been for many decades. Judi, I know how deeply this loss impacts on you and I want you to know how much we all love and support you.
Later, when his first child Rachel was born, Jon & Judi invited me to Halifax to “help look after her” in the newborn period. I’m sure I wasn’t that much help. Jon was utterly delighted to be a father and completely enchanted with his child. He would hold her to his chest and pretend that he was breastfeeding her coca cola. I was still a little girl myself, and I was also enchanted with that little girl – my first niece of the six wonderful nieces I now have – and she became a sister too. Years later, when my own first child was born – prematurely and scarily in Paris –Jon and Judi and Rachel were there with me. They helped me more than they can know through a terrifying time. And later still, when that first child of mine grew up healthy and strong and decided to join the family business as a mathematician, Jon gave him a summer internship in Australia. There was always a kind of cosmic karma that bound us, and it was woven together by Jon’s incredible energy, his generosity of spirit and his remarkable ability to make connections.
Jon and I have both been global nomads and our lives have intersected on many continents. In England when I was at Oxford and he was at Cambridge. In France when I lived in Paris and he was in Limoges. And more recently in the Pacific, when he lived in Australia and I lived in Hong Kong. I travel a lot…..but Jon’s travel schedule made me look positively sedentary.
Jon was not always an easy person. Genius often isn’t. His energy filled every room and his brilliance could be blinding, and intimidating. But he was inspiring, he was magnanimous, he was tender-hearted. He was a mensch. He lived more in 65 years than most people do in 100. And he has left a tremendous legacy. As Irving Berlin said, the song is ended, but the melody lingers on.
My heart goes out to my parents, because losing a child is unimaginable. For them the melody will never end. Thank you to all of you for the love and support you have already shown them and that I know they will continue to need in the weeks and months and years to come.
Farewell big brother. I wish we’d had more years together, but I am profoundly grateful for your life.