Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Toll of the Bell

I think one of the reasons I have not been wanting to communicate is because in the past month three people I knew have died. In the past year, add three more. One of the aspects of aging that nothing can prepare you for is the deaths of people you know in the generation ahead of you, and, increasingly, the deaths of your contemporaries.

The most personal death was that of David Gahr 11 months ago. He was my spiritual older brother, my mentor when I took up photography, and a wonderful soul. But David was in his 80's, had been in declining health, so I was somewhat prepared for his death, as much as one can prepare for the finality death represents. But with his death I lost an important connection to my past for it was David who took my photograph when I started writing for Sing Out magazine in 1965. It was David who took the photographs of me that appear on the two record albums I made for Vanguard during my days as a folksinger. It is his photographs of me that appear on the jackets of my first books. A part of me which I shared with no one else also died when David did.

The other deaths were not as personal in terms of shared histories, but they were personal in the emotions shared. One was a woman older than me whom I knew through my associations with various Jewish communities in Vermont. We shared an unquestioned love of Judaism. Another was a woman I knew only through e-mail, but we shared a love of books, of Amazon Kindle, of psychotherapy, and I really miss writing to and hearing from her. Another was someone who reached out to me when I was being attacked publicly for something I'd written. At the time, I knew him only by name, but when he heard he called and asked if I needed anything. And, I have never forgotten that phone call and how much it meant when I was feeling very, very alone. Another was a colleague from the University of Massachusetts who always had a mischievous twinkle in his eye which I think I captured in a photograph I took of him which he used for a book of his. And the last was someone I knew only casually. He and I retired from the University of Massachusetts at the same time, and the last time I saw him we talked about the joys of retirement. Apparently his retirement was not as joyful as mine because he walked onto the railroad tracks as a train approached. And, of course, I wonder: did I miss something in our last conversation? Is there something I could have done?

This is the part of aging there is no preparation for, this whittling away at your memories, this snipping of relationships that sever emotional cords as surely as the snipping of your umbilical chord severed you from your mother's womb. It is as if part of the preparation for your own demise is the gradual but steady taking away from you the relationships that have bound you, in love and joy, to this world. And something of you dies as these others die.

I realize that I have been in mourning. Even more, I begin to understand that mourning has become an integral part of my living, that the deaths of people I know is now woven into the fabric of my living, and the number of those deaths can only increase.

Old age is the time when you learn the depths of sorrow, and I am learning that those depths are far deeper than I would have ever imagined.

© 2009 by Julius Lester

Saturday, April 25, 2009

An Odd Event

Friday morning, April 24, I logged on to check my e-mail and found the strangest e-mail I've ever received. Phil Nel, an author and member of an internet children's literature group to which we both contribute, wrote that in my biography on Wikipeida it stated that I had died "peacefully" in my sleep at 6:15 that morning. Though Phil admitted feeling a little odd e-mailing me, I am grateful he did so instead of accepting what he read as fact and telling others.

I went to my biography on Wikipedia and read about my "death". My very first response was to wonder if I had died and hadn't gotten the news yet. Who knows what it's like to be dead? I thought about the old philosophical question: Am I a butterfly dreaming that I am me? I asked my wife to read this "news" of my "death" and her doing so confirmed that I was, indeed, still alive.

I deleted the paragraph describing my "death", though I was touched by the last line which read, "He will be missed by all." I read through my Wikipedia bio and restored verbs to present tense that had been changed to past. Then I e-mailed my children and told them what had happened, in case someone offered them condolences on my "death."

Some might think it would be upsetting to read of one's death. It wasn't for me. I was more baffled than anything else. Why would someone choose me for such a prank? I am not famous enough that news of my death will make the front pages of newspapers or cause television networks to interrupt regular programming to announce it. However, the real negative about this false report of my death is that should I die in the next few weeks, no one will believe it.

The person who perpetrated this obviously does not know me, because I do not want to die in my sleep. I want to know that I am dying; I want the experience of watching death approach -- if that's what happens. To die in your sleep is, I suppose, easy and painless but if I have to suffer pain to know that I am dying, I will choose the pain. However, it would be even more painful to be dying and know that I won't have the chance to write about it. Maybe dying in my sleep isn't so bad after all.

I am glad that I do not allow unmoderated comments on this blog. It would be all too easy for someone to post false information here. And, over the past almost two months I have received "comments" for the blog that have been entirely in Chinese or Japanese characters from "Anonymous". They automatically go to my spam folder, but perhaps "Anonymous" got tired of being ignored by me and "killed me off".

One lesson from this is be careful using Wikipedia. Another is to emulate Phil Nel, and check your information before passing it onto others.

As to my silence since my blog post of March 1, I haven't felt like talking and, I will now return to that silence.

Julius Lester