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


Misrule said...

Thank you, Julius, for sharing this beautiful and deeply moving reflection.

Judith in Sydney

John Moore said...

I am enjoying very much wondering whether "umbilical chord" is a typo or has some magical, deeper meaning about the connection between our entrance to this world and music. I prefer the latter, even if that means that I'm not in the know, and hope that if it's a typo you won't fix it... just leave us to wonder what deeper meaning we've missed. :-)