"A short while before he died."
I heard this once, passing beside two
Talking beside an intersection.
Like someone you part from
Who enters a dream
Never to return.
Or, like when you turn out a glorious chandelier
with many bulbs.
You have to flip the switch at every level.
The small lights; the large ones, too.
And only then, darkness.
-Yehuda Amichai, 1978 [זמן קצר לפני מותו]
Dying is experienced twice--by he who dies and he who mourns. Both are talking at the intersection of life and death.
The intersection when Dad died was occupied first by continual pleas to get to the doctor (refused) and then by a ridiculous calm, a distraction of wildly contemplative proportions. I'll never forget the day. Professor Patrick Riley's Political Philosophy Seminar in Madison. Me, lost in thought. My mind wandering from his brilliant words to the margins of a notebook. Lines, drawings, the mapped meanderings of a troubled mind. After weeks of lightning sharp focus, March 22, 1983 was like a cul de sac of distraction. The class ends, a quick walk up State Street in the middle of the day. An urgency to get home. And there at home. My roommate Pete. Angry as ever. Another injustice. And my uncle, my dad's brother, there to break the news I already knew. "Sit down, Andy, I have something to tell you."
But I knew already.
I often thought of that news as confirmation of something I was already preparing for having happened: and heard its decisive reality "in passing," not unlike the way Amichai describes it in his poem above. There was a fluid, consistent motion to the events that followed. Packing a bag, hugging my roommate, walking to the car, driving the ninety minute trip to southeast to Milwaukee. Prophetically, my uncle, Dad's brother, spoke the only words I remember from that day: "He was a mechanic in the Army during the War but he never looked under the hood of his own car."
Tall, yellow prairie grass swaying in the March wind outside the car; my breath fogging the passenger window; my uncle's words, like blocks of truthful stone, or used apple cores, tumbling into the ditch, speeding by beside us.
An intersection of life and death.
It's different this time. More like the lights--large and small--that we methodically close. Those that burn bright--Mother--and those that are more easily darkened--dashed hopes, dreams unfulfilled. Pictures, a song, an old friend's face, igniting memory-fuel and causing light to burn bright into that deep, dark night of forever. A politician's idiocy; the electorate's ignorance; a young team's hope--each a reason to stay in the game one more season, to hold out hope for a final victory. Lights flickering, dimming, then suddenly charging and flashing forth, heroic, only to fade.
Each the Torah of Truth. Each a text to be studied, learned from, held close, like a scroll passed among the people on the Day of Rest. Hands reaching out, touching light and love.