A few days ago I went to a memorial / celebration of life service for the husband of a friend who suffered an illness this year and died too soon. It was a beautiful service for a man who was a beautiful soul, and this is a poem that was read at his request.
I had never heard it before and have been thinking about it, so I thought I’d share it here.
When All That’s Left Is Love
When I die
If you need to weep
Cry for someone
Walking the street beside you.
You can love me most by letting
Hands touch hands, and
Souls touch souls.
You can love me most by
Sharing your Simchas (goodness) and
Multiplying your Mitzvot (acts of kindness).
You can love me most by
Letting me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.
And when you say
Kaddish for me
Remember what our
Love doesn’t die
So when all that’s left of me is love
Give me away.
Someone I know from my place of work died recently. He’d had an interesting life: He’d served in the military then done well in academia. He married four times and had a number of children. As the person who processed his expense reports, I can say that in very recent years he spent months at a time in England and Italy, and that he ate well–like I imagine Henry the 8th would have dined if he’d had a per diem. His receipts reported spirits with every meal, and things like Shepherds Pie and quail. For almost a year, the gentleman was ill and seldom visited our offices. The few times he came in, he seemed mostly peeved at his condition, which was revealing itself to be one with finite outcome. Upon his death, it has been his second wife, with the help of two various sons who has emerged to handle his large library, items in his office and the number of bills that he received to his work mailbox. When the mail began to transition and be address to “Executor of the Estate,” I called to confirm that this was she. This was when she revealed to me that there was, as of yet, no formal executor–because there was no will!
I found this both surprising, and I guess, not. On one hand, he had fair warning. On the other, maybe he figured that after he was gone, it didn’t really matter. Maybe he’d had conversations and things were pretty much worked out in ways one can’t see from a distance.
But as the person opening doors, filing paperwork and procuring boxes for family members trying to work their way through the rooms full of books, papers, thoughts and ongoing business that one man accrues in a life, I could only be struck by how little anyone seemed to be prepared for this eventuality. And really, the choice not to make a will, even given a good six month lead time, seems somewhat self-involved and presuming–qualities some might have discerned in him even before his death. My father had a will, but it has still taken my mother years to go through the myriad of things left behind. She continues to go through things, purging and storing and making decisions largely, I think, so that we–their children–won’t have to. Although it is hopefully decade away still, she is putting thought into things so that her possession and affairs will be as easily dealt with as possible. Basically she is the opposite of presuming when it comes to such matters.
But the other night as I was thinking about this, I thought: What about my end of the bargain? An obituary seems the very least one could do in such a situation, and I realized I wasn’t sure what my mother’s parents’ names were, or even where she was born! Since I was using a Southwest voucher and making an impromptu trip to Indiana, I decided it was time to do for real something I have been promising to do for a couple of years–try to ask the questions that in the future I will wish that I had asked. And this time, instead of assuming that I could come up with some good questions, I consulted the internet, something like “How to Interview a Family Member,” and of course, because it’s the internet, found several articles on taking a Family History, here and here and here. A lot of the questions are similar. I ended up with a double space list of three pages, and after dinner this evening, turned on the recorder, and we had Part I of a very interesting conversation!
Wednesday evening I came across this article by Roger Ebert and reposted it, with the status: “I love this guy.” In Ebert’s post, he was talking about making some changes–pulling pack because of his health, but also looking forward to new interests and endeavors. He also said,
At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.
This was something that, when I read it, I found myself looking forward to. Hearing what this smart and passionate man had to say about illness–about living with his illness. For awhile that evening, he was on my mind.
On Thursday morning, I received an email from a friend of mine in Australia, S. In 2003, she and three other women had been roommates at a retreat I affectionately call “Cancer Camp.” She’d gotten in touch with two of the women, L and M, and we’d been planning a Skype reunion call. But S’s email was to tell me that our plans might have to be put on hold because L is in the hospital. Her cancer is now in her spine, her spinal fluid, and her brain. She recently had a shunt put into her brain and now she has had radiation to her throat, making her unable to talk. L was already Stage 4 when we met nine years ago. She had two little ones and was determined then to see them grow, and she’s done that. I hope she can continue to do that–but everything is fragile, and life doesn’t always continue just because we plan for it to–as I was reminded on Thursday afternoon, when I heard the news that Roger Ebert had died.
April 8th was Paul’s and my nine-year anniversary. I, of course, forgot. But as I was puttering around the kitchen I looked over and saw this: I walked a little closer and saw this: Nine years, you see, is pottery. So he bought me a bowl. It is an inexpensive bowl that looks a lot like many other bowls we have in our house, which is perfect. His thinking was, he wanted to get me something in the unlikely event that I would remember. But he didn’t want to get me anything too amazing, because in the more likely event that I would forget, he didn’t want to make me feel too guilty. It needed to be just enough to keep alive the knowledge that he is a slightly better person than me, and that I am lucky to have him. Which is true.
People who don’t know Paul don’t get it–not that there’s any reason they should, there’s not a lot of shiny packaging. But those who know him well enough totally understand. He’s like Judd Apatow and the Buddha, rolled into one, which I think is a big reason we’ve managed to survive some big stuff–life-threatening illnesses, family-planning disappointments, financial uncertainty–with relative equanimity. He’s really smart, but doesn’t lord it over you half as much as he could. He can hold lots of different things in his brain all at once, make decisions and drive at the same time. He’s a great problem-solver. And he’s an extremely good friend. Sometimes in bed I lie there with my fingers tangled through his hair, and think how much I love him.
Then I start hoping that neither of us dies too soon, which makes me start thinking about people dying, which takes me to a dark place.
But then he rolls over, and his morning breath in my face forces me to roll over too, and dark thoughts disperse when I see this: