Archive for the ‘Death’ Category

Misery and Gin

Merle Haggard has died, another icon. My kids grew up with the sound of his plangent voice and witty lyrics: Mom’s music. But they don’t know that I only got to know him thanks to Clint Eastwood. I was never an Eastwood fan, all that shoot-em-up-do-you-feel-LUCKY-punk stuff not my cup of tea, but in 1980 I happened upon his amiable movie, Bronco Billy–watchable enough aside from the appalling Sondra Locke–and I was captivated by the honky tonk bar scene featuring Merle Haggard singing Misery and Gin. This irresistible song of self pity and self blame–“looking at the world through the bottom of a glass, all I see is a man who’s fading fast” –led me to others, and I discovered a whole new world of tough, smart country songs. Yes, yes, some of them are self-serving, vulgar, and silly–and some of them aren’t.
Rest in peace, Merle.


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The Death of Nighteyes

In the book I am reading, the world contains different kinds of magic. One of these magics is called the old magic, the beast magic, which joins a particular person and a particular beast–perhaps a woman and a hawk, perhaps a man and a wolf. It is a bond so close, it transcends ordinary companionship. They speak mind to mind, they dream each other’s dreams.
In this story, a young man rescued a wolf cub from a cage, and they formed this bond, and lived through many exciting adventures together. But men live longer than wolves, and today, as I listened to the story, it came to the part where the wolf must die.
I was so moved I could hardly bear it–true, true, stories of death and parting loom particularly dark for me. So there I was on the subway, trying to restrain my grief–sobbing on the train, SO NOT THE THING.

Here is the scene. The man and the wolf are exhausted, sleeping–it has been a terrible battle, but they were successful, and the kingdom is saved. But the wolf was too old for such exertions, and was badly wounded.NightEyes_1 (1)

He stirred first. I nearly woke as he rose, gingerly shook himself, and then stretched more bravely. His superior sense of smell told me that the edge of dawn was in the air. The weak sun had just begun to touch the dew-wet grasses., waking the smells of the earth. Game would be stirring. The hunting would be good.
I’m so tired, I complained. . . Rest a while longer. We’ll hunt later.
You’re tired? I’m so tired that rest won’t ease me. Only the hunt. I felt his wet nose poke my cheek. It was cold. Aren’t you coming? I was sure you’d want to come with me.
I do. I do. But not just yet. Give me just a bit longer.
Very well, little brother. Just a bit longer. Follow me when you will.
. . .But my mind rode with him, as it had so many times. . . swiftly we left the camp behind. . . We walked the spine of the hill, smelling the morning. . . there would be deer in the forested creek bottoms. They would be healthy and strong and fat, a challenge to any pack, let along a single wolf. He would need me at his side to hunt those. He would have to come back for them later. Nevertheless, he halted on the top of the ridge. The morning wind riffled his fur and his ears were perked as he looked down to where we knew they must be.
Good hunting. I’m going now, my brother. He spoke with great determination.
Alone? You can’t bring a buck down alone! I sighed with resignation. Wait, I’ll get up and come with you.
Wait for you? Not Likely! I’ve always had to run ahead of you and show you the way.
Swift as thought, he slipped away from me, running down the hillside like a cloud’s shadow when the wind blows. My connection to him frayed as he went, scattering and floating like dandelion fluff in the wind.
. . . “Wait!” I cried, and in shouting the word, I woke myself. . . my fingers buried deep in his coat. I clutched him to me and my grip sighed his last stilled breath from his lungs. But Nighteyes was gone. Cold rain was cascading down past the mouth of the cave.

From Fool’s Errand, by Robin Hobb

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Our revels now are ended

Lisa Grossman is dead, dear estranged friend of times gone by.
Lisa was so brilliant, so learned, so much fun–a shining star of the Patrick O’Brian list, that joined so many of us together, so many years ago now. The list where I met my darling lost Lawrence, and Allan, and John, and Paisley. My dear friends.
It really smote me, this news.
That paradise is truly dead now, now that Lisa is dead.
You can’t imagine what it was like in those days, to suddenly find a community of souls with whom you had instant sympathy. Always, you had pulled the punches, zipped the lip, maintained the cool. And all of a sudden, here were people who had read what you had read, whose vocabulary equaled–or surpassed!–yours! With whom you could be completely easy. A dream come true. It didn’t last long, humans are imperfect, life intervenes–but how amazing it was while it lasted!
Adieu, Lisa. I will always regret that we parted so badly. Such grand times we had!
We are such stuff as dreams are made on….

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The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag,

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

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My friend Simon Hoggart died yesterday, and the world is a lesser place. Long ago, he was part of a merry group of Britons who were posted here in DC, and how they enlivened our social scene! Parties and dinners and jolly times, not to mention, pleasant reunions in later years, when Lawrence and I visited the UK. Simon was a clever and witty man, whose writing entertained a vast audience of souls. I was wondering what to say about him, and then thought of the poem that my father loved and that I quoted for him. Eminently quotable for dear Simon.

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;

They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed;

I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I

Had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,

A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,

Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

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All Souls Day

I have just returned from a very moving ceremony– a Liturgy of Remembrance. This yearly event is an Evensong Service for All Souls Day to which the Rector traditionally invites the families of all those buried in Rock Creek Cemetery this year–a long list of souls, which includes my beloved, Lawrence. There was singing by the Madrigal Singers of St. Albans and National Cathedral Schools, and a splendid organ performance–Lawrence so loved organ music. There were some fine psalms and prayers. “Give us peace in our time, O Lord.” And the rector said the name of each person–so many, I had not thought death had undone so many–and invited those of us there to honor our dead to come up to the altar, and light a candle for the person we had lost. That the light endures was his message, and a brave message it is, which one would like to believe.
The music was beautiful, and the acknowledgement of loss shared with the community was precious. This grinding grief is no less, but the music and the words are comforting. And, thank you to Daniel, for being at my side.

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For whom the bells tolls

Funerals, I have been attending a bunch of them. Not only that one for my best beloved last month, but also for two of my neighbors this month. All three deaths were due to cancer, that terrifying scourge of our time. Not that any age is free from scourges and plagues, of course, and mortality is the fate of all living things.

Still, 3 funerals in 2 months seems like a lot.

The first was Lawrence’s–I have written about it elsewhere.

The second funeral was in my old neighborhood, and was, I regret to report, ungracious and unbeautiful. The minister looked like a confidence trickster, thick set, and with a pompadour of that gleaming white hair so often seen adorning the heads of the more perfidious holders of public office. Well, well, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good man, and helpful to orphans and widows, I suppose. The ceremony was at least short, and there were some fine hymns which were bellowed out by the congregation with evident enjoyment, and it was good to see old friends and neighbors. But what I found painful was the reverend pompadour’s notion that it was better, really, that our friend Wayne was With the Angels now. NO IT ISN’T BETTER, I muttered indignantly. I am not saying that the vision of meeting with your lost loves in heaven isn’t comforting–just that, it is patently false to say that dying and thereby realizing this worthy goal is a good thing. Perhaps, he could at least have been more tactful–not made it seem as a particular blessing that Wayne died.

The third funeral was for an Irish (and of course Catholic) man in my current neighborhood. The Catholic ceremony is beautiful, and the whole panoply was impressive–the incense, the candles, the group of solemn men guiding the draped coffin down the church aisle, the beautiful voice of the singer and the lovely hymns she sang. But what was especially moving was the gentle old white robed priest, who had come over from Ireland to say a prayer and a eulogy for his cousin. Not only were his voice and accent charming, but what he said was deeply touching. Each of us is unique, he said, created by God. No one is the same, no one is like Donal. The body is fragile and born to die, but the spirit, the soul, lives on. He spoke of his brave cousin, and all his accomplishments, and only after that went on to the vision of life eternal. There was love and affection for the dead man, for his family, and for everyone there to honor him.

That sweet old man, mourning his dead cousin, was more moving than any candles or singing, and without him, it would have been a lovely but empty ceremony. He gave it such weight, such significance. Just as the other man made meaningless the simpler but nonetheless robust ceremony with his insolent indifference to the individual man whose death we were marking.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”


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