There are nights when only the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.
My friend Earl died last night. I feel the loss as the cold and darkness which comes when a bright light is extinguished.
I met Earl in 1980. Some of those who influenced him also became part of my life, others remained unknown. In the main, the forces which shaped his life and made him the uncommon man he was would never be part of my life.
He smoldered with a kind of rage he commanded to compel justice for the underdog. Appearing humorless to the passerby,Earl had a boundless sense of fun. Capable of enormous personal austerity, Earl was tremendously generous to those in need, to those with want, in his family, to his friends, to those in his community, to those in his charge, to strangers, even at times, towards his adversaries. His was not merely a generosity of dollars,but of spirit and heart, of time and thought, of physical labor and anonymous offering.
Through the years, I came to understand that Earl was not an acquired taste. He could be polarizing. He was one of those rare individuals who remained fully and visibly himself. One did not need to venture a guess as to Earl’s opinion,he would state his beliefs honestly and openly. He despised hypocrisy. As such,he had his detractors; there were many who expected a more “diplomatic” man. But, Earl was a flagrant progressive democrat in those long gone days when it was fashionable until the last moments of his consciousness, and proudly so.He simply could not be anything else. Earl was authentic. He lived in accord with his principles while living well.
In my life, Earl was like an older brother or watchful cousin, certainly more than a friend. When we met, his life was settled and established, he with a daughter not much younger than myself. Where his domain was neat, organized, structured, well regulated, predictable, mine must have appeared the opposite. Yet, he took a chance and engaged me professionally, and then, more valuable, allowed me entry to his life. Tonight, my heart is full of memories of dinners, and picnics,of Christmas celebrations. I see Earl holding my babies with especial tenderness. I recall beaches, boats, fishing tackle and lengthy talks over cool drinks on hot summer nights.I remember weddings and parties and Earl cracking jokes on the dance floor, “Arthur Murray” he would tell me as he seemed to float past me on a cloud of air. I see his confused concern that my “vegetarian ” dinner is tasty enough as everyone else dives into their prime rib. I hear him telling me, “Good job Ma-tricia.” I miss him again and already and always.
Earl stands apart in my life with those few, exceptional and principled men who distinguished themselves in all they did not least because they assiduously dedicated themselves to the welfare of their families: the love of wife and children was the polestar for every act.
I feel tremendously sad that Earl is lost to me. I sorrow for my remaining friends, his wife and children to whom his life was well and truly devoted.
It is not consolation for the loss but it is celebration of the life to observe that Earl’s great gift was living well. His was a life well lived in service to others,stranger and beloved, with humor, intelligence, emotion and grace through each phase of life.
Honoring his gift, Earl has left us a blueprint for living to which I hope we return.
Sometimes, when deer and rabbit, raccoon and woodchuck recede within the generous mantilla of summer, and warbler and cicada celebrate the close of another day, the light that falls from that searing scarlet scalds my heart with the sadness of missing you, who first presented this array.
Scorch of fire as puckered lips graze the coffin; seething tears trickling onto steel; staggering, as strains of “Danny Boy” levitate above you (a tune you did not call an Irish air).
In the end, too true: arid canon of cult, not creed, coheres the torpid keeners corroding your wonder.
Eyes reach no focus, colors run together; the stranger with fraternal blood, too cold, or suffocated in the sun, speaks. That Holy Man, the turnkey, postures with your offspring jailers; swelter, perspire, steadfast mien of heartbreak, every one.
The burned flesh on my heart, throbs and blisters. Pain pulsates with each steady beat. We love, we learn, we are often less than worthy. The arabesque we make, so rarely fine.
The nerves will not be still.
No, not even in the deepest, fathomless hours of day, new born and dark, time of shape and shadow, no tale yet spawned to drain all thought and heart away.
Relentless burn, torpid crawl of scarlet. Piercing strike, fierce, spontaneous and fleeting. No coherent thought: thick, smoky fog of dread and hurt winnow reason from sensation in dark of night.
For the body remembers.
Transfuses a tincture of those former days and all their wretchedness from some secreted organ, imperceptibly, into the soul which shivers, then, in those dark hours of the day. The sun rises, but not so the heart of the one who can trace again the shape of dread, of solitude and torment marking each new day with shadow and proximate depletion.
In the days when nerves seared, the weight of air could bring a tear, and the weight of tears was too great for a hand to grasp. She was then a stranger set to roam among the loving and the mean alike, each with ready access to bestow or steal some dignity to her. She was too weak, or too much made a stranger, by so many gleaming strangers, to discern the loving from the mean, weakness from dignity. In the nights when sorrow coursed through her, her dreams an endless tumbling through space, avoiding arrival, the destination: despair.
There must have been the months of June, sunlit Sundays conferring perfumed air, lustrous landscapes, verdant fields and animals at play. Wide beaches, no doubt, allowed buoyant children shrieking at cascading waves on newly sanded shores. Midnight rainstorms, spilling coolness from the sky after overheated hours, dramatic flashes of silver light and drum-roll far away. Surely, there were vital summer days and nights in that unfathomed time. But the body has not etched a map. The mind has no recall.
And so the dread.
She feels herself in time and space, with heart and mind and body, celebrating each new day, each June, each sunrise, each rainstorm. The scarlet streak, angry, like a mark of shame, screams the termination of these things. Will she be the one who embraces June or the stranger dreading day.
The question comes.
Can she be a body burning in agony, in the gentle glory of the sun?
Sapped and spent beyond imagining. Too rare a stranger, in an even stranger world.