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Honor the Dead by Embracing Life

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Peter Goodman
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Commentary:

Sorry, this morning I’m with my recent dead.

John Spence and I met in the fall of 1964, college freshmen. Soon we were immersed in fighting racism and trying to end the Viet Nam War (unaware that even those running the war knew it was stupid). And smoking grass. And teaching ourselves to shoot photographs up in Boston. Then Spence went to Viet Nam. A soldier. In the thick of it. A gentle sort of guy you couldn’t picture killing anyone. Guess he learned. Fast.

On a cross-country motorcycle ride ten years later, I reunited with friends, including Spence, now a probation officer in Iowa. Married, with a kid. Trying to help those he could, bending rules toward human kindness when possible. Not the revolutionary we’d thought we were, but trying each day to make the world a little better.

Spence bicycled across the U.S. at 70, and he bicycled across Cuba with his son. Now he’s dead. He died a good death: conscious, aware, accepting.

Gone too are John Lindeman, Dick Tallent, Darrol Shillingburg. Regular guys, good-hearted and thoughtful. Beloved not only by their families, but to concentric circles of people who knew them, laughed with them, listened and learned from them. Felt better because they were in the world.

When I started playing bridge tournaments again, I met John Lindeman. He could recall bridge hands from decades ago, and recount the play. He’d read all my columns, and knew me better than I did. Sorry he can’t read this one. There were delightful lunches on Nopalito’s patio under the trees: John, Ron from Minnesota, and me, just three old guys discussing the world.

We met Dick through a friend he was advising. He was a deeply loving family man who also cared about community and country. We spent one perfect evening with him and his many friends and family in August, celebrating his recovery from a stroke. The loss of Darrol is a loss for our entire community. He was a plant whisperer, a steward of heirloom seeds, and a reluctant guru to local vegetable gardeners and growers. He was instrumental in growing our community gardens.

I’m also thinking about our loss of Sidney Poitier and Thich Nhat Hanh. I respected Poitier not just for his craft, nor his continuing activism over decades, but also from reading his autobiography. Imagine growing up on an island, in a village where everyone but the storekeeper is Black, and “race” just ain’t even thought of, then having to fight your way to success in a racist nation. (Whenever In the Heat of the Night plays on TV, I still find it gripping.) I’d long admired Thay’s “engaged Buddhism” and read his books. His biography of the Buddha humanized the Buddha for me, as Last Temptation humanized Jesus in my youth.

I’m grateful that I got to ride along with these folks a ways on our journey from birth to death. I’m glad they existed. Let’s recall their gifts as long as we can. And honor them by embracing life, as they did. Savoring each moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Birth and death are only notions.” That wisdom is hard to remember while feeling pain and grief. We honor our dead by recalling them with a smile as we stride forward, alive, not by letting the notion of death slow our steps. Let their light illuminate the next stretch of road.