Good afternoon and a very warm welcome to each one of you. My name is Tricia Brennan.
We are here this afternoon to honor the memory and celebrate the life of Joseph Storer Wheelwright. As a long-time resident of Dorchester, Joe was known personally by some in this congregation, and known by many by his reputation as an artist and as one who gave much to the Dorchester community. And still others knew him solely through experiencing his art — most notably around these parts his monumental bronze sculpture Sleeping Moon that graces Peabody Square near the Ashmont T station with beauty and a sense of peace and mystery. Something of Joe's essence — his creativity and generosity of spirit — is felt by everyone who walks past Sleeping Moon on their way to work or school or shops.
In this service, Joe's life will be celebrated in story and song, in silence and prayer, in music, poetry and prose, and in the feeling of love for him that unites everyone here.
I want to introduce to you Joe's close and long-time friend the Rev. Scotty McLennan, who will open and close this service. Scotty also was the assistant minister here at First Parish Dorchester, back in the day. Scotty, welcome back, and I want to say to you, and to you, Joe's family and friends, that the congregation and I consider a great honor that this celebration of Joe's life
Thank you, Tricia. What an honor for me to back here at the First Parish, where I served as assistant minister in the late 1970's. Your predecessor as senior minister in those days told my father how much he appreciated having a lawyer-minister like me working with him, memorably quipping that I had my feet firmly planted in the clouds.
I go back to college with Joe, where I first met him rowing freshman crew in the fall of 1966. We developed a roommate group of seven who've continued to get together at least annually, with our families, for decades now. We were all with Joe over this last Labor Day weekend, just days after he'd been told that his cancer was incurable and that he had less than 3 months to live. He was gone less than a month later. How grateful we were for that chance to tell him how much he'd meant to each of us, how much we loved him, and to share deeply.
How our hearts go out to you, Suze. To May and Tess. To Jeff, and George, and Peter and Nat and Molly. To his mother, Mary. To his two grandchildren and all of his in-laws. He died much too soon. But I also know that he lived the life he wanted to live. As you've said to me, Suze, he was appreciative and happy about his life. Yes, he was sad at the end to think of not being with his grandchildren around the fire in Vermont, and he wanted to be sure you, Suze, and May and Tess, would be all right. But he felt he accomplished so much and left a lasting legacy in his art. What a body of work — to last and last. His optimism and vision continued to the end. His life was complete in a substantial way — no unfinished business, no regrets. He'd been able to live the way he wanted — as an artist the whole time. He had a beloved life companion in Suze. He and I met her the same night, at a dinner party in 1967, sitting on each side of her, and the two of them were inseparable from then on. Life had been good, and was good. And he felt the love of so many so clearly, throughout his life and at the end.
Today's celebration of his life, and thanksgiving for his life, includes reflections and music played by close friends and family members, as well as poetry and hymns and recorded music that meant a lot to him. Joe would have loved to be here in person at this gathering. Here celebrating, and giving thanks, with and for all of you, gathered from a myriad of different times and places in his life. What a unique moment we have together in this place — never having been all together like this before and knowing we never will be again. And Joe's very much here among us in spirit.
Seven years ago in this same season, my dad was visiting me where I was living then in Mexico City. He wanted to experience Day of the Dead, and also, I think, to check on how I was doing with the fatherly counsel he had dispatched me with, when I'd declared my intention to move to the unknown city and figure out how to mostly just write fiction (a plan a different father might have found lacking in detail, but which Dad thought was an "ingenious solution" to "the money problem"). His survival kit was comprised of this advice:
a) Learn to live on little (unless it was it 'nothing'?).
On this particular Mexico City day, we'd had only benign incidents — Dad found the Diego Rivera murals a bit too didactic (as all who have talked art with him won't be surprised to hear), but he judged the mock-Aztec racks of papier-mâché skulls in the central plaza sensational, totally wild — and now we were drinking a little tequila and Dad was freely, filterlessly reminiscing aloud about how his own career might have gone differently if, like me, he had stayed unmarried through his 20s, maybe gone to New York in the 80s, stayed so light on his feet:
"I mean look at me, an artist and a family man? What the hay?"
I suppose as his daughter, I could have taken it personally — after all I was born in the 80s; I think I did offer that he could have sacrificed me as a baby like Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld — but instead we just laughed. On the firsthand, the notion of his having regrets was only laughable: He could name none in his dying days, and least of all about his marriage — for which he was plainly grateful each day of the 45 years he was married to our mom Susan. "Isn't Mum the best?" he'd demand of me and May at nearly every turn. He saved some of his very last breath to tell her again, very late this September, "You're so beautiful"— at home and in love to the very end.
In the second place, I love the memory of this frank heart-to-heart because it shows how our Dad was himself with us. May and I were not denied the zany, ruminative, playful, ever-questing Joe-ness of him, just because he was our dad. He was a friend. If he was Dad-ly, it was in the way of an excess of pride: I won a second prize in some story contest and Dad couldn't help suggest that "a smarter committee would have given me the whole pot"; he was right that my sister May could pivot from a sociology major to a career in health care (the one he forsook to be an artist) — but maybe not quite that she could still pull off a pre-med degree starting as late as her senior year, when he sat her down to recognize her inquisitive mind and fine motor skills and Pops's — his own physician dad's — bedside manner. But he had seen something true (as he often did), and the seed was planted (as he often did them), and a few years later May began Biology 101 in night school, is a star RN now, and in a year she'll be a certified nurse-midwife, besides an attentive, creative mother in the model of our parents. Dad was so proud of you, Mayla.
But you knew that. One great comfort as we, with so many of you, helped Mom help Dad make his final goodbye in September, was that there was so little left unsaid; 'I love you's were common; so were more ceremonial affirmations, like one that followed me and my now-husband leaving his bedside some time this summer: "Your life has a gathering splendor." Other notes were newsier, but always vivid, special: "I've just been cranking for the show. Today I turned a bronze root figure upside down, stood him on one branchy hand, and replaced his airborne feet with thin sprays of twig fingers... Looks like a snaky leafless plant with a bearded face twisting out of the trunk."
Those Day of the Dead travels in Mexico were one of the great adventures of my life, as Dad's dauntless optimism and insistence on the benevolence of the world often yielded: Only I was nervous about the excursion, in the wee hours, sardined into the pick-up cab of a stranger Dad had befriended at our hotel, deep in the cartel-eclipsed state of Michoacán, to see the traditional holiday rites in the village cemetery; Dad was sipping from his new friend's wine flask and thrilling at the huddled families and glittering grave mounds ablaze with candles in the night.
There will be so many moments when I'll wish for my dad, whose support in times of psychic trial was the most meaningful ("Remember you don't know anything Goya didn't know," I can still hear him saying, when I was in the throes sometime — before telling me to go look at the moon). I'll miss the occasional good clash at the dinner table, which, as many know, Dad never minded; and the near-daily declaration that he was off, like Joyce before him, to "forge in the smithy of [his] soul, the uncreated conscience of [his] race."
"Keep working hard, that's the whole deal," he told me his last weekend — and I will, and will take great inspiration from his own joyful, lifelong fulfillment of his end of this 'deal' with the universe, whistling in his stone-carving apron, living his life on his own terms.
I'll be waiting for your spirit's visit, Dad, each Day of the Dead, and in between in the dance of campfire light in a certain stand of Vermont hemlocks. Thank you for all that you were and gave me, my audacious and tender Dad. I love you forever. "Quiet consummation have, and renowned be thy grave!"
I met Joe in 1983 standing over a stump I had recently excavated. Jim Stone had cautioned me that I should run it by Joe before lugging it off to the dump. According to Jim, Joe was using this kind of raw material for his sculptures, even then. Barbara and I had only arrived in Ashmont Hill in 1981. By 83 we were ready to meet the Wheelies. We were all paired up with sculptors, women of the world, and two dynamic engaging daughters each. From the beginning, the focus was family, nature, adventure and art.
Joe was a beachcomber. Shells, coral, stones washed smooth, boulders which begged to be carted up the rickety wooden stairs at the mysterious Brickyard on Vineyard Sound. Some seasons I joined Joe at the Brickyard. We assumed that the tattered chimney, all that was left of the old factory would have collapsed from the winter storms, but, every season, it was still there. A lesson in craft. And if the stones weren't smooth enough, Joe lugged them up to East Corinth for a few hours in the tumbler before their final transformations into Wheelwrights. Imagine the sheer weight of material he moved in almost 50 years of object making.
The first time we drove up to Vermont the Wheelwright compound was spare. No tumbler shed, no industrial crane, no Zendo for meditation, no foundry, no Tess's writing room, but Joe had just finished the platform for the new guest cottage. And in order to sleep in, that night, the building had to be finished. Joe, ever the scavenger, had procured large plate glass windows from a renovation in Cambridge. The windward side of his studio was already enclosed with these glass panels. We put the finishing touches on the cottage in short order. It was my first project working with Joe. There would be many more. Working with Joe was a joy. He demanded two things, clear-headed process with excellent craft and a demonstrated sense of pleasure. When he drove the nail in, he yelled to gods, "she's in there!"
On that Vermont hillside Joe insisted on basic services only. For Joe, it was an unraveling of the cushy city life which came with all the services and supplies at your fingertips. It was also a strategy to feel the rhythm of nature which emphasized cooperation.
At the Wheelie compound, you could be assured that if there had been sufficient rain, you could have a righteous outdoor shower. A number of times Joe said that he couldn't wait to get to Vermont to rub his nose in the dirt and he was just as happy to rub his nose in the city streets, come Fall. As the years went by, especially after May and Tess had fledged, Joe would linger longer into the fall in Vermont to finish a few more pieces. One of the early Vermont pieces and one of my favorites is the Flying Lesson over the sink in the kitchen, a comical reminder of the excitement and danger of the launch. Much of his work flirts with that intersection. Only the gentlest hands could sustain his vivid sometimes raucous imagination. For Joe's sculptor friends, he was always generous with his time and expertise. He was always pushing me to dig deeper, take risks and finish beautifully. He wanted the whole crowd to rise up.
All of that leads me to the precious memories of the campfires. The last time an adult had washed my face was in my childhood. Go with flow Larry. Here comes the Hot Wash. The hot water, Joe's careful hands, the wood smoke, the friendship. As Barbara reminded me, early on, with arms raised, a shaman's incantation really, Joe said, "it doesn't get any better than this". And then the delicious dinner with greens from the garden whose fence kept getting taller as the deer improved their leaping ability.
About 15 years ago, Joe, Peter Haines, Robert Schelling and I partnered up to build the foundry. In order for this to work, we needed to transport a kiln housed at Boston College to East Corinth. The old machine had to be disassembled. We cut the metal container in half and numbered and crated the firebricks. The four of us looked like Vulcan's helpers with sooty faces from a Velasquez painting, but we were thrilled by the new adventure that lay ahead. Joe, Peter and Robert were undaunted by any of the technical difficulties. I was in very good company. In Joe's last few weeks, as we talked about old times, the foundry loomed large. That funky building with old but venerable machines served us so well. Joe was the master at massaging those machines into service after their winter dormancy. They were always cranky, but Joe always got them to fire up. And it was all in the service of making art and the camaraderie of sharing this labor of love. Joe often proclaimed how a great work of art shakes the trees. He loved the hard work and hours of labor that successful resolution requires. He knew how to start and finish.
At one of my last conversations with Joe, Joe looked at me and said, Larry, I'm going to miss you. My attempts at saying goodbye were hesitant and choked up, but Joe had recognized and accepted his fate. To the end, Joe was reaching for the moon. As our friend Mac Dewart said, "We were so lucky to have Joe as a friend, magnificently large in ambition and accomplishment. When a just man dies, lamentation and praise, sorrow and joy are one."
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
Morning has broken like the first morning,
Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven,
Mine is the sunlight!
Meeting Joe, age 11, on a summer camp hillside, was my first brush with charisma. There was no reason that a tall, confident veteran camper should take any note of a small, shy newcomer, but he did. I think he figured that as the cabin's Pied Piper, he somehow owed it to the rest of us to be curious about our lives. I don't recall it myself, but Joe claimed he liked to follow me around the woods, because as a mountain kid, I knew the names of things. I was a nature nerd, and perhaps those walks were some small part of Joe's early awakening to his life's collaboration with God's handiwork.
That being said, it was hardly a given that our friendship would survive. First we had to negotiate the controlled skid that is adolescence. But by the time we made it to college, our friendship had been tested and reestablished, sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of rooming with the hypercompetitive but deeply loyal cohort that is assembled here today.
It was an experience. To begin with, it turned out that among other things, Joe was a world-class finagler, an absolute genius at getting people to do things it was not in their interests to do. At the end of freshman year, Joe called me in a panic. He'd been an ROTC cadet and before leaving campus, he had turned in his uniforms. Unfortunately, he'd left a vial of marijuana in the pocket of his Navy great coat, and he pleaded with me to retrieve it from the depot before it was discovered.
A long discussion ensued, and as my wife later commented, the only thing more boneheaded than Joe leaving a vial of marijuana in his great coat was my agreeing to go look for it. As luck would have it, I located it before the officer accompanying me did. I explained it was a botany project and left.
Then there were the epic, suite-wide arguments that Joe would initiate, usually over one of his more inventive theories about how the world worked — or didn't. One night we had a prolonged argument over his belief that orthodontia was a total scam and that crooked teeth, if left alone, would spontaneously straighten themselves. The only thing more preposterous than this argument was to find yourself actually losing it. Joe was brilliant at misdirection and waving you into rhetorical cul de sacs so skillfully that before you knew it, you were arguing with yourself.
My favorite debate, one of recent years, was over Joe's theory that prehistoric tribal societies revered large-breasted women, because in times of famine, they were a good source of food for the whole tribe. He may have gotten this idea from the final chapter of "Grapes of Wrath" (you may recall that one of the characters was really hungry), or he may have simply cooked it up while at work on a female figurine. Either way it was impossible for me to engage him in one of these perverse debates without finally collapsing into laughter, although this was not true for all his friends, some of whom would argue far into the night, way past civility or sanity, tearing their hair out, missing the twinkle in Joe's eye as he messed with them.
Actually, that twinkle was a permanent feature of Joe's — no one was more alive to mischief and fun — but curiously, it was nowhere to be found in the serene gaze of the faces he coaxed out of wood and stone. Their eyes were generally kindly and calm, bespeaking a generosity of spirit in their creator, the beginning of an open-ended dialogue with all who beheld them.
If I seem to be conflating art with friendship, perhaps it's because for Joe, friendship was an art, filled with caring and playful gestures unique to him. His wise, witty letters and emails, instantly recognizable by their whimsical tone. In Vermont, his welcoming embrace, warm and lingering, as tired friends tumbled out of cars into a pine-scented night. His cherished campfire ritual before dinner, washing each of our faces with a warm, wet washcloth. Who does that? Who would think to do it?
And who dreamt like him? Who else dug up towering ancient trees and stood them on their heads, or tore glacial boulders from hillsides, giving them new careers as moons? Who else longed to make art out of the top of a Peruvian mountain, crazy, sure, but don't you love that you knew someone crazy in that way, who could think that passionately, that grandly?
I do. And I miss him very much.
River Run Run, running through my time
Wind and water feed the seed
Everyone knows there's something
So river run run, river run run
Know that God is in the river,
And everyone knows there's something
That is the order that my brothers, my sister and I came into the world. And to make sure we never forgot our proper place and relationship to one another, that is the order that my parents lined us up for most family photos.
With each of his siblings Joe had a special relationship.
Jeff, the first-born, was only ten months older than Joe, and Joe revered him as the family wit and A-student. Joe's quick humor and ability to spin yarns were forged in his banter with Jeff over the dinner table. In my memory, many of our childhood meals together were like a competitive poetry slam, except that they often ended with us toppling our chairs and chasing each other around the table.
George was born six minutes after his fraternal twin. When Joe died, a former girlfriend of George sent him her condolences: "Joe was a wonderful strong man," she wrote. "So different from you." And they were different: Joe the flamboyant artist and raconteur, George his athletic, non-judgmental, dependable brother. Joe's lifelong ambition—to dethrone George as the family tennis champion—went unfulfilled. But Joe didn't really care. He just liked to sit next to George, touching shoulders; he said it reminded him of the nine months they spent together in the womb. George's final gift to his twin was to build him a casket, with a moon suspended from the lid for Joe to gaze up at.
As kids, we were a physical family with a definite hierarchy. Because Jeff, Joe and George were all about the same size, they had to be careful about starting a fight with one of the other two. But Peter was a couple of years younger so he was fair game. Later in life, Joe and Peter continued to spar but now only verbally and about art or metaphysics, and always with affection. One of Joe's favorite things was to stay with Pete while visiting New York City galleries.
Molly, the youngest, held a singular place in Joe's heart, one that deepened every year. The comments that she will share this afternoon speak to their bond meditating together in the desert. But Molly was also a rock for Joe as his health deteriorated. In many ways, with her wisdom, kindness and comforting bedside manner, Molly took on the role of our father, the doctor.
As for me, I was young enough not to have to compete with my older brothers, yet old enough to be a good sidekick. Growing up on October Hill Farm, Joe and I built secret forts and treehouse getaways and a nature museum.
Fifty years ago Joe and I started playing chess together, a tradition that continued until just a few weeks ago. Although we were evenly matched, our style of play couldn't have been more different. I was the analytical, plodding, journeyman boxer; Joe was Muhammad Ali. I never knew where the punch was going to come from. Often it seemed to rain down from the sky, a knight that suddenly took flight and soared over my defensive wall to take my queen. While he leaned over the chess board and pondered his next move, Joe liked to sing. It didn't matter what the tune was—Motown, Beatles, a Thanksgiving hymn. Depending upon how the game was going, he would change the lyrics to trash talk.
Yeah, just like that.
Our other tradition was taking walks in the woods together, often with Suze, Tess and May. Joe was always curious about the names and ways of plants and animals. He imagined in nature all sorts of possibilities: pine saplings untethered from their trunks and dancing like a wave of the sea; faces hidden beneath the surface of stones, yearning to be liberated by his chisel; entire mountains that strained to be free to converse with the moon. As we walked, Joe would quote from Walden and we would swap stories about family, friends, health, politics, work, poetry. Joe's tales were filled with magical realism, larger-than-life characters and hilarious historical revisionism, and we laughed until we cried.
Jeff-George-Peter-Nat-Molly—how grateful all of us are for having been part of Joe's wonderful world.
I know my brother would have been pleased to see so many here. It's as if we have come together at one of his openings. But instead of sculptures by Joe, we are reviewing memories of Joe.
Nevertheless, he would be wondering how he might profit from all of you....
Like most of Joe's shows, this one has a piece about the moon.
A famous story in our family is that when Joe was a child, he mistook our parents' trips to the movies as going to the "moonvies." How lucky they were, he thought, to draw so close to the moon.
The moon had begun its lifelong hold on him. Our brother Peter points out that, from his bedroom window in the Berkshires, young Joe would have sometimes seen the sliced moon come up at dawn, a waning crescent being blotted out by the daylight. On the day Joe died, September 28, the moon was a waning crescent, just a shadow of itself, heading for blankness and needing to rest, yet also preparing for its comeback.
Had he been able, Joe could have told those of us at his bedside the status of the moon that day. He kept a moon-phase calendar on his wall to remind him. Certainly he would have been keen about the "Supermoon" that will appear the day after tomorrow.
I don't associate science with Joe. But my brother grasped how the moon worked—its orbital mechanics. Suze says that "about 30 years ago he had countless lengthy conversations with fellow observers and questioners." Among other things, Joe must have learned why the moon has a face. That seems obvious, doesn't it, that the moon has a face, but the reason why is fairly complicated. I didn't understand it until spending a few hours online last week.
The moon has a face because we see only one side of it, the near side, the side always facing earth. Imagine if the moon were spinning on its axis as earth does, so that every night you were given at a different aspect of it—a different arrangement of craters and mountains and plains. It would be like coming home from work one day and finding that you were seeing the back of your spouse's head...and the next day you were looking at her right ear....and so forth.
The point is, you wouldn't have a strong sense of your spouse's face. The moon is consistent that way. It has a face.
Digging deeper, Joe learned that the moon actually does rotate, though very slowly. Its rotation is synchronized with its orbit around the earth—as a result, the moon is always turning slightly so as to face us from its new position in the heavens.
I think my brother believed there was an intention in that swivel by the moon, a warmth in that turn of the face toward us.
When May was born, Joe drew her sleeping, squinch-y face as a moon floating in the sky. Later, he told her that her middle name must be Moon. It is earth's best friend, he often told his daughters, just as he told the people of Dorchester that his "Sleeping Moon" would befriend the solitary clock standing in Peabody Square.
Teenaged Tess challenged him, saying the sun was probably a better friend to the earth than the moon. Never one to lose an argument, Joe replied after a pause that the sun is "too much to be a friend....The sun is a god." Vintage Joe....
In Vermont one summer he got up for 28 nights in a row to make chalk drawings of what the moon looked like, a different face and mood throughout the lunar cycle. (He drew from imagination on the cloudy nights and on the nights the moon was behind the earth.)
Deliberate and confident, Joe took 28 years to carve the wax and cast bronzes for 28 moons, one hand-holdable moon produced per year, which has to be some sort of sculptors' record. He reached for the moon in all his endeavors, our sister Molly notes, the pun he took to heart.
In speaking and writing my brother was succinct. He would inspect words from angles, as if they were solids on pedestals. So let me explore two words derived from the moon.
The word lunatic has changed from describing a person who is truly disturbed—made ill or wild-minded by an unfavorable phase of moon—to one who's quite sane but who sometimes acts crazy. When Joe was being a lunatic, it was because he was trying out a new idea on his listeners, or perhaps just trying to get a rise out of you.
His smile when you objected to his lunacy showed that he wasn't crazy at all. He meant to enliven the conversation, to amuse you and himself at the same time. For the most part his was a harmless, even generous lunacy. Though a few of his grandest projects may have strayed into the original sense of the term....
I wish I could talk over another moon-word with Joe: sublunary.
Sublunary is a great word. It's a medieval adjective that's hardly used today. Sublunary refers to everything that happens down here on earth, under the moon. For the earth was once thought to be the center of the universe, the hub where humans lived, laughed, struggled, and died, and the moon, arcing over us, looked down upon our tragic and happy affairs. Beyond the sublunary sphere lay the sun and stars, the realm of timeless Truth and unchanging Beauty, and of course Heaven and God.
The moon was the gatekeeper, or perhaps the toll collector, for the souls that left the clay and stones of earth, the raw material that Joe enhanced, and ascended to their rest among the stars. Hanging at the crossroads, the moon was a spectator to both halves of human life, the ephemeral and the eternal.
In Joe's carvings, paintings, and drawings, the moon is always sentient. Depending on the piece, the moon is worried, amused, shocked, bummed out or exhausted by the doings on earth.
Joe knew full well that human beings have great flaws to match our great strengths. We can be lunatic. For that reason his moon is a wise and compassionate friend to us, understanding us even when our actions wound the moon.
Here's what I want to say: The orb that my brother shaped with his hands again and again was always pointing to the higher things over its shoulder.
As Joe himself might have said, in one of his lively pronouncements, What a noble being to obsess over!
Thank you so much, all of you, for being here. I'm Molly, the youngest and the one sister. Joe was a beautiful brother. One of our favorite topics was enlightenment. Joe was fascinated by the concept. He was a quirky spiritual seeker and he wanted that Big E. When I was in college he gave me a book about Milarepa, the Tibetan poet born a thousand years ago. And this started my spiritual journey. We were both very influenced by our Uncle Peter who shared, in books and in person, mystical experiences as a Zen practitioner and eventually a Zen master.
So Joe and I began to meditate and have our own mystical experiences. We started going to week-long silent meditation retreats in the desert outside of Tucson, where I live. We'd set up our cushions next to each other in preparation for a long Dharma talk. But Joe was a lousy student. While I was taking elaborate notes during the lecture, he would slip me a written off-the-wall comment — usually making fun of our teacher and throwing me completely off track. Hard not to laugh. We weren't supposed to be passing notes back and forth but all week we'd do it. And I've kept every one in a large folder.
I'd like to close by saying that Joe - maybe not such a bad student after all - turned into my biggest teacher. I've been close to quite a few folks and their dying process, both through my work as a PA and with friends and family. But I've never seen anything like the gentle peace and equanimity of Joe's journey to the other side. I have to credit, in part, those many weeks of deep mind investigation, meditating, being naughty, and laughing breaking noble silence in the desert. The way he died — the grace and the generosity — he seemed to give all of us what we needed in those last days...pearls, humor, great gratitude, and most importantly deep eternal love. In the end, Joe manifested his wish. He was enlightened. Thank you.
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Thou wast our rock, their shelter, and their might,
O blest communion of the saints divine!
And when the strife is fierce, the conflict long,
In my family, we still joke about the time Dad went to a parent visiting day at Tess' school. As they sat down together in class, teenaged Tess leaned over and hissed "Dad! Just...just do like the other Dad's do!" I am quite certain that everyone gathered here knows — that was NEVER going to happen. There really isn't anyone else quite like our Dad.
Our parents gave us a true and lasting gift — a childhood full of magic, wonder, good clean dirt under our fingernails, and rock-solid stability. Dad (and Mom!) built us an oasis in the woods to nestle in as a family.
When I think of my childhood, I think of this land in Vermont — cooking, eating, working and playing outside. Dad washed everyone's (everyone's!) face nightly with a communal washcloth and flamed-boiled well water. The jobs he assigned were real and important. Scrub the inside of the 8 foot rain barrel so our water runs clear. Sort the bin of quartz stones according to size so the tumbler machine can be loaded with the appropriate medium for polishing a carved stone head. Clean the infamous 3-legged walnut and cow femur Bone Stool with a toothbrush because cooking by campfire under hemlocks is a dignified endeavor.
Sometimes it felt like, for Dad, being a father was an experiment in human development — How interesting! How far could this envelope be pushed?
One winter it snowed so much that the spring melt left our gentle wading river rushing deep, swift, and brown. Dad, Tess, and I had gone up to check on the cabin and we hiked down to our usual swim hole. Dad said this water was a rare and exciting opportunity. He found a long rope, wrapped it around a boulder in the middle and tied the ends around each of our waists like a belt. We then took turns being flung — naked scrappy limbs flailing — upstream in chilly opaque water, to be whisked down river the length of the rope, and hauled back to shore by the belt. (I am not kidding) It was terrifying and thrilling.
Another time Dad was replacing tar paper on the roof of his studio in Vermont and needed a "safety" counter-weight. He escorted me up the ladder and, again, looped a rope around my waist. I hung out on the roof on one side of the pitch, reading a book in the sun, while he worked on the other side. At his call, I would scootch farther over, adjust the rope that connected us, and go back to my book.
I recounted these childhood adventures on a walk in the woods with Dad twenty years later, with a "What in the world were you thinking?!? That's insane! And also, who gives an 7- and 9-year-old a fishing knife and instructs them to go built a fort alone in the forest?!" Dad and I howled with laughter at these memories, and he may have even said "You didn't tell Mum, didja?"
But then he got serious. He told me: "Well, I knew the world would try and teach you to be afraid and that life was full of danger. I wanted you to know that you were safe and strong, and life is beautiful." I was floored, and really moved. My wild, free-wheeling, nonconformist father had a parenting philosophy?!
My Dad loved his life. He loved making art and being an artist. Every day. He loved nature, and the beauty of the natural world. He loved fiction, he loved a challenge, a good song (on repeat), a good laugh. But he loved us best of all. Mom, Tess, and me. There's something so grounding and lucky — a powerful gift from a father to a child — to be able to stand here and say with total, daily, decades-long certainty, that my Dad loved us best of all.
May we all work with such passion, love so whole-heartedly, parent with such joy and curiosity, and when the time comes, leave this world as gracefully as he did.
Let the light of late afternoon
Let the cricket take up chafing
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
Let it come, as it will, and don't
I was able to spend some time with Joe in his bedroom three days before he died. We spoke about old times and how he was doing right then. We traded some stories, laughed a little, and talked about family and friends. Then, as I was leaving, I went over to the side of his bed, took his hand, and told him how grateful I was for his friendship for the last 50 years and how much I loved him.
I said that I thought ultimately the meaning of life — why we are here — is all about love. I said I thought that love was a force in the universe, a law of human life, as much as gravity is a law of nature. It's all around us and we're part of it, if only we can see it and feel it. I said that I know that he came into life with loving arms around him and that he was leaving life with loving arms around him, and that's what it's all about...what really matters.
But as I was speaking, I began crying. I'm a minister, and I'm supposed to be professional, even with a close friend, but I couldn't keep it together. Joe then began stroking my hand, comforting me, caring for me. He did it with a serenity and grace and affection that was simply profound.
"Death be not proud," I thought. I remembered the Apostle Paul writing that "neither death, nor life...nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God." Joe was palpably united.
American poet May Sarton once wrote:
May God bless you and keep you, Joe.