My dear friend Joseph died today.
Joseph was a professor of continental philosophy at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. He and I also went to high school together. He was one of the few people in my life who knew me way back in my caterpillar days but also knew me as we both emerged out of our cocoons into existential butterflies, if such a thing exists.
He “got” my existential jokes. I could wish him a “Happy Being-in-the-World” Day on his birthday and he knew the reference. We could talk about Heidegger and Husserl and its relationship to Buddhist and Tao philosophies, but we could also make fun of some of the teachers we had in high school. We had a large group of friends so our outings were jolly times that lasted seven hours or more filled with long conversations and lots of laughs.
We could talk about existential givens and death anxiety. But he wrote last night, in his last post on Facebook, about how he was not ready to say goodbye, how he could not yet believe all he had done to treat his illness had not worked. My response to him, written through tears, was about how we could indeed talk about all these existential philosophies, but now this is personal.
It’s so much harder when it is personal.
I don’t have words, even as I try to write these, to say goodbye. I can’t imagine a world without him, even though I knew this day was coming, as it must to all humans. And I knew it would come sooner for Joseph because of the damn “C” word, a word I’ve come to despise with a depth of hatred only matched by the pain I’m feeling now.
As a wise friend and fellow mourner just reminded me, “Growing older is a privilege.” How very true that is! How lucky we are that we can even read these words or any words at this moment, but in the crazy rush of day-to-day life, we so often forget. We MUST do this, and we HAVE to do that. As I sit here and mourn, I am also proctoring a diagnostic test for my new students so I can assess where they are and how I should approach teaching them when regular classes start tomorrow. Many of my tears are inside, but a few are sneaking out. Maybe a student will notice. Part of me wants to cancel my class and indulge my sadness, but my students’ need for the class is greater. I will give this gift to them and perhaps find some harmony between the demands of the day-to-day world and the preciousness of this life we have.
Since I have no more words, I will leave the words to Mary Oliver, who captured “The Summer Day”:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
— Sarah Kass