Thursday, April 19, 2012

Life and Death

We know days are rife with meaning. Some more than others. We remember birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, national events, some with an intensity that binds us together collectively. Kind of like in high school or college when groups of us couldn't wait to deconstruct the latest TV or movie, and being part of the discussion made you feel included in something bigger and cooler than yourself.

And certain days just transport you back to a moment in time, or moments in time, that have lingered above us for years and years and years.

April 20 is one such day. It is filled with enough personal, social and cultural history, life, death, and celebration, well, to fill several lifetimes and generations.

It is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titantic as it plowed into an iceberg. But it is also the centennial of Boston's heralded Fenway Park, which has more personal significance to me than the tragedy of a luxury ocean liner.

Fenway Park's inauguration conjures up memories of my first baseball game in 1967 on the last day of the regular season. I was eight, and my father scored two tickets from our family friend, David Schechner, whom we've always referred to as uncle, to the little bandbox in Boston that houses still our beloved baseball team. The white Boston Red Sox pennant, with red and blue lettering, my father bought me that day as the Sox clinched the American League pennant, hangs in my garage 45 years later.

April 20, 2012 is my mother and stepfather's 15th wedding anniversary. I remember meeting my stepfather Fred's family for the first time that day many years ago outside a synagogue in Windsor. Fred had been a widower for a few years before he met my mother at a dance club in Hartford, CT. My only regret from their wedding day is that I shared with Verna moments before the ceremony why April 20th was historically significant. Adolf Hitler was born on April 20th, 1889.

"I wish you hadn't told me that," Verna said. "It almost ruins the day for me."

"But we triumph over Hitler if April 20th becomes a day when we celebrate life," I said.

Verna wasn't buying it. She was quite happy for my mother and Fred but she always associated their wedding date with an ignominious day in history.

April 20th is also the official anniversary date of death for a dear, dear friend's husband, who collapsed in front of her and her two-year old daughter while my friend was 7 months pregnant. She triumphed over death as she held her family together following Erik's sudden demise and after she met and married another wonderful man, Evan, and twice added to her family with a son and a stepson. But this woman, whom Maya adores and lovingly calls Auntie La-La (her name is Hyla), lives now with the constant fear that her two daughters may have inherited the rare genetic condition that caused Erik's premature death.

April 20th is also National Pot Day, something I didn't know about until fairly recently. And it appears National Weed Day got its start right here in Northern California. Its roots go back to San Rafael High School, which is about 3 miles from where I live, in the 1970s, and the "holiday" may have been popularized in the early 1990s by some--surprise--Deadheads, followers of the Grateful Dead.

I'll be honest: I have no plans to honor 4-20 at 4:20 by lighting up a joint now or at anytime. But the marijuana celebration on April 20th just adds another layer to an already meaningful day.

And April 20th could very well be the last day that Stan W., a long-time resident at the retirement community where I work, remains on earth. A true renaissance man, who has been an actor, dancer, musician, lawyer, and true intellectual, Stan has had two strokes in the past 20 days. He is resting somewhat peacefully on hospice at a local Kaiser, surrounded by family and friends and lots and lots of the music he adored.

A proud Jew, Stan regularly performed in a local Irish Ceili band, drummed on North African instruments weekly at a local pub, and led a rhythm class at our community at which residents banged and banged on Stan's homemade instruments: plastic containers filled with beans or chair legs. Or he shared instruments he'd acquired--maracas, drumsticks, other shakers--while samples from his vast collection played on a boom box and Stan narrated a folkloric history of musical genres from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

I thought about Stan a lot today when his daughter told me his death was imminent, on a Northern California spring day when the temperatures neared 80 and the sky was cloudless and as you peered outside the colors seemed more vibrant. But death still hung and hangs in the air.

Monuments are built; monuments are destroyed. Life is fleeting. Stan, a man who loved to debate politics and art and history and music, a man who rehabilitated himself from the depths of a near paralyzing stroke a few years ago to become fit enough, as he slowly lifted himself out of his motorized cart, to lead exercise classes (strength training and Tai Chi), is about to die and leave us a legacy of someone who dared to speak up and out for what he believed in, who dared to have a vision of a better world and community and then put it into action.

Just a couple of months ago, he took a casual conversation he and I shared about possibly starting a chorus at Drake Terrace and forcibly recruited the right people and launched a weekly sing-a-long that attracts 20-30 residents. Last week he called our executive director, and in a garbled voice laid out his vision for a dedication party later this year when our back patio fountain sprays to life regularly for the first time in a few years.

April 20th is just one of those meaningful days that sticks with me and is filled with memories of sublime joy and gut-wrenching sadness. Life certainly goes on and on. Bless us all.

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