In the past year, there are other friends/mentors who I lost that were also sources of light for me an countless others. I feel almost as if I'm having my own personal montage of memories for people in my world that have passed on, you know like they do at the Academy Awards or end of the year news specials. To me, though, my precise memory makes my moments with these people feel like they were yesterday. That's the thing about memory. It's all we have left of our loved ones once they pass to what I see as another stage of life. Death is not an end but a beginning; it is only an end for us because we will no longer see those who have moved on in a physical sense. So with that being said, cue up the projector and music. As the year closes, I think of those individuals who have inspired me in life and who will continue to do so in death.
There was the passing of a former teacher who had Parkinsons, Mr. N (RN) who made me, an English kid fall in love with science. He would light himself on fire or throw things against the ceiling to display scientific concepts. On every quiz, students would bet on malts because at the end of each school year, he would make chocolate malts in a kiddie pool by standing in it with galoshes. My friend Heather hold the records for having the most malts. This same friend and I got to witness his last day of teaching, as we stepped into his very last eighth grade class ever and made s'mores on bunsen burners. This special moment will forever be seared in my brain. I told his students how lucky they were to have had the honor to be taught by him, as this man was both my teacher and advisor. He made us do push-ups when we were late to class or missed our homework. He turned me from a boy into a man by instilling in me what it meant to be an scholarly gentleman. What's more is that he sent notes to every student after an accomplishment, be it in sports or theater. And he continued sending notes to students in high school and even into college. When you received a note from Mr. N, you were left wondering how the heck he kept track of your accomplishments. He made every student feel special and extraordinary. If I ever write a book about teaching, I will write a whole chapter to this man and probably dedicate the book to him. It is because of teachers like him that I became a teacher in the first place.
Then there was my friend, Sandy, who I once told sounded just like Joan Baez when she sang. She was a true remnant of the sixties. Whenever we talked about politics and the current state of things, she would get so angry. But it was her anger that led to activism and action. She was involved in so much that it was hard to imagine her sleeping. She raised chickens and had a regular Noah's ark in her home. My only remiss was that I only saw her during choir rehearsals for our synagogue, as on Saturdays she would often swim instead of going to services. Her mentality was that she could just as easily be close to G-d in a swimming pool as much as a synagogue. Her life fore was so strong that when she died as a complication from pneumonia, everyone in our Brooklyn synagogue was shocked. Her death was also at the tail end of multiple deaths at our synagogue, one being the death of her own husband. My wife and I had just literally mailed her a condolence card for her husband only to be followed by another one to her children after her own death. Our entire synagogue mourned in an ocean of tears.
The mourning didn't end there, however. I also mourned the death of one Richie Havens, someone I didn't know well but who I met after giving a concert in Northampton, MA in 2006. He greeted me warmly and had a very in-depth conversation with me about inspiring the next generation. When I shook his hands, they smelled like marijuana. But the highlight, that I will never forget, is the memory of him jumping up and down on stage in a fit of glee saying how each day he wakes up saying 'thank you for another day'. His music inspired generations and he broke multiple barriers. When he died, I felt like a personal friend of mine had passed. Even the one moment I spent with him eight years ago made me feel like I had known him for a lifetime. He signed my CD 'old friend' and I truly felt like I knew him in another lifetime and was destined to find him again in this one. After I met him, in every song, I felt like he was talking to me: 'To tell the truth is what they fear. All of us here can change tomorrow.' (from my favorite song 'Pulling Up the Stone') Another light that I was sad to lose.
*This post is dedicated to all of those amazing folks who I was blessed to have crossed paths with, especially to those that have died in the past year. Even in death, your light will not burn out.