“Rage, rage against the dying of the light . . .” (Dylan Thomas)

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

In about 1981 when I had finished giving the young son (about 5 years old) of dear friends his piano lesson at their home in Brookline, MA, his dad insisted we have a conversation. We were long time close friends and often talked. This seemed different–important somehow.

Jim worked in research at the Harvard School for Public Health. He wanted to tell me about the “gay disease.” He was convinced it wasn’t the “gay disease,” but whatever it was, gays seemed to be the only victims for reasons no one had yet figured out. He wanted to be sure I had a better understanding of the disease than I might read in the papers, and he wanted me to be careful–although he didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Our conversation took place shortly after I had begun treatment for temporal lobe epilepsy. The world had begun to feel even less safe than I had always thought it was although I did everything I could to avoid thinking about it.

By the mid-‘80s the “gay disease” was taking a terrifying toll. I had stopped keeping count of the men I knew who had died from HIV/AIDS as we knew it by then. Keeping a list was overwhelmingly depressing.

The psychiatrist I saw as part of my TLE treatment suggested in the late ’80s that I do something to confront my ongoing perplexity that I had not contracted HIV even though I had done very little to change my behavior in the time since the spread of the disease became understood.

I became a volunteer at the AIDS Hospice in Boston. “If it’s wet, wear gloves,” was the first and only non-negotiable rule. The work was intense. My guess is that anyone spending ten hours a week with people who are dying would see their own view of the world change dramatically and permanently.

Volunteers changed beds, helped patients shower, brought meals to the bedside of patients unable to go to the dining room, read to patients, talked with patients, and sat—some days for the entire time we were there—often holding the patient’s hand, more often simply sitting beside the bed saying and doing nothing.

Twice in those four years I was with a patient at the moment of his death. Several times I aided the nurse in the few moments immediately after a patient died.

I don’t know how to describe those experiences. I don’t have the language to express the gratitude which I hold in my heart for every hour I spent at the Hospice, especially those moments around patients’ deaths.

He raged against that good night

He raged against that good night

Those men (and one woman) gave me the highest honor one can give—to be with them as they approached the last moments of their life or, even more awe-inspiring, to be with them at the moment of their death.

Explaining is impossible. Undeserved and incomprehensible, the (unexpected) privilege of witnessing the most important moment of another’s life (each time as an intruder) changed my worldview forever. Whatever words I can find to say this are inadequate and seem dramatic or sentimental in a way I do not (cannot) intend.

Dies irae, the opening Latin words of the Medieval Sequence Hymn (to be sung between the readings from scriptures—“Day of wrath” is the most common translation) from the Requiem Mass of the Roman Rite, are tattooed on my left arm as of last week. Nearly everyone who has seen the tattoo has asked me why those words.

Ultimately I do not believe that the day one dies is a day of “wrath.” And I do not believe in the “Day of Judgment” the hymn describes. When I attend a church service in which the Nicene Creed is used, I cannot say the words, “He [Jesus] shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

I have often thought that, were I either a comic or a philosopher (perhaps a philologist), I could write something memorable noting the visual sameness of “Dies” (day) in Latin and “Dies” (dies) in English. Many people must have tried to say something clever about that sameness over the years.

But that cleverness is not the reason for my tattoo.

The most famous poem of Dylan Thomas (who lived only 39 years) is “Do not go Gentle into that Good night.”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The film, The Normal Heart, directed by Ryan Murphy and written by Larry Kramer—an adaptation of Kramer’s play written at the height of the AIDS crisis about gay men raging against the dying of the light—was recently released on HBO. I saw it last week after my arm was tattooed.

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning. . .

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. . .

Those of us gay men who lived through (were in our “prime” during) the worst of the AIDS epidemic, before any treatment for HIV was discovered, understand Thomas’s “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” not, ultimately differently from anyone else, but as a community. We watched our friends die in numbers that should be common only to people who are my age now.

My tattoo is a reminder (is it healthy to have a constant reminder?) that the most important task I have left is to discover for myself what the “day of wrath” means, what it means “not [to] go gentle into that good night.” Perhaps I should have Thomas’s line tattooed on my right arm so I have a constant reminder that we live in the tension between the day of “wrath” and that “good” night.

We can barely sit through "The Normal Heart"

We can barely sit through “The Normal Heart”

“. . . wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight. . .”

Waiting for the show to start, sitting in the front row of a balcony at the Myerson Symphony Hall last night, my friend Googled Bernadette Peters whom we were about to hear. We had

Fever!

Fever!

had a conversation about her age on our way to the concert. I said she’s 68, and he wouldn’t believe me. I was wrong. She’s only 65.

At any rate, I was having two small problems age may have exacerbated. The front row of any section of any auditorium is either the best or the worst seat in the section. It’s obvious why it may be the best. Not so obvious about the worst—architects never leave enough leg room for first-rowers. And my old hips need to be able to change position during a two-hour concert.

And I forgot to wear my bifocals. They were expensive and designed to wear all the time, but they don’t work at the computer or the organ, so I forget to take off the old “magnifiers” and put the bifocals on when I’m going out. The evening would have been more fun if only one Bernadette had been on the stage all the time (a touch astigmatic).

Being 69 really had nothing to do with either of those problems. I’ve never been able to sit still—and not because any joint of my body is in pain. I just can’t sit still unless I’m asleep. And I’ve been wearing glasses for about 30 years. So my hip and eye discomfort were (are) not the result of old age.

Am I old, or simply on the way to being old? Most of my friends rush in to tell me I’m not old when I mention it—with a couple of notable exceptions. Of course, they also assure me that I’ll find lots of ways to feel useful in 88 days when I retire, with little or no evidence that’s true. I know they’re right. I can write all day. Or teach writing at the Aberg Center for Literacy. Or work in the athletes’ writing center at SMU.

Or play the organ all day.

Or finally read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (not likely—why would one hypergraphic want to bother with the frenzy of another’s?).

Or do something with the energy of Bernadette Peters (again not likely—if I had ever had energy like hers, I think my life would be much different right now).

But I have one over-riding project to finish.

Many of my friends shy away from my frequent mention of thinking about my own death. One—and only one—of my friends agrees with me that now, now while I am of as sound (if not quick) mind as I have ever been, now I (all of us)—need to settle in our own minds what we believe will happen when we die and what we want to happen to whatever of the material trappings of our lives remains when we are gone.

This is not being negative. It may be very serious business (and for someone like me, being serious can all too quickly flip over into depression—but I understand when that is happening), and it may seem to be the exact opposite of the Pollyanna existence our television and internet views of life project that we should live. But being dead serious does not necessarily mean being dead or longing for death or being morbid or being a nuisance or being unpleasant to be around.

Have you ever seen a TV commercial for, say life insurance, that begins, “We know you are a thoughtful and self-aware person and are contemplating what you believe will happen to you when you die, so let us make your contemplation a little easier by handling a bit of your very real concern about that. Pay us to figure out the matters of the temporal/economic world that you will leave behind.” Foolishly, I’d probably liquidate all of my assets and invest in whatever they were selling just because they admit that dying is not just something I’m going to do next week and it will be over and all will be well.

Why on earth did I drag Bernadette Peters into this? Simple. She sang songs from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70, ‘80s, and ‘90s (if there were any newer than that, I didn’t—of course—recognize them). Many of them she introduced to the world by performing them on Broadway. Into the Woods, Little Night Music, Gypsy—I couldn’t begin to name all the shows she’s been in. And here she is at 65 doing a sort of retrospective of her career—although no one said as much.

Do not go gentle

Do not go gentle

And then she sang other peoples’ songs, most notably “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Fever.” My God, how long had it been since I heard that old Peggy Lee favorite? 1958. I was 13. I loved it then. I loved last night.

This is a ramble trying to find a definite thesis. It’s only this. I intend to think about all of the stuff that makes up who I am. And about the stuff that will make up who I am for the next (what? ten?) years. And then how I might come to terms with what happens after that.

PLEASE. This is not depressing. This is the point of it all. Don’t feel sorry for me or tell me to stop being negative or morbid.

Walking into my apartment last night after spending an evening with another old fossil, I knew for the first time in a long time that I will get through this. I will have peace before I die, not simply rest in peace afterwards. But, as we all know from Dylan Thomas, I can’t go gentle into that GOOD night.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Will I go silent (or gentle)? For those who do not fear reality (old people, mostly)

Do not go gentle

Do not go gentle

.

Dylan Thomas’s most famous poem begins

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My Grandmother Peck, my Grandfather Knight, my mother’s Cousin Ruth, the Rev. Ginger Georgulas, Sue Mansfield, Janey Fields, Dorothy Seuberling, David and Gina Quinlan, Bill Houghton

Friends, family, mentors who, I assume, did not go gentle into that good night. They may well have gone calm, but I cannot imagine they went gentle. They all loved life too much to have simply given in to the end. I know that for sure because

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Last night a friend opened a conversation, “How do you feel about dying in Dallas?” He he’s a youngster at 62. For LGBT persons without children this is a particularly vexed question:  Where should one be when one can no longer care for oneself – or, even if care never becomes an issue, when one is in the end stages of life and growing more and more alone.

My siblings live in California and Louisiana—and all of their children live in California.

My family of origin is not immediately present in my life although we all do keep very close contact (thanks to Facebook, and email). It is my family of choice, that myriad friends and colleagues, and my inamorato that are most likely to be aware of, if not burdened with, my eventual need for help and tender loving care.

For me thinking about this now is—and I think it should be for everyone over about 60—important not so much because I am thinking about being old and decrepit (and I am not obsessed of thoughts of death) but because I want to be sure that I am in a place where I am comfortable mentally, physically, and spiritually when my time comes. That does not need to be a retirement community run by some upscale hotel chain or anything special at all. But it must be a place of my choosing where I can live (as long as I am physically and mentally able) with freedom and dignity.

There. Enough nuts and bolts and depressing stuff.

The Lone Ranger?

The Lone Ranger?

Non sequitur.

A somewhat startling number of composers’ last works are, if not robustly joyful, at least in some way different (and more accessible?) than their previous work. Take the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, for example. Or, better, his String Quartet in F Major, opus 135, his actual last completed major work. Listen to it and marvel in its joy.

Even the most uninterested opera goer will find the hilarious romp through love and madness of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff irresistible. Or listen to the Mahler Ninth Symphony. Or, if you’re really imaginative, listen to the Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony with its almost silly quotation of the Rossini “Lone Ranger” theme (I absolutely love it that, the first time I opened this link, the advertisement was for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds).

These composers did not go gentle. They went joyfully!

That list of friends and family I began with are like these composers. Each of them lived out her or his life in dignity and comfort. And I had contact with most of them shortly before they died. I know they ended their days as they had lived them. Fully, and in some cases, boisterously! They are the angels who dare, in the words of Sherman Alexie’s poem, to “ride [me] piggyback!” They are all over me, burdening and unbalancing me with my memories of their examples.

My favorite, though, is  Johannes Brahms. His last composition, Opus 122, is a group of settings for solo organ of eleven hymn tunes—all of which are about death. And there is not a sad or dreary note in the lot.

Brahms went neither silent nor gentle into that good night. I wrote yesterday about my teacher Leslie Pratt Spelman. I studied the eleven pieces with him as a college student. Twice in my life I have played recitals consisting of all eleven of the preludes, bracketed by the great Bach Prelude in C Minor, BWV 546 at the beginning and its fugue at the end.

Now I am playing them at home for my amazement.

The words for the last of them O Welt, Ich muss dich lassen, are:

O World, I must leave you,
I travel from here along my way
to the everlasting fatherland.
I will give up my spirit
so that my body and life
lie in God’s merciful hand.

(Please see the note below the video link for a word about the playing I seem to be determined to upload these days.)

I am fully aware of two obvious deficiencies in my recordings. The first is, my playing is not necessarily stylistically correct – or mechanically perfect. The second is that my recording equipment is so lacking that I cannot capture the real beauty of the sound of the organ. I have to have the camera so close that the mechanical sounds sometimes overwhelm the music. I know that’s not fair to Steuart Goodwin who built the organ more than 40 years ago—his first opus. But I happen to like the way my playing and the sound of the organ are simply what we are.

A friend says I should use the moniker “The Barefoot Organist.” I should because I am not going to do anything to make these recordings other than what they are—my private reveling in the music, which I am happy to share with you. Besides, my psychiatrist (a gerontological specialist) has given me the assignment to play the organ every day for my own emotional good, and making these tapes helps me stick to the program!