by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
My brother Howard is dying. Three years younger, healthier all his life than I have been, he is dying of what began as the same cancer that I have in these same last months lived through and lived beyond.
Uncanny that our lives are so intertwined — and so divergent. Indeed, 20 years ago we wrote a book together about how our lives have intertwined – and diverged. “Becoming Brothers,” we called it. And now, after many years in which he became for me the older brother that he wished I had been for him, years in which he taught me how to love, he is dying, leaving me bereft, bereaved. Profoundly sad.
He lives in Portland, Oregon, a continent away from me in Philadelphia. I have just come from spending four days with him, to tell him what he has meant to me and that I love him; and in tears to say goodbye.
And at the same time, I am filled with joy and energy at my own deliverance. I have thought about “survivors’ guilt,” but only thought about it. I have not, at least not yet, been gripped by guilt that he is dying while I survive. Instead, I am living with a two-fold awareness: grief and joy.
I described this to Howard, and he said, “Marbleized, like Rocky Fudge ice cream.” Still mentally alert, though his body is filled with lumps of cancer on leg and hip and liver and on either side of his esophagus. Cramping his throat into spasms of violent hiccupping that wrench his whole body, making it hard for him to sleep without some medication.
When the home-hospice nurse talked with him about the meds, he said, “I need one week of mental acuity.” Pause. “Three weeks.” Pause. “Or more.”
Why does he need this time? Why is he measuring it?
For years he has been working on a book called “Homeward Bound: Finding Satisfaction in the Family.” In the last few months, before and since discovering the cancer that is killing him, he has been finishing it, and he is passionately hoping to seal the arrangements for its publication before he dies. Or leave the process so far advanced that he can die in peace that it will happen.
The book is a remarkable guide to the journey of healing our families. It weaves together the three great strands of Howard’s life: explorer and healer of his own family conflicts; critic and teacher of the great literatures of England and America at Reed College and then at an experimental college, The Learning Community; skilled and cunning therapist, alert to the discontents of soured families that bring him patients to be healed. He is an eloquent writer. The book will guide many of its readers to their own healing, a broadcast version of his work at one-on-one.
(Though Howard and I have often talked about how we are like twin football power players of our long ago, Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, he has focused his life on healing injuries close-in, face-to-face, and I on healing the great broad circle of the world; his book, “Homeward Bound,” will carry Mr. Inside to the Outside.)
Despite Howard’s alertness and his clever wit, “marbleized like Rocky Fudge” was not quite right for me. My sadness at his dying and my joy at my aliveness, and my sense of the uncanny intertwinings of our lives, are not exactly mixed and swirled together. They live in me, and I in them, each with independent vitality and vigor, not even sadness today and joy tomorrow but all of them in constant presence.
Howard’s deathbed has become a hotbed of life. His family, his close friends — his beloveds and those for whom he is beloved — have come to visit. We talk with him and with each other about him. He says he feels “surrounded with love.” Indeed. And I am convinced this warmth of loving fire, this “hotbed,” will itself become a broadcast like his book: reaching out beyond this circle to many other places in the world.
Indeed, the days in Portland have already enriched my understanding of the Transformative Judaism I have been exploring. I left Howard’s bedside to speak about that vision to a convention of rabbis committed to the renewal and transformation of Judaism. What I said to them, trying to “broadcast” the grief and the love that was warming that bed, was that these are the emotions and the sense of the Spirit that we need to bring to Earth itself and all its communities.
Grief that the world we have known is dying. We are living through earthquakes of a dying society, racked by violent “hiccups” as Howard is by his own. The economies, the ecologies, the sexualities, the families, the communities and traditions we have known, are all gasping, coughing, shaking. It is appropriate, it is necessary, to grieve.
And it is appropriate, it is necessary, to look with delight and joy upon our seeds of deliverance. Around the deathbed of our old world are already clustering those who have loved the best in that world, knowing now that we must surround the dying world with love as Howard’s beloveds have surrounded him, and go forth as he hopes his book will do and I hope we all who have been visiting him will do. To make of the myriad movements bubbling up around our planet seeds to sprout and grow new forms of the Beloved Community.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center (www.theshalomcenter.org), a leader of the movement for Jewish renewal and the author of many books on religious thought and practice. His brother, Howard Waskow, died on Jan. 13, a week after this essay was finished. The Shalom Center in located at 6711 Lincoln Drive in West Mt. Airy. This essay was reprinted with Rabbi Waskow’s permission from the center’s newsletter. For more information, call 215-844-8494.