On Being Dispensable


We have all seen movies where a character is shown remembering a person who has died. We get to see the deceased man or woman or child full and animate for a few moments and then, as the memory fades, he or she slowly dissolves, becomes ephemeral and finally disappears.  The main character resumes her life and we sense the empty space, the loss, as the movie goes along.

For the past month or two I have had the experience of imagining this same gradual fade from my own life. I try to understand what the world will be like when I am no longer in it. At the moment I am in excellent health so I know this must sound morose or at least melancholy to those reading this column. Yet I have found that picturing that ephemeral version of myself is liberating, albeit with a twinge of sorrow.

This experience happened near the end of August. Maury and I had rented a place in Tofte at Cobblestone Cabins, on Lake Superior. It was big enough to fit our son Aaron, his wife, Johanna and our three-year-old grandson, Harry. For a few nights, Aaron’s life-long friend Dylan joined us. In another cabin friends of Johanna’s were staying for the same week. In the evenings we gathered for dinner, sometimes with two more friends of our son who had places nearby. I would often sit on a couch and watch them all making dinner. My expertise is cleaning and doing the dishes later or baking bread ahead of time for the trip. I watched them singing, dancing to music, opening pots and stirring collections of veggies in a skillet, setting the table near the windows that looked out on the water. Harry laughed outside as Maury kicked the soccer ball to him. I imagined not being there. I felt myself able to see them all without me. And what I realized was that they would be fine, all of them. And not only did I realize that, I understood that it was good to know this, to be assured that they were good people in a difficult world. Whatever we did as parents years ago, in raising this young man, contributed to his honest and compassionate life. And this was true for the others there: in all our mistakes and misjudgments, we, the generation of parents who nurtured them, had done well in our imperfect, sometimes misguided ways.

I found myself strangely liberated by this understanding. As we sat at the table, as we started passing food, launching into discussions of artists’ lives, politics, the frightening way the earth was changing, I knew I would be missed some day. And I definitely wanted some serious mourning when I went, with appropriate heartbreaking music and memories filled with laughter. Yet I also understood in a way I had not before that night, that I am not responsible for all that I had thought I had to fix. There is a generation that will tackle poverty and the evil of racism that is still very much alive in this country, and some steps forward will happen under their watch.

Accepting my own disappearance does not relieve me of playing my part:  working, writing books, giving talks, bringing people together, deepening friendships, baking bread, taking carry of Harry when needed. To grasp my mortality does not make me feel less urgent about the state of the world, my neighborhood, the life of the family leaving the homeless shelter nearby. The rage I feel at the plight of immigrants will not diminish with this realization. The depth of slavery’s consequences for us as a nation will stay with me through my last days.

What turning sixty-nine in a few months brings to this life is a sense of handing over to new generations some of the work of social justice. It is seeing the world, the evenings by a lake, on a cool night in Northern Minnesota at an angle.  This angle allows us to see our place in it all, no more or no less in its importance. From here, what I keep vividly are the faces of my individual students, the humor in my days in the classroom, the joy in their struggles and successes, the search for what will work to help them break the code in order to read. I keep the intricacy of local life, and the responses to written words too, from those I do not know. All the while my son and his wife dance with Harry around their kitchen: in and out of steam and the sound of laughter.  

We are all greatly to be missed. Our unique place in the world with our specific memories is not reproducible. Yet granted this truth, as we age, still fighting, perhaps we can find some peace in knowing we are one of many who do this work, and that we have passed all that we know along, in whatever way we can. It is all we can do.