So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
The bearded man speaking on the cell phone at the airport looked familiar to me. I was returning from Washington where I had attended my 100-year old Uncle’s memorial service.
“Polly will be there,” I heard him say as our paths converged, and then knew that it had to be Steve. I’d gone to high school with Polly and Steve, though I’d only seen them once, eight years earlier, in the more than forty years since we graduated. They had come to the memorial service for our high school English teacher I had organized. I knew he lived in Washington, she in Oregon.
He hung up the phone and I tapped him lightly on the arm. As we made our way through the airport I learned that his father had been injured in a tractor accident. It was serious. His father, who had been a physician, had become a vintner late in life.
We parted ways as he left to find his ride.
Livermore was a smallish town back when we were in high school. And ours was the new high school. It started with just freshman and sophomores. Steve, Polly and I were among the first students. But even though it was a small high school, we gathered in groups, pretty much hanging out with whoever was our designated group. I liked them both and knew them enough to wonder about them over the years, but not well enough to have a way to keep in touch.
Their father died in November, the day before Thanksgiving. The memorial was last Saturday.
This has become a familiar experience for me, acknowledging the loss of my contemporaries’ parents, a life passage. It brings with it a mixture of past and present. The buried memories of who I thought I was and who I thought they were back then meeting the reality of who we had become and the life paths that brought us to where we were today.
The grey rainy skies that had been the previous week gave way to one of those weird late Fall California days on Saturday: bright-blue skies, the sun casting its warmth over leaves still clinging to the trees and the vines in the vineyard.
As I listened to the generations read their tributes to Father and Grandfather, the yellow leaves of the tree by the porch drifted down. Sometimes it was a lone leaf weaving its way through the air, other times a flock of them descended to become a part of the autumnal tapestry gracing the ground.
Be a renaissance person, the grandchildren remembered their grandfather telling them. Both generations drew from Shakespeare and Emerson and Dylan Thomas in their eulogies, though they had written them independently of each other.
As the day drew to a close, the sun set behind the vineyard, turning the surrounding trees into silhouettes against the darkened sky, its warmth turning to that bright sunset red you see at the edge of the world the moment before it disappears.
But this time, it lingered. Or so it seemed. I don’t remember a sunset lasting as long as this one did, a waning ember that glowed in the dark.
It’s not so much that time stopped as it slowed down so we could acknowledge its passing, as if to let us know that though our days are numbered, they are enough — if we live them deeply and follow the beat of our own hearts.
“My head keeps hitting the ceiling,” Polly said as we talked about what it’s like to lose a parent. It’s true. There is nothing between you and the ceiling as the generations above you die.
Be a renaissance person.
That command came from many sources in the years Polly and Steve and I were in high school. Our teachers encouraged it. The high spirits and optimism of the sixties encouraged it.
I think it is a command we need to bring to the forefront of our culture. I think it is the way we can find our way again in a world that has been turned upside down by fear, greed, and solipsism.
We don’t quote stock prices at significant life passages. We quote the likes of Shakespeare and Emerson and Dylan Thomas because they express what it is to be human — enduring truths that don’t vanish in the burst of a bubble.