Lessons span time and the globe


Two very different mortal events came together in December of 2013.

We said farewell to a great old African man, dying full of years.

And we mourned anew the brutal deaths of 20 children and six teachers in Connecticut.

I bring these things together because, in my 80th year, I find I can still be taught something about life and death.

Nothing can be more agonizing or senseless than the death of the very young. Ben Jonson’s great epitaph for his 7-year-old son calls the little boy “my best piece of poetry.” Gravestones in New England call the many dead children there “Lovely in life, pleasant in death,” or “A hopeful child.” And we know that, until our century, fewer than half of those “hopeful” children made it to puberty.

William Everson, Brother Antoninus, is a minor figure in the history of 20th century American poetry, but he changed my life with this little poem:

The only thing to do

At the grave of a child

Is to lie down beside it

And play dead.

And there is no more powerful image in western drama than the mad, dying, howling King Lear carrying his dead daughter Cordelia onto the stage, hoping she might still be alive, knowing she is not.

Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never.

So what have these sad truths to do with the death of Nelson Mandela?

If you watched the memorial service for him, you saw a parade of world leaders honoring him. President Obama gave a good speech. But I found what was going on behind him more captivating. The ordinary people of Suweto and the other poor townships, unable to attend the grand memorial in the soccer stadium, were visible outside through windows behind the podium. It was a cold and rainy day. They had umbrellas and flags.

And they were dancing.

They had been swaying and singing, cavorting and dancing for three days, since the death of their Madiba. They were waving their flags and thrusting their umbrellas up and down, rejoicing in the life and accomplishments of the old man who had suffered for 27 years to help to free them. It was gorgeous, happy, life-giving. Some in the stadium caught the rhythm and began to move with it. (The old man had loved to boogie too.)

The arc of Nelson Mandela’s life had swept through defeat and imprisonment to release, victory, forgiveness, and, finally, joy. He and his supporters taught me that death, like life, can be something to celebrate.

There is no way to celebrate the deaths of children, though the bereft people of Newtown are organizing memorial foundations and urging political action for mental health and gun control. Bless them.

Perhaps even aching grief and dancing are not co-exclusive. Dancer/director Bob Fosse and writer Paddy Chayefsky were the closest of friends. They made a comic pact that the one who survived the other would do something personal and unseemly at the other’s memorial. Fosse said he would do a tap-dance. When his friend died, Fosse didn’t quite do that. Fighting tears, he got up and did a thirty second soft shoe dance. Then he returned to his silent grieving.

When I go, full of years, I hope my friends will sing and dance.

Mac Nelson is a resident of Brocton.