To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go.
– To Dream the Impossible Dream (The Quest), composed by Mitch Leigh, with lyrics written by Joe Darion
My friend Rob died this week, adding to the trail of sorrow created by the loss of so many dear people in recent weeks. It was almost exactly one month ago that I was writing about my friend Helen’s passing. One of the things she’d written, in her “Jubilee” reflections read at her funeral service, was that the hardest thing about getting older was the loss of loved ones. I remember my great-aunt, the youngest of nine children who lived to be 99 and outlived them all, lamenting the same thing.
Helen knew she was dying. We all did, and she had planned the end with the grace and dignity with which she lived all her life. Rob – Rob was another story. I always thought it a miracle Rob was alive at all. A remarkable but fragile looking man who, for the ten years I knew him, struggled to breathe, hear, walk and talk. Rob was hobbled by a bum leg from a motorcycle accident, that was braced by an uncomfortable prosthetic. He was rendered hoarse from a throat damaged by radiation treatments years ago that left him with a tracheal tube for the rest of his life; and in the last couple of years was nearly deaf .
He’d been in and out of the hospital with some frequency the last couple of years. He was on my list of friends to call this week, when I heard on Sunday that he was in the hospital again. But I did not expect to hear he had died. I do not know if he expected to die. Helen had wrapped things up. I suspect our mutual friend Rob had a huge list of things he still wanted to get done.
To right the unrightable wrong
To be better far than you are
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
Rob was a Quixotic hero for the modern world, constantly rallying for peace, calling out for social justice, challenging the rest of us to rise up beside him and right the wrongs of the world. Unlike Don Quixote though, Rob wasn’t tilting at windmills; he was taking aim at the real giants and dragons of war, poverty, discrimination, and pollution. His Facebook page reads like a social action catalog:
- Thank senators for defending Medicaid
- Tell Congress: Tax Millionaires and Billionaires
- Tell Your Senator: Protect our Waters from Dangerous Fracking, and, one of my favorites,
- Tell the Media: Stop Covering Sarah Palin. Give Us Real News!
He became frustrated when his friends didn’t seem to act with equal urgency. Couldn’t we see time was of the essence? That war had to stop? That migrant workers needed representation now? That boycotts had to be undertaken immediately to send messages to corporate giants to stop environmental degradation and injustice? That we had to buy only fair trade goods and live socially and environmentally conscious lives with every breath we drew and every step we took? That we had to stop global warming in its tracks?
It was tempting to dismiss him sometimes, as eccentric or over the top. But one look at Rob, variously disheveled and wearing a colorful knitted cap, or looking like he stepped from an ivy league college in the 60s with his corded sweaters, but always holding his portable amplifier up for your answer, his face a study in seriousness, made it impossible to question his sincerity, and compelling to try to meet it. And more often than I’d like to admit, he forced me to reexamine my own life and my willingness to follow my convictions.
This is my quest, to follow that star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To be willing to give when there’s no more to give
To be willing to die so that honor and justice may live
Rob was a student of Buddhism, active in Buddhist discussion groups and practicing Buddhist meditation. In Buddhism, death is merely the end of life in our current form. Our spirit moves on to new life elsewhere, in accordance with the karma we’ve accumulated in this life.
Urban Dharma says, “It is far better to care for the lives for all around us rather than spending a fortune in prolonging life or seeking ways to extend it for those who can afford it, at the expense of relieving suffering in more practical ways. Improving the moral and spiritual quality of life improves its quality for us all rather than the selfish individualism that benefits the elite few who draw most resources.”
If Rob did anything in this world, he cared deeply and passionately about it, and fully invested himself in trying to relieve the suffering of others and of the Earth. His emails always contained the signature line, “This mail is a natural product, completely recyclable and created on 100% post-consumer bits and bytes. Please Recycle!” When I last saw him, at Helen’s funeral four weeks ago, he asked me earnestly about our next social justice meeting, and about whether I’d found our Green Sanctuary notebook for an album I was putting together. He never stopped thinking about what needed to be done next to make the world a better place.
And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest
Each of my friends brings to my life new ways of thinking and being. It’s comforting to know they’re here, doing their part being who they are, bringing to bear on the world the force of their goodness, and their greatness of spirit. When they leave this world, I somehow feel the need to step it up on my end – to fill the strong woman void left by Helen, and to live with more actionable conviction to uphold Rob’s end of the social fabric of the universe.
And the world will be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.
In one sense, I know it’s impractical, if not totally unrealistic, to try to try to carry the goals of the departed in addition to my own very living loads. In another sense, though, it feels like such an honor, a tribute to their magnificent lives, such a wonderful opportunity to keep their memories and their visions meaningfully alive, in such a personally enriching way.
By assuming some of their energy, by striving a bit on their behalf, I become so much more than myself; I become the sum of those I love – the ultimate gift of friendship.