In early July I got a message from Jorge’s daughter, Raquel, telling me about her father’s illness. Jorge and I have been very close friends for nearly 40 years. Though I hadn’t heard from him for about six years – he, living in Puerto Rico, and me in Connecticut – it wasn’t unusual.
Raquel gave me his telephone number. I called. He told me of the cancer and the short time he had left. I left for Chautauqua, did the service and the week there, then came home a day early because of Lory’s work schedule. On Saturday the 14th of July I made arrangements to fly to San Juan, called Jorge and said, “I’ll be there on Monday.” He said, “Thank God – you’ll be able to do my wedding.”
This was the first I knew that he and his companion Diana planned to be married. I arrived on Monday, officiated at their wedding on Tuesday and came back on Wednesday. I spent most of the time sitting by his bed – the only time he left the bed was to be wheeled outside the family retreat house in the mountains of Naranjito to do the wedding on July 17. He was in a lot of pain. He described it to me. He was helped by hospice, and nursed around the clock by his wonderful companion.
He told me about the years when we weren’t in touch. Incredibly, he described how he had retreated into the woods, lived in a tent for four years, limited contact to his son, Jorgito, who promised not to reveal his whereabouts, brought basic supplies for him, and let his family know he was okay.
After four years, beard flowing down, Whitman-like, he packed his tent and went to the little island of Culebra, where he met Diana, who was owner of the local health food store and, coincidentally, a hospice nurse who had tended both Marsha and Ren Brighton, members of our congregation who retired to Culebra, lived on their boat until each of them was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Diana was astonished that we had mutual friends!
Jorge’s family gathered for the wedding – all but Raquel, who is living in Colorado and is expecting her first child any day now. It was a reunion for me – I’d spent a lot of time on ‘the island,’ as they call it, and feel very close to all of them.
I kept in phone contact with Jorge as he lay dying, and on July 27 he said, “I’m ready, now, and I’m so glad you came, so glad you did our wedding.” Then he said, “Tell me what you are seeing right now.” I was standing in my daughter’s Sue’s living room at the ocean in Maine and I said, “I’m looking out at the ocean – the sun is sparkling on the water and the waves are washing onto the shore; children are playing, riding the waves, and a couple is walking along the beach, hand in hand.”
He thanked me, and said. “You are my eyes. We have looked at life together, now I’m looking at my death. I love you.” I said my final good-bye, hung up the phone, and wept. Jorge died the following morning. Diana called to tell me, and to thank me.
The next morning, July29, I got another call – Chris Larson told me that his dad just died, my dear friend of 28 years, John Larson. We did his memorial service on August 18.
When I presented myself as a candidate for the position of senior minister in Westport, in the spring of 1984, I offered a sermon at the beginning, and another at the end, of that week. The first I called, Being Real Together. I read the famous passage from The Velveteen Rabbit about becoming real. Margery Williams writes:
“The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
The second of the two candidating sermons was titled The Companionship of Traveling Souls, using passages from Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road: “Listen, I will be honest with you; I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes; These are the days that must happen to you…Allons! after the GREAT COMPANIONS! and to belong to them! They too are on the road! they are the swift and majestic men; they are the greatest women.”
For twenty-eight years, in these bi-monthly letters as well as sermons and conversations, etc., I have tried my best to ‘be Real,’ and to companion with you, to share the stuff of the Soul. As we begin our concluding year together I will look back at the joys and sorrows we’ve lived, as well as looking forward to the new chapter we each face.
William Blake summarized it: “It is right it should be so/Man was made for Joy & Woe/And when this we rightly know/Thro the World we safely go./Joy & Woe are woven fine,/A Clothing for the Soul divine;/Under every grief & pine/Runs a joy with silken twine.” I’ll do my best to make this final year worthy of the authenticity and sensitivity that has characterized the journey we’ve shared and will share. Be well.