My dear friend Gus Pearson died last week at age 94. When I learned of Gus’s death the first thing that came to my mind was ‘a rare and beautiful species has gone extinct.’ Gus was, first and foremost, one of a kind. He was a rare bird!
Shortly before his passing Gus and I had what turned out to be our final conversation. You never know when such a conversation will happen. A few days after that conversation I got a letter from him – one of those old-fashioned letters, written in his own hand which was a bit unsteady, but it was crafted with a razor sharp mind, a generous spirit and a loving heart. I cherish that letter.
Among other things he wrote about a time 25 years ago when we sat on the rocks at the ocean in Maine, a few weeks after my father’s death, and I read the amazing poem Walt Whitman wrote about his grief over Lincoln’s death. As the waves crashed onto the ragged rocks we sat stunned by the depth of Whitman’s words. We wept not only for my father’s death but for all those we had loved and who loved us in return; tears of appreciation were mixed with tears of sadness. Grief always brings that mix. It’s a long poem, so I’ve picked just a few lines:
“WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.…my departing comrade, holds and detains me…The miracle, spreading, bathing all—the fulfill’d noon; Come, lovely and soothing Death, Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving, In the day, in the night, to all, to each, Sooner or later, delicate Death. Prais’d be the fathomless universe, For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious; And for love, sweet love—But praise! Praise! Praise! For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.”
Gus wrote, “That was an incredible day I treasure.” He wrote about the month-long trip he and I made to Scotland, where we visited my cousin in the Orkney Islands, and to England, Holland and Belgium, and the ten-day trip to Israel together, and our many little trips over dinner.
Then he wrote about the decline in his health and said, “But at 94 I have no complaints.” Later he wrote, “Meanwhile I continue to fall apart, no taste, losing my hair, no longer aware of odors and still continue to live as we are programmed to do. I’m close to leaving but I said that over a year ago saying I’d never see Obama elected. I’ve survived another year but I think I’m on a day to day situation. All my love, Gus.”
Now, as I cherish memories of my friend Gus, Whitman’s words come to me: “I mourn—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring…my departed comrade holds me.” With Whitman, Gus was able to say, “Come, lovely and soothing death…prais’d be the fathomless universe, for life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious; and for love, sweet love.”
Seven years ago Gus sent me some beautifully reproduced and laminated readings that he loved, suggesting they be read at his memorial service. I’ve printed them for you on the back of this letter, in loving memory to a rare and beautiful bird, a one-of-a-kind spirit and a kindred soul.
May your departed loved ones live in the preciousness of memory and inspire generosity.
The Garden of Prosepine, Algernon Charles Swinburne
Those Winter Days, Robert Hayden
Inscription on ancient grave, Ai Khanoum
The Duck, Donald Babcock
White Heron, John Ciardi