Monday, January 9, 2017

On Fire, Forgiveness & Remembrance

The fireplace at Cunnick-Collins Funeral Home.  Photo by J. Berta

Greetings All:

Friday night, January 6, 2016, about 6:25 p.m.

I am sitting on a couch.  Outside, winter's fury is on full display.  It's in the single digits with the wind chill adding to the misery.  Yet I'm warm and comfortable.  Before me roars a fire.  Although the wood is fake and the fire's fuel is gas, it is still pretty to behold, and comforting, but only to a point.

After all, how comfortable can one be in a funeral home?  How comfortable should one be at a funeral home?

The funeral home in question is Cunnick-Collins in Davenport, Iowa.  I was there for the visitation of my friend and my Mom's best friend, Mary Elizabeth Sievert.  Mary passed away shortly before the new year.  Her funeral was delayed to allow her family from California time to travel here.  I can only imagine how the cold felt to them.

Mary Elizabeth was nothing short of an amazing woman.  She was an educator, mentor, civic leader, an antique expert and simply put, a wonderful lady.  One of my favorite stories about her is when she was teaching Chemistry at Central High School and was speaking to a female student about her career plans.  When the young lady said she was going to be a nurse, Mary Elizabeth challenged her to go to medical school.  She did.

At her funeral Saturday (January 7, 2016), there were many in attendance who were their to honor her both for her professional accomplishments and the person she was.  Although Mary did not have children, she had many, many dear friends.  I consider myself quite fortunate to be one of them.  During the sermon, the Pastor commented, "Mary was the favorite aunt you wished you had."  He was right.

Although we were all terribly saddened by her passing, no one (at least that I know) would ever said her life was not lived to the fullest and she made the most of her time here on Earth.  If you'd like to read her obituary, here is the link.

For some of us, like Mary, life ends after many decades and a lifetime of memories with few, if any, regrets. 

Unfortunately, that cannot be said of all.  Case in point:  Mr. Charles "Sonny" Liston.  Liston was a boxer and at one point, the heavyweight champion of the world.  Then he stepped into the ring with Muhammad Ali.  Once was enough to de-throne Liston, twice was enough to effectively end his career as a boxer.  His life spiraled down from there.  Here's the Wikipedia link if you'd like to read more. about his life.

Less than six years later, Sonny Liston would be dead.  Today (January 9th) marks the 46th anniversary of his funeral.

I have not thought of Sonny Liston often.  For the life of me, I cannot recall what led me to find this terrific article by Shaun Assael, "The Last of Sonny Liston."  You can read it here.  In it, Assael re-visits Liston's last sad days in December of 1970 and his death on or about December 30th.  There are rumors that Liston had been murdered.  The Assael article raises the possibility Liston might have been killed.  However, no one will ever really know for sure what took Liston down for his final ten-count.  The coroner finally ruled Liston's death as by "natural causes," yet I suspect the questions around his passing will continue for years to come.

What is undisputed is Sonny Liston's funeral was packed with friends, well-wishers and likely some of the curious.  Assael writes, "The funeral itself was a crush. Between seven hundred and a thousand mourners were trying to get seats in a mortuary that fit four hundred."

Yet noticeably absent from his funeral were his former competitors from the ring.  Again, from Assael's article:

"Joe Louis, one of six pallbearers, was the only heavyweight champion there and came late because, as he explained, he was shooting craps and 'Sonny would understand.'”

Something tells me Sonny would.  Sonny Liston, a man perhaps not known for compassion surely would have forgiven his old friend.  It is a shame he could not forgive himself and released him from a death sentence of substance abuse...and a broken heart.

And speaking of forgiveness, let's shift to football for a moment.  The NFL playoffs are at hand.  The field has been winnowed to eight teams.  One team not playing next week is the Oakland Raiders.  The Raiders are an interesting team.  Known for their silver & black uniforms, a certain swagger and rabid fans, they have experienced a resurgence this past year.  No doubt their former owner, Al Davis is smiling down on his team.

Al Davis made the Raiders and was the Raiders.  With his (literally) trademarked slogan, "Just win baby," he set the tone for a team and and era.

Now his son Mark has taken over the reins.  Mark Davis is an interesting guy in his own right.  This story from Tim Keown discusses  how the younger Davis drives a 1997 minivan and his other quirks. 

The two Davis' did not always get along and that is being charitable.  One could understand if Mark Davis had relegated his father's memory to the top shelf on a trophy case.  A place of honor, but also one away from the current team's actions, distantly visible and covered with dust.

Davis chose to go another way.  Keown writes:

"A week after his father died, Mark had a torch installed at the Coliseum with one word -- al -- inscribed on the base. Before every home game, Davis picks someone to light the torch, and he has used the honor to forgive old sins. Marcus Allen, the former running back who famously feuded with Al, lit the torch early in the 2012 season. Almost two months later, it was coach Jon Gruden, who was traded to Tampa Bay after leading the Raiders to a pair of division championships."

What a fitting tribute to his father.  Al Davis was like a wildfire scorching the dry brush that was the NFL a half-century ago.  Now, that fire has been captured and focused into a legacy of remembrance.  Mark Davis has also found a way to forgive past hurts.  Some may say even the sins of the father.

From the Oakland Raiders Facebook page, fair use claimed and a good-faith basis to believe sharing for the limited purpose of this blog is authorized.  Here is the Raider's Facebook caption:  "Former Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha lit the torch in tribute to and in memory of Al Davis prior to yesterday's game:"

I follow only one podcast with any regularity and it is Tim Ferris'.  He continues to impress, amaze actually, with the people Tim has on his show as guests who share with us their outlooks on life.  Their accomplishments, while wildly impressive, are more like the wrapping on a sandwich that serves the purpose of protecting the nourishment of the ideas, the philosophy of his guests. 

One such guest who fits this bill is Dr. BJ Miller.  He is a doctor who has done amazing work in the areas of death, dying, and hospice care.  One of the reasons he has such a passion for this is due to his intimate understanding of how close we are to death.  When he was a college student at Princeton, he suffered a catastrophic injury, costing him both legs below the knee and the majority of his left arm.  For some, that would be prescription of lifetime misery, aggravated by substance & alcohol abuse.  Not Dr. Miller.  Instead, he took this experience and used it to be his inspiration for a career of service and leadership.  He epidermises the expression:  "Physician, heal thyself."  

If you want to check out the podcast to Ferriss' show with Dr. Miller, please click here.

In addition, Dr. Miller has a TED Talk that I watched Saturday about two hours before Mary Elizabeth's funeral.  I have seen a LOT of great TED Talks.  This one is clearly on the medal stand and here's the link.

I have watched this talk three more times since Saturday.  I was captivated by Dr. Miller's passion and compassion for approaching the end of life.  His near-death experience and THE death of parts of his body give him a perspective no one would wish to have.  Still, it is both his history and his present story.  He embraces it.

He tells the story of when he was in the hospital recovering from his injury, still reeling in burning pain that a nurse smuggled a snowball into his room.  With his remaining hand, he held it, watching and feeling it melt.  Soon, it was gone.  Still, for a moment, his moment, the snowball was his.  I'm not doing this story justice because you cannot see the look of joy, reverence even, in Dr. Miller's face as he re-tells this story.  Please see for yourself if you would like.

At the end of Dr. Miller's TED Talk, he has this most amazing thought:  He returns to the snowball from many years ago.  Then he says:  "If we love such moments (the snowball story) ferociously, then maybe we can learn to live well not in spite of death but because of it.  Let death be what takes us, not a lack of imagination."

It is clear that Dr. Miller has forgiven himself for the decision that changed his life forever.  Countless hospice patients and those who get to hear his words are much better off because of that decision.

Saturday, January 7, 2016, about Noon.

The church doors open, letting in both sunlight and cold air.  It is time for Mary Elizabeth's earthly form to begin her final journey.  

I have never carried a casket before.  It was certainly not light, yet the weight was not unbearable.  While the cold was prominent, it was not nearly as bad as the previous evening.  It did not penetrate through my suit as much as enveloped me, as if to say, "I'm here."  I was not wearing gloves and while the metal handles of the coffin were cool, it did not produce the skin-ripping cold sensation that surely would have occurred the previous evening.  It was as if the fury of winter elected to pause, not unlike the car I saw stop driving on Locust Street, in honor of Mary Elizabeth.

As we approached the hearst, the sidewalk was uneven in spots.  We had to step onto the grass to position the coffin for entry.  Although I am clumsy by nature, I did not have any fear of tripping or rolling an ankle.  I felt as if the other pall bearers and I were being guided during our brief, yet important task.  As we walked back into the church, the sun was high, shining brightly, a first cousin to the fire of the previous evening.  

Death is going to come to all of us.  Whether you are famous, once famous, notorious, or a wonderful, descent person, all will leave this world.  My Dad has a terrific line:  "If you don't die young, you're gonna get old."  For those of us among the living, we would do well to learn from the lives of those who have departed this world.  Mary Elizabeth had neither the fame nor adoration of a Sonny Liston.  Then again, she never succumbed to the tragic set of circumstances that befell Liston.  I am convinced she received the far better part of the bargain. 

As I conclude this post I think back to the fire at Cunnick-Collins from Friday night.  I think of its fire as both a source of heat for my body and comfort. for my soul.  Fire is perhaps the greatest contradiction we can ever know.  It cannot give us warmth unless wood is put upon it and only in destroying the wood through flame can the heat be harvested.  I think Marcus Aurelius said it best: 
"The blazing fire makes flames and brightness out of everything thrown into it."  

When fire is focused and controlled, it can bring us warmth and comfort.  When fire is free of boundaries, it can wreak havoc on a horrific scale.  The same is true for memories.  Focused and kept in perspective, they can be a basis for forgiveness and self-improvement, regardless of past circumstances.  However, memories of past defeats left unchecked can metastasize into rage.  This rage will paralyze and prevent one from moving forward with after a life chapter is complete.  Sadly, Sonny Liston suffered from this malady.

Mary Elizabeth Sievert was someone we can look up to, admire, emulate and celebrate for a life well lived.  For many, including me, she was a fire, burning bright, and so will be her memory. 

R.I.P. Mary Elizabeth.  Please hug my Mom for me, thanks.

Be well my friends,

This was was originally published on January 9, 2017.

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