John was
a dour man,

mostly unsmiling,
pleasant enough, but without
warmth; willing to lecture,

but seldom able to converse;
but mostly without laughter
-- dour.

It's a good word and seldom used.
He meant well and was,
for the most part, kind and considerate.
As he lay dying of leukemia,
Julia asked John

what he would like for his death
--before his death, really --
and he said:
Now John was always pretty much alone,
seemingly content with his studies

and his search,
with writing
books and teaching religion --
Comparative Religion.
So "Friends," was his last request.
It was his last wish
to come out of his study,

to join the crowd,
to have people to know and to chat with,
people to laugh with and cry with,
and Julia could supply that,
O, yes, Devayani,
Julia was good at "Friends."
You were a continent away,
so you didn't get invited to be one of the friends

for the eight months of visiting and partying,
watching John blossom into gregariousness,
smiles and laughter.
Only in your mind's eye,
now, two years later,
from Julia's description,
can you see John's remote face begin to open --
like the statue in the National Museum of Japan
whose face is dividing down the center

revealing the face beneath
of divine grace, beatitude -- friendly, in love
with the sky and the earth, or in this case,
with people.
John's divinity began to
shine through on the people,
drawing them out of their homes,
out of their families and fears,
out of their lives to dance at his death,
to fulfill his request -- Julia's request, really, for

she arranged the parties and the meetings,
in the hospital, and in the garden
at their blue house in Suwanee,
and occasionally for coffee, out
at a restaurant,
at church.
She accepted, or rejected
the dozens of invitations to others' houses
for others' suppers,
gauging his strength, pacing his down hill path.
Through his work,

as a professor at Emory,
John had met the Dalai Lama, had invited
him to speak at the University.
Julia heard His Holiness was to be nearby
during a few days of the eight months
it was taking John to die.
So Julia asked him,
the Dalai Lama,
to come by -- to spend a little while,
as a friend, with John,
and the Dalai Lama, of course, did.
He won the Nobel Prize for Peace,

and he deserved it.
Arriving in his limousine
with his guards and entourage at the hospital --
isn't it odd how, in this world,
we wouldn't dream of letting a holy man go about
in solitary peace --
to visit another human being.
And, O Devayani,
you asked, "What did he say?
What did they talk about?"
Julia laughed, "O, you know, 'How are you?'
'How are you feeling?'
And bits of philosophy about Buddhism,"

-- which John knew well, for he had spent a lifetime
in his study studying the Buddhists and the Hindus,
the Christians and the Moslems,
quietly, away from the crowd, thinking,
no doubt, as you do, Devayani,
about God:
Is He? She?
Was He? She? Why?
Who are we?
Where did we come from?
Where are we going?
What are beliefs?
Where did they come from?
Do you believe?

Questioning the Eight Noble Truths,
and the Ten Commandments.
Questioning La illaha illa 'llah
There is no God but God.
Looking into Zen and Meditation,
the Dharma
and the Tao,
contemplating the life of Sufi
and Sadhu, saint and sinner,
Dervish and Aesetic,
Confuscianism and the New Age.
He visited India several times.
And you wonder, O Devayani,
did he talk about these
things with the Dalai Lama,

and even before you ask the question,
you know the answer:
By the time a dour man grows old enough
and certain enough of his imminent death,
you are quite certain he
doesn't need to "compare" religions any more.
He wants "Friends" --
the motion, emotion, swirl, action,
color of life,
just to see it, just to hear it.
The wondering is done,
has had its time and its place,
kept him separate and satisifed,
dour and unresponsive

-- only a little responsive --
to the breaking of bread and the making of love,
to the high joys of laughter
heard across the lawn
and close up.
O Devayani, he talked,
you are sure,
by then,
more than he ever had
about feeling fit and feeling bad,
about having a good conversation
with this one
and a difficult conversation with that one --
mostly to Julia.
He blossomed, in his desire for friends,
into a friend.
Perhaps into The Friend that Rumi speaks of,

the companion to be with all the days of your life,
or just the last half circle.
In eight months, 248 days,
a lifetime of friendship poured into his life,
arranged by Julia, gladly.
For as far as friendship was concerned,
he had never asked for much.
She called and cooked, and created all the intimacy
of a lifetime of human relationships,
of communities and caring.
She did what she could and it was enough.
Lukemia is a slow death, but not a bad one,
weakening, slipping away day by day --
eight months and eight days from diagnosis to death, budding,
like a new plant, a spring plant, into the knowledge
of human happiness, the human happiness
of puttering through life,
without study, without being shut in an office,

without being closed in and afraid,
without being too shy to ask for
the hand of a friend,
the smile of compassion,
the touch of love from almost perfect strangers
who became friends over night
because he asked them to,
or Julia did. "Ask and ye shall be given."
O Devayani, you know it is as simple as that.
Almost. The courage is in the asking.
John asked, and he was given.
Julia asked, and all were giving.
O Devayani, you have a vision of their big blue
house, and the big wild garden easing down to the woods,
turnips and tulips and lilacs, in eight months you can
see it all. Great tables of foodstuffs
and favors, desserts and drinkables,
a canopy under the sun. John and Julia
celebrating what has been and what will be
Going down to the river --" Way Down Upon the Swannee
River." It seems as mythological as the song,
old fashioned and hilarious,
sentimental and sacrificial.
With Julia lying down at night next
to the cooling body of her husband,
next to the cooling heart of love,
warming for one last
time to love the corporeal form
-- loving the eyes and the hair,
the mouths and the laughter of friends,
even the hands of enemies,
parading past in the gigantic extravaganza of life.
Life is no more than the blood and guts of a body,
hot sprung from the womb of creation
in the ooze and slime of birth.
It falls away in the sleep of breathing,
less and less,
less and less,
and less.

"Do you miss him?" O Devayani, you asked of Julia,
for you knew of their rocky course
through the ages of marriage and children
and almost divorce,
and the troubles, the troubles, the troubles.
But you didn't have to ask, for already,
you knew that with his last request,
John had redeemed a lifetime of aloofness,
of not being cut according to the pattern of her fantasy.
He was just John, lonely like the rest of us,
and, on the eve of his last leave taking,
willing to ask for "Friends,"
granting Julia the grace of giving,
doing what she could do so well.
For 248 days they were in sync,
profound harmony.
He asked for what he needed,
and it was what she could give
-- best of all.
Did he know that?
Was that part of his compassion?

Or is that just the web of the universe? --
its infinite harmony:
knowing what one can give
the other wants to give,
knowing that its hard
to get human attention,
so all dramas ultimately take us to death.
O Devayani, all roads lead to death and rest,
and old molecules released to dance.
And going
-- by asking for what she could give --
dour John released Julia into life
and knowledge,
affirming her gifts to go on.
What will she ask for at death?
will you?

Copyright © 2000 Jan Haag

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail:



Feeding Frenzy









21st CENTURY ART, C.E. - B.C., A Context