Joe Farber died on Monday. I spent the first three days of the week wondering about funeral arrangements. I recieved a note from Joe’s wife yesterday. He has already been cremated but there will be a memorial service near Philadelphia next Sunday at 3 PM so I am driving back to Pennsylvania next weekend.
In the note, his wife said two things that caught my attention. The first is that Joe’s body was cremated in a favorite pair of jeans and a t-shirt commemorating the 1999 Freedom Valley Bike Ride
The second: “Joe was absolutely satisfied by the life he led and said that he would choose it all over again, even with the brain tumor.”
That sentence really gets me, first because it is the perfect thing to say to the people that you are leaving behind; second, because it highlights what a great sort of person Joe was; and third because it points to a particular and very admirable approach to life that Joe had even as far back as high school.
I’ve tried to describe this once, and it did not work out very well. Let’s see if I can be more clear in this round of edits.
To wit: To say this to your wife and to your family is in itself admirable. It requires that- even at the very end- you are cognizant of and love & appreciate the people around you. This is not something that everyone can manage.
I’m reminded of a story that appeared a few years back in the local paper. During the middle of an abysmally hot summer afternoon, a Vietnamese flooring contractor, while sanding polyurethane floors on the upper half of a renovated condo managed to ignite the polyurethane dust, blowing most of the third floor off of the house. The Somerville journal reported that while burned over most of his body, he stayed awake in terrible pain until his wife and child were present in the hospital and did not die until his wife assured him that their son would be fine. At that point- according to the paper- he smiled, closed his eyes, and died.
Not the same incident really, but you don’t learn to think of other people in this way, with this sort of dedication, overnight.
But I want to go a bit farther with this. I suspect that in Joe’s case he was not just thinking of his wife, he was probably being really honest. What does it mean to be honest about this? What sort of person could look back and state that he’d do it all over again, even with brain cancer? It requires an understanding that the life you have, no matter the conditions, is a bit of a gift. More than this, it requires a specific humility about your own understanding– the recognition that the best and most complete life that you could imagine would pale in comparison to the life you are actually given.
This is something that is easy to forget if you spend your life fixated on some personal narrative, such as a hero or victim narrative. The stories in our heads— which we use to contextualize our surroundings— are less interesting than the actual events in the world around us. To be able to state on your deathbed that you would choose this life all over again implies that Joe was able to avoid or get beyond these less interesting, synthetic narratives, which is tough because they are addictive.
Joe had an approach, which I saw in high school and did not understand, which was observational in nature. He tended to repeat things, even obvious things, and then build them out. “You broke your leg” might turn into “that seems to be a bad idea,” which might cycle again somewhere else. He tended, though, to start in the concrete. It appears, from his wife’s letter, that he decided that he loved the concrete things in this world– his wife, his kids– and that this allowed him to avoid by instinct rather than rational thought, the sort of moral relativism that plagues weaker people who don’t have Joe’s imagination and are left stranded, unable to get beyond stock observations.
So I’ll fix that- selfishly- in my head, and I’ll try to remember it the next time a personal narrative pushes me away from the world in front of me.