"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Clearing The Decks For The Proper Business Of Dying - The Sad Story Of A Man With Too Many Causes

J.M. Coetzee in his Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace, said

Aging is not a graceful business.  A clearing of the decks at least so that one can turn one's mind to the proper business of the old - preparing to die


Harrison Lord felt himself neither old nor prepared to die.  Too many things still to do, he said, and not enough time to do them. Contemplating death and dying were morbid pursuits of interest only to the chaise lounge Florida crowd for whom life had been a dreary affair and death was not the end of something, but the longed-for beginning.  As for him, he would die in his traces, plowing a rocky field as he had his whole life - a life of purpose, good intentions, and happy endings. 

He had been a man in love with the idea of responsibility, of doing good, of making efforts count.  He had been tireless in his pursuit of a more verdant, peaceful, and prosperous world; one of equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal pay; one of gender equality and affirmation; and one of restoring the black man to his rightful place atop the human pyramid. 

Rest on his laurels? Never. The fight for justice was a never ending one, and there could be pause, no  hiatus, no unnecessary pit stops along the road to a better world. 

So what would likely be the last decade of his life was to be no different from those before - years of energy, spirit, hard work, and good will.  He was the first to chair an online colloquium on climate change for his college classmates; the first to preside over a seminar on 'Civil Justice And The Rights Of Man', a discussion on Locke, Rousseau, and the need for restoration of civic values, and the first to chair a gathering of Emeritus members of the Equal Opportunity Commission, a meeting to emphasize the need for 'a fight to the death' for equal rights.  

Harrison was a regular contributor to the Yale Alumni Magazine, proud to list his current achievements with references to those past.  His trips with Martin Luther King over the Pettis Bridge had prepared him for the struggle ahead and led directly to his testimony before the House Sub-Committee on Diversity, Equality, and Inclusivity.  


"We are gathered here", he began his testimony, "not only to honor those past, those revered for running the gantlet of prejudice, hatred, and villainy and persevering; but to stress our fealty, our devotion, our absolute commitment to the black man". 

Not once did Harrison even give death a second glance - no frightening looks in the mirror, no troubling questions of mortality, no nettling bits of bleakness, no dark corners, no God, no Jesus.  No Coetzee doom and gloom for him, this crazy business of the proper business of dying.  Clearing the decks meant erasure, not clarity.  Contemplating death meant ignoring the present that would go on after him and hopefully more promising because of him. 

He was peripatetic - crazed to keep death away from his door said his chaise lounge friends who had done their share for house and home, family and friends, and were content to furl their sails, enjoy a sundowner, and enjoy the ease and comforts of retirement.  When all was said and done, what did his never-ending CV matter? Who at the pearly gates was keeping score? 'The last shall be first, and the first the last; for many be called but few are chosen' wrote Matthew.  Good counsel, said Harrison's friends, watching him banging away, losing traction and leather on his soles, filling every crack between loose slats with something, anything.  

"I did that", his granddaughter proudly claimed after she had crayoned all over the first page of his speech on transgender equality (Drag Queens In Mufti - The Outing Of Gayness In Donald Trump's America). Ah, the innocence of a child, Harrison thought, so sweetly proud of her accomplishment.  He, however, had held his pride in check, letting others praise his doings.  Although he listed one thing after another in the alumni notes, he did so with modesty and deference.  Yet, to himself, he said, "I did that!"

The days leaked on, a steady trickle but a persistent one.  He was a year older before he knew it, one more page turned in a fulfilling but still incomplete life.  Despite his wobbliness and bits of bad memory,  he was still tireless in his efforts.  Every lunch, every dinner, every recessional on Sunday morning was his opportunity to make a difference.  God might or might not be in his heaven, but surely it was up to Harrison and his cadre of progressive reformers to do right. 

"What makes Harry run?", joked a Yale classmate who found the herky-jerky puppet who hadn't changed a whit since his days with the Reverend Blanton Parsons, chaplain and Freedom Rider, nights in the carrels of Harkness Library boning up on Samuel Gompers, Lafollette, and Stephen Douglass and preparing another appeal before the Student Union. 

The fact that Harry Lord came by it honestly did nothing to stop the classmate's amusement.  From every possible perspective - historical, social, philosophical, Biblical - Harry's incessant, hectoring reformism was a stutter-step dance to fill the time between now and then.  

When he passed away, a lengthy obituary appeared in both the Washington Post and New York Times - so lengthy in fact that his wife had to pay extra for extra space.  Few people read it, however, so familiar were they with Harrison's career and his prolixity concerning it.  Dead and buried too soon, his admirers said, but then again, everybody had a start date and an end date. 

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