When I was a teenager I read John Gunther's account of the loss of his son in the book, Death be Not Proud. This was my first real glimpse of my own mortality. While I had lost uncles and grandfrathers, I considered their deaths to be timely, since to me these were old men. By the time I was thirteen, grief was no stranger to our house. I had watched my father sob over the death of his brother, A.B., in our small two bedroom house on Kenwood Avenue in remote Lepanto, Arkansas. Our family had also mourned my two grandfathers, Seymour Florsheim and Meyer, Uncle Mike, S Bindursky. But I still did not begin to know death, or perhaps I should say, dying, until I lived through it with John Gunther. For John Gunther Jr.'s death was not timely like the ones I had known. He died as a teenager in 1947--the very year I was born.
Later, when I studied poetry in high school and as an English major in college, I would come to know John Donne, the poet from whom Gunther took his title. And I would learn the poet's lesson, that death will come to all. Donne warned, And soonest our best men with thee do go.. . But death in books and poetry was abstract. While the poets I studied were to become my primers on the subject of death, personal experience would be my best source in the coming years.
When my own father, Herman Bindursky, died in October, 1970, followed by the deaths of my father-in-law, Ralph Coleman, in February, 1971, and my aunt , Esther Bindursky, in April of that same year, I began to know death in a more personal way. Death crept up when one least expected it. My sixty-two year-old father went fishing one day; on the way home he pulled his car over to the side of the road and died. This signaled the beginning of a six month period in which death permeated my life and changed the entire course of it. Death, as I was learning it then, stalked lonely roads or came swiftly--a thief in the night. Three months after my own father died, my father-in-law, a fifty-two year old physican died without warning in his own bed. By April, I had come to know firsthand, not only death the swift thief, but the kind of death which wrings out life as if it were a dirty dishrag. This dimension of death presented itself to my unmarried aunt, Esther, or Ettie as I called her; day after day I watched her slowly lose the powerful grip she held on life . All this within six months had a profound effect on Alan and me, two twenty-three year old newlyweds. During the following summer we moved from our honeymoon apartment in Memphis to Charleston and began anew.
The death of Ettie numbed me at the time, coming on the heals of the two other shocking ones. But later, it was to provide me with the material about which I hoped to write. A decade later, I began to explore how one would go about chronicling, not a death, as Gunther had done, but a life-- that of my aunt Esther Bindursky, a woman who had lived an interesting life in interesting times. I set about to write her story, but my own life was the obstacle that kept getting in the way. I dabbled at writing about her, as I dabbled at writing poetry, short stories, and essays. Meanwhile, I was running a household, raising a child, earning a doctorate, and advancing in a career. The story of Ettie was something I would get back to later.
Now that later has come, albeit prematurely, and my time is limited, I find myself looking inward, wanting to explain my own existence rather than someone elses. The question of whether I really intended to write about Ettie or myself is not a new one. It was part the critique of a preliminary manuscript in a 1988 writer's workshop led by National Book Award winner, Theodore Rosengarten. I had developed a chapter outline, preface, and one chapter of what was to be a biography of Ettie. I will include the work later, as it provides some insight into me, a Jewish girl growing up in a small southern town in the 1960's, and gives some background about a member of my family and the place from which I came.
Now, I have no time to sit on the fence and wonder where my dabbling at writing will lead. Now, I am facing my own mortality in a tangible way, not merely glimpsing it through the eyes of a father chronicling the death of his son or through the stanzas of a poetry.
For you see, I am dying. I know I will not die tomorrow; but I do face an illness that will, no doubt, prevent me from living a long life. Yet, my first glimpse of my own mortality is where I look now, back to Gunther, possibly as a way to looking forward to what lies ahead. Now, I look to Gunther, young Gunther, and others I have discovered, including Viktor E. Frankel, in Man's Search for Meaning, as a models for how I am to live out an abbreviated life. I am caught betwixt and between. I have no interest in chronicling the events which will eventually lead to my death, even though the first chapter explains my illness and the events which led up to it. This chapter places me where I am as I begin my gathering. It also explains why some of my songs remain partially finished, or even unsung. But most of this book is not about illness. This is not where I choose to invest my final energy. Rather, what follows is a gathering of parts of a life--one that will end too early, yet one that has brimmed over with experience and richness. Gunther's chronicle of his son's death was a linear account. My own chronicle here is quite different.
What follows is a gathering of the fragments of my writings and my life, some of them finished and done with, some of them to remain in progress, never to be completed or left to some other pen. I wilI embellish some and leave others as I found them. I will gather up these fragments--these stars, and songs and faces-- as Sandburg would say, and then, when it is time, I will in the words of Sandburg, loosen my hands, let go, and say goodbye.
- Gather the stars if you wish it so
- Gather the songs and keep them.
- Gather the faces of women.
- Gather for keeping years and years.
- And then . . .
- Loosen your hands, let go and say good-bye.
- Let the stars and songs go.
- Let the faces and years go.
- Loosen your hands and say good-bye.
- Carl Sandburg