Friday, March 20, 2009

Life and Death on this Vernal Equinox

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. . . . . His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

I awoke on this first day of Spring to the surprising sound of large, wet snowflakes hitting my bedroom windows, and the thought of Joyce’s haunting last paragraph of Dubliners filled my soul. The snow brought a strange confluence of hope, beauty, and death in this week replete with things Irish and the departed.

I went to two memorial services this week, one for Lou Dorfsman, whom I did know personally, and one for John Updike, whom I did not. In between, I celebrated the Feast of St. Patrick at a benefit concert for Smile Train, featuring the Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, and Natasha Richardson died.

Lou’s memorial service was held at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, which he graduated from and was a trustee for for decades. It was organized by his daughter, Elissa. The hall was filled with a lifetime of colleagues from his enormous career at CBS (which I talked about when he died last October). Tributes from George Lois, Ivan Chermayeff, and Peter Bradford would have warmed his heart following Bill Wurtzel’s jazz combo that greeted attendees. The service had some tension between a professional memorial, and a family one, as Lou’s three children spoke about “dad.” Not a man of faith but a proud Jew, he would have approved of the lawyer who read from the Kaddish.

The SmileTrain is an international charity that provides cleft lip/palate surgery to those in need, as well as providing training to doctors. Its Smile Pinki, which follows of the story of one young girl in India whose life is drastically changed following the gift of free surgery to correct a cleft palette, won the 2009 Oscar for documentary short. This St. Patrick’s day concert was a benefit for upper level donors (which is my brother) with Ronan’s classic tenor voice filling the Rose Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Colin Powell was a surprise speaker. Is he running for some office? His speech sounded like a campaign speech.

Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker with Live from NYPL organized the memorial for John Updike at the beautiful Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library. The Faure Requiem was playing as we entered the space. That was lovely. Of all the Requiems, it is the most lyrical. It is built directly on the ancient chant, which for many is simply the sound of the hopeful death of Christian resurrection.

The service opened with audio of John reading from “The Other Side of the Street,” followed by an interview that had been filmed at the library in 2006. Appropriately, in the clip John talks about being born and raised a Lutheran, then changing his denomination twice, first to Congregationalist, then to Episcopalian.

His friends and editors—David Remnick, Roger Angell, Adam Gopnick, Charles McGrath—read from his words and told their personal, entertaining anecdotes. I found the reading of his last poems, published posthumously, to be the most moving part of the evening. The poems from Endpoint are all masterful, beautiful, limning a universe of life with knowledge of its end in poetic exactitude.

For others, “you do not know the day nor the hour” is the harshest truth. Natasha Richardson had no thought that taking a skiing lesson would end her life. Her wake was held at the American Irish Historical Society, a beautiful Beaux Arts building on Fifth Avenue. In a sad twist of timing, her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, had just been there for a reception for the Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowan on Sunday, three days before her daughter’s death.

(Photos: Dorfsman, copyright Charles Orrico, 2008; Updike, Michael O’Neill/Corbis Online)


kathleenmaher said...

So much loss traced with such fondest and respect: Of all the various tributes and memories I've read, M.A, this presented something unique--a bit of you.

M.A.Peel said...

Hello Kathleen, my Irish blog sister.