On the Death of a Friend


As the ambulance men were whirling about him, setting him on the stretcher, he looked his wife in the eye and said, “I am sorry”. That is the measure of him as a man and a human being. In extremis, he looked into his heart, knew that his passing would cause suffering, and acknowledged he had not always done well. Compassion and contrition.

Now that he is dead, he feels nearer and dearer, to me and to many. His presence fills this room more completely than it did when we all last had dinner at this table. The air is thick with his essence. His weaknesses and fine points are there, discernible, but what is elevated above all else is his spirit, the essence of him.

A long time ago, when we were young in the colourless and uniform Helsinki of the late 80s, he was stunningly beautiful in a vaguely French way. Dark hair swept back from a tall forehead, an eternal cigarette dangling from a sensuous mouth. No matter how bloody cold and grey it got, he went about with his long coat open, the hems flapping behind him, a scarf thrown casually over his shoulder. The very picture of insouciance, deep erudition worn lightly. The physical looks didn’t last – when do they ever – but the chivalrous values of a genteel upbringing, a deep love of literature, a oneness with music: those stayed. As life ground away the carefree, restless movie star energy, something else came in its place. A deep-seated, sad kindness. A tired, sweet acceptance of all of life’s creatures, of man’s foibles. His heart was the size of the Baltic Sea, so great that in the end his love and sorrow burst it at its seams.

As he was remembered by one friend after another at the funeral, the memories and descriptions were all very familiar, in harmony with each other. It is rare that a man lives in such a clear, transparent way, without a multitude of roles to please others. All lives have a ripple effect: his presence and care touched hundreds of people, the young, the mentally disabled, the disenfranchised, his friends, anyone sore of heart. Quite a legacy for such a retiring personality.

Why is living so hard? Why is it so hard that only when someone dies do we see the scintillating, absolute beauty of their spirit, stripped of all our expectations and the concepts that we burden others with? And that for a brief moment we see the essence of everything, everything! – before we subside back into the mire? We can all be ripped out of here as unexpectedly as he was. We must make atonement with life and with ourselves, and with others. It is time to weep for joy at our chance to live. To LIVE.

When we are young, we are unbendingly resolute in our values and opinions. We know what is wrong, what is right, we see the weaknesses of our parents and simply cannot understand why they bumble about the way they do, destroying the environment and chasing after gold and status. Then we learn the value of relativism, of “on the other hand”. Our perception is enriched, but in the process we lose what is most valuable: our clarity of vision. Then, with age, we begin to strip away our follies again, and regret all the havoc we have wreaked. We take the long road back to a cleaner life again, with a new acceptance of self and others. The Jesuit priest De Mello said it well: We must leave the paradise of childhood, develop a self with the aid of concepts and the “realities” of the adult world. But then we must put away all that we have learnt and return to the innocence and immediacy of experience that children have. Children are filled with a formless wonder at life. The mystic adult returns to wonder, to paradise, but with understanding. To some people this comes with less effort than to others.   

In my mind’s eye I keep seeing a vision of my friend from last summer. He is sitting with his back to us by the river, a heavy gentle figure, listening to music, roaming in his inner world. Sometimes he shakes with laughter, at a particularly good solo. I hope, dear friend, that the place you are now is one where everything is so well, so implicitly secure and loving, that all existence provides you with that well-being those solos and the warmth of the sun once gave you.


When I die, when my coffin
is being taken out,
you must never think
I am missing this world.
Don't shed any tears,
don't lament or feel sorry
I'm not falling
into a monster's abyss.
When you see
my corpse is being carried,
don't cry for my leaving
I'm not leaving,
I'm arriving at eternal love.
When you leave me
in the grave, don't say goodbye.
Remember a grave is
only a curtain
for the paradise behind.
You'll only see me
descending into a grave.
Now watch me rise
how can there be an end
when the sun sets or
the moon goes down.
It looks like the end
it seems like a sunset,
but in reality it is a dawn
when the grave locks you up
that is when your soul is freed.
Have you ever seen
a seed fallen to earth
not rise with a new life?
Why should you doubt the rise
of a seed named human?
Have you ever seen
a bucket lowered into a well
coming back empty?
Why lament for a soul
when it can come back
like Joseph from the well.
When for the last time
you close your mouth,
your words and soul
will belong to the world of
no place no time.
Mawlani Rumi
Translated by Nader Khalil