Today’s Kaddish is for trout-fishing and in particular soft-hackle wet-fly flyfishing eminence Syl Nemes. My dad wrote his weekly outdoors column this week about Syl, whom he calls “Mr Soft-Hackle,” reporting that he just learned of his death earlier in the year. Dad’s a fly-fishing geek like I’m a Mac geek or a music geek, so for him to pay such tribute to an elder fishing statesman is a statement in itself. So, even though Dad didn’t request a Kaddish for Syl directly, he as much as did.
(Let that be a lesson to you, our friends. You mention deaths on Facebook or on your blogs, and you’re at risk of our recording Kaddishim for them.)
I didn’t know Syl, but I’m gathering from Pop’s column that he lived a long and pretty full, happy life. So this Kaddish is also a partial response to my friend Kaia, who wrote asking,
but what if I am not sad when people die?
i don’t mourn… I accept death as a natural part of life and assume that when people die, most are relieved of their suffering… and for those who did not suffer, i am glad they did not suffer… and for the processing of those left behind, that is a valuable learning time for us too…
am i alone in this?
No, Kaia, I don’t think so. A lot of the time, I’m with you on it.
Plenty of people have died whom I haven’t mourned, or whom I have barely mourned. It was just time already in many cases. In some cases, it had been time for too long already. In some cases it was a mean old cuss of a person that nobody in her right mind would miss. (Feel compassion for, sure, but miss? No way.) But mostly it’s been just what you said—it felt like a natural part of the cycle of life. Perhaps we feel a bit sorry for ourselves that we won’t have them around any more, but we aren’t sad about their deaths per se.
I don’t especially fear my own death. I’m not in a hurry to meet Death, and I’m a bad chess player, so I hope he doesn’t make me play, but I don’t dread it. It seems to me that the people who dread death are often the same people who seem to dread life; who fill their days with anxiety and guilt and self-doubt.
I suppose that our world-views play into this, too. This is more Mira’s turf than mine, but I’ll wade into the muddy waters a bit anyway.
Not believing in heaven and hell is just one more way in which I’m a lousy Christian—agnostic lapsed Lutheran secular humanist individualist Jew-wannabe that I am. But I suspect (and I’ve observed that) if you do fervently believe in heaven and hell, then after death comes a reckoning, and any reasonably self-aware Christian has got to realize that they’re plenty flawed and have made a lot of mistakes in life. By many flavors of Christian teaching, then, those people are potentially in trouble. If they don’t believe in Jesus Christ (“You’ve got to buh-LEEEAVE in JAY-zuss Christ as Your Lord and Personal Savior!”) for most of their lives and especially the end of their lives, they’re not righteous and shall not ascend into Heaven. If they’re Catholic, a further test pertains: are the sins bad enough to land them in Hell, or will they just do time in Purgatory?
So, if you’re a believing Christian, and you go in for this line of teaching, death is a fearsome thing. You might be on your way to eternal hellfire and damnation. Fear is rational.
I’d make a better Jew. When Jews die, they go to—
Well, nowhere. Not that we know of, anyway. They’re dead. They’re done. Poof, gone. Dust to dust, and all that.
Or they live on in the memories of those who follow. Perhaps eternally.
Well, we just don’t know. We don’t say. Headache above our pay-grade, you might say.
“We.” Hmm. Did I say that?
Anyway—the idea is that you will live on in the memories of those who follow, and in their lives, according to how you have lived. Your sins will be visited upon succeeding generations. Your righteousness will be remembered with reverence.
I’ll leave cataloguing the rest of the world’s religions and non-religions and their predictions about death to those who are more compulsive and better-informed than I. (Step in any time now, Mira!) Suffice it to say here that I think when I’m dead, I’m dead. My life is now, here. Maybe this is heaven and some people should be appreciating it instead of worrying about what comes next. Maybe this is hell and we might as well make the best of it. Some important Christian thinkers have suggested as much.
I just don’t know. I don’t think I need to know. I think this is the life I get, and I’d better live it as well as I can. If something happens when I die, I’ll worry about it then. In the meantime, I’m not going to worry about death.
What I worry about?
Living too damned long. Living into Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as a bunch of my ancestors have. Living so long I impoverish myself with eldercare. Living past my ability to enjoy life. No thanks. If my end is near, and if my pain is great, crank up the morphine, unplug the machines, withhold food and water, let me die. Harvest all the organs you can use first, but let me die.
Sorry about that—kind of a long tangent when I’m supposed to be writing about Syl Nemes, Mr. Soft-Hackle. But what I’m saying about Syl, and what I’m saying to Kaia, is that anyone who lives 88 years and dies reasonably soon after losing the ability to do stuff he loves has died well by my lights, and we needn’t gnash our teeth and wail and rend our garments. Let’s just give thanks, lift a glass, and celebrate a life well lived.
So, back to Syl. Life well lived. Fly fisherman. How to play his Kaddish? It just wasn’t feeling gloomy to me, so I decided to try to make it sound like fly-fishing. Kjersti started me off nicely with a little jingle of her collar. I couldn’t quite find my stride with the sound-of-fishing idea, but a few lines in, I realized I’d found my wiggle. I was picturing trout wiggling through the water, splashing up for flies, darting into hiding, slipping through the weeds, plummeting, cavorting, squirting. I tried to play fishy little watery swimming lines.
A Kaddish for the guy who chased the trout with soft-hackle flies.