Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Arnold Westwood

Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.
-- RW Emerson Series I. Self-Reliance

Arnold died on Sunday night. He was wrapped in the healing quilt Annie Kner made for the church, a gorgeous tapestry of reds, blues, greens, in a black window-pane design.

He asked to be taken off his ventilator/life support so he could talk to his four children who were around his bedside. He asked for a flashlight and was holding it, lit, when he died.

He was 88. I know he lived such a good, rich, full life, and still I am greedy for more. I can only imagine how his family feels. I am so grateful we knew him. I am so grateful we let each other know how much we loved each other while he was still alive.

Arnold invited himself to our wedding. We'd only known him a few months and we were not yet the good friends we became. It was so like Arnold to invite himself. He came up to us the Sunday before we got married and said, "I'm coming to your wedding. The rule is, if the wedding's in our church, you can't turn away a member. Did you know that?" Then he chuckled slowly and shuffled off in his Arnold way.

Whenever Tom or I preached on a lay Sunday, he would embrace us afterward and tell us we should be Unitarian Universalist ministers, which is what he was up until he retired, some twenty odd years ago. I believe he encouraged every lay minister in this way, and it was so affirming; kind of the highest compliment you could get from an ex-minister after you put yourself out there like that.

He came to our post-election party last November and moved everyone to tears with a story about how he had voted for the first time for FDR. He had been a very early Barack Obama supporter, with a big O poster in his front window at his house way off in the hill towns. In January '08 we went to his house for a church potluck and he told me, with that same chuckle, "I love the man. I give him money whenever I can."

Yesterday, when I got the news via a voice mail message, I felt all my own energy drain out of my body. It was midday, and I was home alone with Jay. I had a huge list of things to do, and I abandoned it to sit on the couch and just hold Jay, stare out the window, cry, sit, remember, feel sad, laugh when Jay laughed. Arnold had been the youngest in his family, and he told me on several occasions that he was well-loved as a baby, and that his mother's unconditional love carried him through his whole life. So that's something I can do: love my own son as hugely as Arnold was loved.

I wish we were Jewish. I think sitting shiva is one of the greatest ideas of all time. All I want to do is get together with other people who loved Arnold and cry with them and sit still and be quiet. And when someone has a story to share about Arnold, she shares it.

After a few hours, I connected with Tom and we cried together on the phone. Then I called my dad who knew Arnold just from occasional visits to the church. Toward the end of the conversation, someone beeped in, and I told my father I needed to take it, thinking it might be news of a memorial service. Instead, it was someone calling about the president's health care initiative wanting a contribution. Ordinarily I would have declined since I don't really know anything about the initiative other than that the Republicans are making up a bunch of scary death stories. Honestly, I have been one of those Obama supporters who, though well-meaning and intending to serve my country, has kind of put her head in the sand post-election. I'm not proud of this, but it's the truth. So without letting the guy get through his schpiel, I said, "How much do you want?"
"Well, a hundred would be great."
"I can do fifty."
"Oh, thank you!" he exclaimed. He asked for some information, including my profession.
"Musician," I said.
"Huh," he said. "You're the third musician to contribute today. And believe me, that's saying a lot. People are not exactly forthcoming these days."
"Yeah, I can imagine," I said. "We musicians are self-employed types, and we really get that there needs to be change." Then I said, "Can you put this contribution in the name of Arnold Westwood? And make it a hundred after all." Because he loved the man.

I posted about Arnold here a few months ago after he preached. He was delighted to have his words on the internet at that time, so I am taking the liberty to post more of that sermon. Here it is:

...Now, generally, when one receives a great gift, you want to give something back in return. Perhaps you are expecting me to share some wisdom. I find it hard to fit into the mold of the wise old man. After all, there is nothing so special these days about being 88 – the number of keys there are on a piano – still at 88 most of the people my age are already dead. The rest of us are struggling to keep up with the pace of you who are so much younger than we.

Moreover, I don’t feel so very wise. Actually, a lot of the time now I feel like a kid – sometimes like a teen-ager. Nonetheless, please let me share a few thoughts.

I was talking with a group of friends the other day about aging, telling them that I had lost my fear of death. My dad certainly had prepared me. One day when I was quite little, when bandaging my finger, with the usual twinkle in his eye, he declared, “You know, you’re going to die after this.” We laughed. He made it easy.

Since then I have had, of course, many encounters with death – at a roadside after an accident – at a hospital beside – quite a few precious times in the last days at a parishioner’s bedside preparing for the funeral, picking out music, readings and hymns and what needs to be said – finally, of course, being with Carolyn as she slipped out of consciousness in the midst of a conversation – never to return.

It is mostly we, the living who endure so much of the pain and the loss.

Aging is an altogether different matter. Since the beginning of April I’ve been trying three days a week to work in the fitness room at the Dalton Recreation Center. In addition, I’m getting weekly coaching from a Pilates teacher. Neglect exercise at your peril! Believe me, even after a few weeks of not moving enough, at 88 you start to waste away. And drop off for a year or more and you really have your work cut out for you!

What else can I share with you?

You’d better understand your own temperament.

I need people. I’m not a very good alone. Solitude doesn’t work for me. When I was active in the ministry my life was full of people. Afterwards, in those 17 years that Carolyn and I had the Bed & Breakfast business – those years between my retiring in ’84 and just before her death -- we had all the people we wanted around us.

When you’re elderly and widowed, or younger and divorced, the world does not come to you. If you want company it’s up to you to find your own friends. Emerson tells you how to go about it in his incredible essay – his thesis – “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” – The essay tells us very well how to go about it.

The hard part is loving...

I pose as no expert on how to be a good lover, though I sense I am a loving person and am sometimes perceived as such.

Emerson’s rule, I believe, also applies. The only way to become loving is by being loved.

I was certainly loved as a child. My mother’s only child, I was born when she was 43 years old. And she loved me totally, unconditionally, almost, if possible, too much. My dad loved me, too. My older brother and two sisters loved me. [Brief explanation: Dad’s first wife tragically drowned. My mom was her first cousin and available as dad’s second wife.] So, little Arnold grew up in a home surrounded by the attention and affection of 5 loving older ones, cuddled yet, unfortunately, over-protected.

First Grade was a different matter. Entering the world of neighborhood kids, wearing glasses, not knowing how to throw a ball or hit one with a bat – always the last one picked when choosing up sides – a good student yet devoid of the social skills ordinary kids gained through peer experience – so elementary school bordered on devastation.

Then, for 6th and 7th grades, dad & mom went on the road and had to place me in a boarding school. There I experienced the whole bit of an abusive housemother and sexual molestation.

Redemption slowly began in California where I rejoined my parents. High School was OK; college was great; graduate school was terrific; meeting Carolyn was bliss.

Now, don’t get the idea that all my adulthood was easy. Whose is? I have no need to recite its ups and downs. You’ve had or are having your own. During the last year of my therapy was not so much about losing Carolyn as about my childhood and my father. Simply put, I now feel myself still bathed by my mother’s love.

But, believe me, I have still more to do.

The really, really hard part for me is to truly begin to love myself. I’m discovering for me it all has to begin there. It’s sort of like being retooled. The amount of being loved by family and friends doesn’t do as much as what you have to keep on loving yourself – and it runs all the way from accepting all the complications and embarrassments that come with an overactive bladder to my no longer needing to call attention to my petty virtues and several accomplishments. I know I’ve done a lot. I just don’t need to tell other all the time. My chorus to myself is: “Westwood, leave it alone, you’re OK.”

So, at 88, I still wrestling with my ego needs and expect I will be until I die. And as death approaches I hope they will pretty much disappear. That will be heaven.

In conclusion, I suspect unconditional love must be akin to what so many others experience as the love of God. Love to draw upon when it’s the only love there is.

So now, I use my days and what energy I have doing what I am able. May I give back something of what has been so abundantly given to me – by this incredible church, by my loving family, by the five congregations I’ve been chosen to serve, and above all, by my multitude friends.

And when I’m stupid enough to get discouraged or feel neglected and sorry for myself, I always have the starry nights we are blessed with here up in these quiet hills and I look up at the heavens and all their shining brilliance and know a joy that passeth all understanding.

Friends, All these eruptions are supposed to strike a familiar chord with you. If they do, God bless you. In any case, God bless us all.


kris said...

What a gift he was and continues to be. Thanks for sharing him. Sending lots of love your way. See you soon!! xo

Katryna said...

Thank you so much for sharing that sermon. I doubt I'll ever forget his description of voting for FDR and his joy about Obama. What a gift to have him in your life. I'm going to go hug my children now.

Erin said...

What a joy to find Arnold here. I am so grateful to you for posting that sermon-- I will so so miss hearing him preach. I will so so miss so many things.

I also wanted Shiva this week-- on Monday morning I actually drove to the parish house with the hope that a friend would be there. It was empty, but the Creamery was full. It was close enough.

It will be good to all be together on the 29th. xo to you, N.

Nerissa Nields said...

Elle said today, "Are you said because of Arnold died?" Then she said, "But he can still be our best friend and we can see him." Then she scrunched her eyes closed tight, presumably so she could see Arnold.