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Giving Up the Ghost: The Gift of Mortality

15 May 2021

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” -- Mae West

I am 67 years old, the same age my father died, three years short of his Biblical “three score and ten.” It is also the year that Easter Sunday was the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, at the age of 39. As my father marched with King in Selma, and my son Byron was born on Martin Luther King Day five years ago, this was a day fraught with significance. Never mind that we are over a year into a world-wide pandemic, caused by a COVID-19 virus against which I have now been vaccinated, but in the early days of which I assumed that if push came to triaged shove, an old retired dude might be less likely to be rationed a ventilator that could better save the life of people with their lives laid out before them… someone like my young ex-wife, the mother of our son, who seeks a future of more fertile valleys than I could offer. Happily, this fraught Easter Sunday also coincided this year, with the birthday of an old friend, with whom I could have a virtual conversation, one of the bittersweet gifts of pandemic life, though she lives three hours away, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A “West Side Story” indeed! So, I danced to Molly Tuttle’s rendition of Olympia “…standing at the corner of 52nd and Broadway,” New York City.

“Death has no mercy in this land” is one of my favorite Blues songs, done by that Jefferson Airplane spinoff of Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, Hot Tuna.

So, choose whatever musical accompaniment you want to an Easter message, on the “first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring.” Not the pagan fertility rites of eggs and bunnies, but what Terry Eagleton, in his 2009 Reason, Faith, and Revolution, made clear might be one of the more significant designators of the human condition, a political prisoner who has been tortured to death, laid across the lap of his weeping mother in Michelangelo’s Pieta.

My young son, happily getting some Christian education at his Brethren in Christ pre-K, could regale us, quite proud of his knowledge, on the drive to his school’s church to which he insisted we go, in our “Sunday best,” of the Passion, from crown of thorns to the empty tomb. He even knew that it was the women who first saw the risen Christ: “Woman, why do you weep?” In quite amicable separation between my young wife and I, this was a family event, and we were also proud of his telling of one of the greatest stories ever told, regardless of its literal truth.

Our Easter-happy boy did not dwell on the dark side despite, next to the drum set on which he does a great rendition of springtime thunder and lightning, leaned against a post, is his grandfather’s framed copy of Hodgell’s woodcut of Christ in Gethsemane. This was the image my father kept on the back of his closed study door, when he agonized over his angry sermons about civil rights, or the weepy anti-war sermons borne of his experiences of Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge. Byron’s story did not include the nadir of Christ’s sacrifice, begging that this cup be taken from him and then, in his agonized despair on the cross , “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?).

“Woman, why do you weep?” But my son’s excitement was palpable, as he bounced off the walls, so happy to be with both parents, dressed to the max, at his church (unlike his dad’s Church of the Falling Rain, whatever that was), anticipating an egg hunt and an Easter basket when we got home. Then there’d be an East