A W A L K W I T H L O V E A N D D E A T H:
in memory of Leonard Dworkin
William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright c 1998 by William A. Henkin
[This essay, solicited by the editors, appeared in Prometheus, No. 31, May, 1999, a special issue dedicated to the life and work of a special New York SM activist who was also a former editor of that magazine.]
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there must always be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster: the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
“Musée des Beaux Arts”
-- W. H. Auden
In one fourteen-month period that I think of as a year, two of my clients died. One was a man just 50 whose material plenty, robust health, and abstemious vegetarian athletic lifestyle in a very wealthy corner of Northern California’s wealthy Marin County made his sudden descent in less than a week from a simple unexplained sniffle almost shocking. The second was an 82-year-old woman whose death was made no less sorrowful by the fact that she had had a full and vigorous intellectual and artistic life on three continents; but while a series of debilitating injuries and illnesses at her age had made her dying at least not unexpected, it somehow seemed more relevant for the living who stayed behind that she was a refugee from the Nazis and a student of Zen who had looked death in the face before.
In that same year three of the five living relatives I felt closest to also died: my mother’s father, of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve; my mother, of metastatic uterine cancer of the liver, six months later; and her mother exactly the night before, of grief, despair, or hopelessness: she just stopped breathing. It seems almost inconsequential to add that the dog belonging to my live-in partner died during this time too, and that John Lennon was assassinated, but death got my attention in those months, so I saw the least and most distant figures in its passage, as I saw the greatest and the closest.
Death had touched my life before, of course, though I had never been at war or lived among the sorts of dangers that age children and the elderly alike. I had lost other relatives, lost some neighbors and acquaintances, and two of my very closest friends had died at different times in different countries, but I was innocent: death had never seemed so insistent to me before, never seemed so true; never before had I spent so much of a single year in mourning. And since the year was 1981 the experience opened me to the deaths that were about to become so commonplace among young men in San Francisco that for most of the 1990s the local gay newspapers would apologetically restrict the lengths of obituaries and run many of them late for want of space.
Gay, het, bi, or other, positive, negative, or unsure, to be a San Francisco leatherman or leatherwoman in the 1980s and 1990s, even in the smallest degree, was to pay a certain homage to death. At parties, events, meetings, conferences, slave auctions, street fairs, and flea markets – nothing happened in the leather community that did not include a food donation and/or a fundraiser for one AIDS group or another. For many of those years we seemed to be forever inquiring after the T-cell counts of friends, the weight gains or losses of acquaintances, the special needs of play partners. And even before it became too obvious to ignore that women get AIDS too, members of our local leather dyke community displayed a greater understanding of traditional family values than most people have to date in wide vanilla America, rallying spectacularly to the sides of their gay brothers who had fallen against this supreme guerrilla.
Women of all orientations have been dying of AIDS for years all over the world with small attention here, of course, but while AIDS in North America is only now becoming a visible heterosexual concern, in queer sex communities of all kinds it’s been sufficiently familiar already that, like people who have had wars fought on their own front lawns, we may have developed a deeper view of death’s terms than people do who still think they can hold it off till someone else’s lifetime. Even though we may get weary, we have been shown that it is not only AIDS that is still with us but life itself; so when death reminds us in some unexpected way that it, too, is always with us, at least we do not have to be shocked: we can say that we have seen its face before.
When I was in my twenties I bought a deck of tarot cards at a garage sale for a dollar. The single deck turned out to have two identical death cards: a skeleton in black armor, mounted on a white charger and carrying a pennant with the mystic rose that symbolizes life. A king lies dead beneath the horse, his crown tumbled from his head; kneeling before the knight a child and a young woman wait almost expectantly, while a cleric with clasped hands, standing, comes barely to the horse’s chest. A sun – rising? setting? – shines in the distant horizon between two pillars. The card is, famously, a sign of transformation, signifying not only the end of things but also their beginning: and not only ends and beginnings – destination and termination, rebirth, re-creation, and renewal – but also a change of consciousness. I’ve kept the card above my desk at home for close to thirty years; it is above me now, as I write.
Having been acquainted with death obliges us in unexpected ways to make ourselves more human than we were: not more two-legged, or more opposable-thumbed, but more deliberately conscious of who and what we are. Awareness of death is part of what makes us aware that we are alive, and so makes possible a consciousness of how we are permanent and how transitory.
I did not know Len Dworkin well – we met at a couple of leather conferences and he suggested reprinting some of my Growing Pains columns in Prometheus, so we corresponded some – and I know that, important as he was to the people who loved him and to the causes to which he gave himself, in the cosmic stories of our species and our planet he will disappear into the green water, like the rest of us. But it was my clear impression from the exchanges we did have that Len understood the relative nature of what we as humans value, and that in the spirit of that understanding he would want us all to go on as if he had been important and as if we were, both with the work that was important to him and with the work that is important to us. And so with this memorial we do go on, recognizing as Auden did in his view of Brueghel’s Icarus, that what makes the boy’s fall tragic is not that Icarus flew so high the sun’s heat melted the wax that held his feathered wings together, but that the ploughman and the ship go on.
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.