Can our lives be works of art?

By Sam Stern: I am not much of a philosopher but days like this one demand some big picture reflection. It occurs to me that I’ve entered a sector in the Circle of Life that is going to involve acknowledging mortality and saying a lot of goodbyes.

Because being upright and in a position to face the emotional challenges of the end-of-life sector is better than the alternative, I need to find, and share, a coping mechanism to serve me and minimize the pain of loss.

Recently I attended the funeral of Joan Mondale, our former Second Lady. I did not know her well, other than from her public persona. But one meeting in particular amounted to more than exchanging pleasantries at mutually attended political functions and I wanted to demonstrate the depth of my appreciation by paying my respects through my attendance at the funeral.

The meeting of significance occurred in 1978. Mrs. Mondale hosted a tea at the Vice President’s Residence at the Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. I was given the opportunity to claim the invitation extended to our U.S. Senate office where I was Legislative Counsel.

I don’t recall the “why,” other than to speculate that it would allow me to escort my recently widowed grandmother, who was visiting from Palm Springs. Escort Nana I did. Mrs. Mondale was a gracious hostess, giving her guests a tour of the Residence and discussing the art she had on display.

It was a highlight of Nana’s well-lived life. Nana had been to Monaco during Princess Grace’s wedding. She’d brought back a llama skin from Machu Pichu in the 50’s. She visited the pyramids in Giza before the Six Day War.

She bought me my first transistor radio in Hong Kong in 1960. But she had never been accompanied by her attorney grandson to meet the wife of the Vice President of the United States. The pure joy experienced by my grandmother as a result of the kindness of Joan Mondale has stayed with me for the past 36 years. At Mrs. Mondale’s funeral, I had a chance to say “thank-you.”

I was not alone. There were hundreds of attendees, all there to express their own thank-you. As I listened to the remembrances by Joan of Art’s family and invited dignitaries, I thought about the idea that those who have left us live on in the memories of the goodness they shared during life.

All the more reason to engage in some self-examination. Whatever your concept of an afterlife, nothing will matter more to your survivors than the depth of your compassion for others and the efforts made to enhance the lives of those whose path you’ve crossed.

It was clear from the love and admiration showered on Joan Mondale as she was laid to rest that the memories she created, her passion for expanding awareness of the arts among all walks of life, and her ability to bond with disparate communities to promote peace and friendship will assure her a place in our hearts for a very long time.

To paraphrase President Jimmy Carter’s eulogy, she lived her life as a work of art.

While a mitzvah, saying “goodbye” at a funeral does not represent the most challenging aspect of the end-of-life Circle sector. The other thought provoking event of the weekend provided a greater challenge.

A week ago, a lifelong friend, closer than family, collapsed and was taken to a nursing home. I’ve known him for 59 of my nearly 62 years. He financed my college education by hiring me to drive his trucks during the summer for Teamsters’ wages of $7.00 an hour. $10.50 an hour after 8 in a day (Yesterday he reminded me I wasn’t worth it.)

We celebrate all Jewish Holidays together. He loves my chopped liver. He insisted I learn to play golf and included me in his foursome every week until I could nearly break 100. His wife is my surrogate mother. I have vivid memories of him coming on the scene and chasing away an overly friendly adult male who approached me as I wandered from a family picnic when I was five. He’s 92 (93 on Wednesday) and his Circle is nearly complete.

I hope, pray and expect that he will survive his latest health setback. He’s in good hands as he’s guided through rehabilitation designed to return a modicum of strength to a troubled heart. Nonetheless, as we sat together and talked and laughed on Saturday, we both knew, without the need to say so, that most of our time together was already etched in memory.

I chastised him for not giving up his car. He gave me credit for being right but protested his loss of freedom if dependent on others or Metro Mobility. He described being bathed while naked by two female attendants, which I then described as an example of things at 92 that are better than driving.

As I was leaving, his grandson’s family, including his two great-grandsons, arrived for a visit. The youngest, a month old, is his namesake. My friend had been beaming a half hour earlier when telling me that fact. The oldest great-grandson, nearly three, reveled in pushing great-grandpa in his wheelchair.

Until he reads this a few years from now, the toddler will never understand how proud great-grandpa was of the photograph I had taken of him with his son, grandson and great-grandson that serves as the wallpaper on his iPad.

Driving to the celebration of Joan Mondale’s life from the nursing home, I hit upon my coping mechanism. While devastated at the prospect of what’s to come, I am determined to treat each remaining encounter as a blessing, to create new memories and to let the object of my concern know how much he is loved and respected.

I intend to contribute as much as possible to his peace of mind and appreciation for life and to his recognition of all the goodness he has created in the work of art that is his life.

Do you know a life that is a work of art?

Sam Stern is an attorney, writer (Prairie Ponderings can be found here), and photographer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He lives on a horse farm.