“Travel is the root of sorrow.” – Yüan Hung-tao

In this world where everyone dies, where every song ends, where every achievement is undone, where every treasure is lost, all of us are left behind. All of us leave. But everywhere and always there is the hum of continuing. Though always incomplete, always there is the sound of love, forever and at the core unfinished. We talk, write, make gestures and marks to slow, to hold back, to share, to join, if only momentarily, the torrent of things lost.

II

I had talked on the phone with my friend Martin, who was in the hospital, at about 4 p.m. The heart surgery a day and a half earlier seemed to have gone well. Now he said something was going very wrong. He sounded ragged. He was also upset because he thought they were trying to put him into rehab and no arrangements had been made. His sister was looking for a place. He thought they were trying to kick him out on the weekend.

I told him to close his eyes and not move. Pretend to sleep. “If you’re sleeping, they can’t dump you,” I said. Then I heard a young woman telling him some stuff. “Are you here to help me?” Martin asked. “No,” she said. “Then what are you doing?” he asked. She told him, but I couldn’t hear. “OK,” he said. He sounded like he was struggling not to succumb to confusion. “Do you want me to come over?” I asked. “No, I’ll call you back,” he said.

At 1:30 in the morning, one of Martin’s stepsons called me. He struggled to find a way to say what had just happened, then could not escape it. “Martin just died. His heart stopped. They tried to resuscitate him, but they couldn’t.”

Debbie, my wife, is asleep. She’s got a big concert tomorrow; she was also very deeply fond of Martin. I wake her and tell her that Martin is dead. We cry and then just hold each other. It’s the suddenness, the ripped fabric. And the disbelief. It’s impossible to imagine a life where our dear friend, someone I see weekly and speak to many times more than that, is not part of it.

III

Martin and I met more than 45 years ago when we attended teachings by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Over the years, depending on proximity, sometimes we saw each other often, sometimes not. It is a basic truth in the Buddhist tradition that all existence is marked by three characteristics: impermanence, suffering, and the absence of any complete and self-existing self. Everyone who studies the Buddhist path knows this. But the continuous flow of these three together carries us, each and all, on indeterminate journeys. The three marks are inseparable and do not provide us with the kinds of certainties we wish for. They do not provide us with any means of control.

IV

Several days before Martin died, another friend, Peter Serkin, a pianist of unique inwardness and courage, sent me his recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother” (BWV 992). One well-known story relates that it was written in 1704, when Johann Sebastian’s older brother Johann Jacob Bach left home to join the Royal Swedish Military Band as an oboist and piccolo player. Johann Jacob was three years older than Johann Sebastian, and both had endured their parents’ deaths and the uncertainties that followed.

The piece consists of six parts, each bearing a descriptive head: (1) A plea by friends to dissuade him from traveling; (2) Imagined misfortunes that might befall the traveler in foreign lands; (3) His friends lament; (4) The traveler is not dissuaded; his friends come and say goodbye; (5) The post horn signals the coach’s approach; (6) A fugue in imitation of the post horn. I listened to it often in the next weeks and read more about it than I might have otherwise. (One Bach specialist argues that the date, title, and dedication as described in the story have been misinterpreted.) It was exactly the sort of thing I would have discussed with Martin.

Johann Sebastian would live quite quietly but ultimately achieve wide renown as an organist, Kapellmeister [chamber music director], and one of the very greatest composers in Western history. His older brother’s life was quite different: full of adventure, but later forgotten. After joining the marching band of the Swedish king Karl XII, Johann Jacob accompanied the strange young military genius on his astonishing conquests in northern Europe. He was also present when the army froze almost to death during the Swedish invasion of Russia and was ultimately crushed in the battle of Poltava in Ukraine. When he left home, could the younger brother have imagined the extraordinary events in which Johann Jacob would be swept up?

grief and impermanence
Original handwritten manuscript of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother”

V

As part of the process of being in a body, we are constantly visualizing ourselves in the middle of our world. Our ongoing visualization moves with the same initial dynamic and expanding structure as a mandala. There is a focal point, and around it, sustaining and sustained by this focus, are the front, back, sides, above, and below. We visualize how, driving to the mountains, we will first turn left, then right, then stay on that winding road for, oh, maybe 25 minutes or so. We visualize what we will do when the guests arrive for dinner. We visualize ourselves in our lives repeatedly and with innumerable variations.

Our embodiment exists far beyond the limits of skin. Our mentality inhabits—is located in—a form, albeit a shifting one. It is incomprehensible that this (our) form, with its colors, textures, smells, moisture, hairs, perceptual capacities, digestive system, apprehensions, expansions and contractions, parasites, appetites, can appear as a single thing. Why and how does an unceasing flow of memories and desires take one entity as its focus?

The solitary body is a figure in a tapestry and cannot be isolated from other figures, landscapes, colors, lines, threads, stories. And so when a single figure is removed, is excised, dies, there is an unraveling, a feeling at both edge and center that our embodiment is coming apart. The uniqueness of the vanished one is the dark horizon of our fragile and temporary lives.

VI

Martin had studied mathematics, logic, philosophy, music; supported himself as a software analyst (“the most brilliant man I ever worked with,” according to a colleague); had played in rock ’n’ roll bands; did time in a federal prison for selling psychedelics (but once convinced a New York lawyer that he’d been in jail for practicing dentistry without a license); was a jazz soloist (piano); went to countless classical concerts; read everything. In the last few years, he had worked to soften his abrasive and sometimes overpowering conversational style: “I really could be less hurtful.” 

The solitary body is a figure in a tapestry and cannot be isolated from other figures, landscapes, colors, lines, threads, stories.

He had also become increasingly absorbed in photography. Mainly he was interested in wide black-and-white landscapes and in portraits. He studied, went to exhibits, posted his pictures online, corresponded about them. His portraits of younger people had a kind of freshness and wonder about them; those of older people were not flattering yet somehow deeply sympathetic. (He took my picture many times, and the results, even when others liked them, made me uncomfortable. Now I wonder how I would have looked in subsequent portraits. I’m very aware that I’ll never know.) A friend said: “Martin’s pictures are so filled with isolation.” Martin was someone who had been repeatedly and deeply wounded, and this may have accounted for both his sharp defenses and his ability to sympathize with the wounds of others. Many people came to rely on him. He kept many secrets.

VII

I can’t get used to his absence; it is a hollow in the day that I cannot negotiate. Now, as I speak of him, something I had intended to tell him about becomes suddenly vivid.

My wife and I were recently at a New Year’s Eve performance at the Paris Opera Ballet. The performance was somehow exceptional, beyond what the somewhat routine cast would usually have presented. There was a special kind of urgency. We realized that it was the last performance of the male principal and marked the end of his long career with the company. All the cast members were giving their utmost to make this a worthy moment. At the end, the retiring principal stood on the stage as gold light and cascades of sparkling stars engulfed him. The audience clapped and clapped. He had never been a dancer at the very highest level of distinction, but everyone understood that a career marked by dedication, discipline, and generosity was ending. They applauded without stopping and held up the time of his departure for an hour.

VIII

After the Swedish king’s catastrophic defeat at Poltava in the summer of 1709, Johann Jacob Bach followed Karl XII into exile in Turkey at the court of the Ottoman ruler, Ahmed III. The sultan gave the king funds and a palace in the town of Bender, and built accommodations for the Swedes who were part of the king’s entourage. Johann Jacob spent five years in this luxurious exile. The king went often to Constantinople, where he provoked the sultan into declaring war on Russia. Johann Jacob, accompanying the king to the capital, improved his skills as a flutist under the tutelage of Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin, a French virtuoso particularly renowned for his fast playing, who was in Constantinople as part of the French ambassador’s entourage. But the sultan finally tired of Karl XII’s extravagant demands and forced the remnants of his army to return to Sweden. Johann Jacob took a place in the court orchestra.

The king himself remained in Constantinople for a time. In 1714, Karl XII made a famous 15-day ride across Europe, from Turkey to Sweden, to resume his place in the capital. The next years were full of court intrigues and smaller wars with Sweden’s neighbors. In 1718, he invaded Norway for the second time in as many years. He led an army of 40,000 men in besieging the fortress of Fredriksten, but as he was inspecting the siege trenches, he was shot in the head and died. He was 36 years old. It is not known whether Johann Jacob accompanied the king on his final battle.

I can’t get used to his absence; it is a hollow in the day that I cannot negotiate.

The rest of Johann Jacob’s life was uneventful. He was retained in the Swedish court orchestra by Karl XII’s sister, the shy but very musical Queen Ulrika Eleanora, and then by her husband, Frederick I. His life ended in comparative peace in 1722.

Johann Sebastian would have been 37 at the time of Johann Jacob’s death. He would enjoy 28 more years of a prodigiously productive life. His contrapuntal art would encompass unimagined depths and complexities. When he wrote the Capriccio on his brother’s departure, things would have seemed simpler. They could not know what kind of lives they would have, or that they would never again see each other.

How much did Johann Sebastian Bach hear of his elder brother’s extraordinary adventures? Musicians at the time circulated from court to court, church to church, and loved a good story as much as anyone. It is also not impossible that Johann Sebastian met Buffardin in 1724, when the celebrated flutist is thought to have come to Leipzig to play a concerto Johann Sebastian had written for him. If so, he may well have heard about his brother’s life and perhaps even about his death in 1722. What could he have thought, learning of the picaresque existence of the brother about whose departure he had fantasized with such Breughel-like vitality 20 years earlier?

IX

The internet was full of expressions of grief at Martin’s unexpected death. There were many loving recollections and many wishes that his journey proceed well. A mutual friend asked me to officiate at the funeral, but a previous obligation made it impossible to get there until after the ceremony started. “Could you send something for someone else to read?” our friend asked. I wrote the following.

I do not know what it means when people say, this person is making their transition.

Winter has never met summer.

Fall will not see spring.

I do not know what people mean when they say we will help that person continue on her or his journey.

I do know, that in our time with Martin, we have had a heart friend, a heart father, a heart lover, a heart brother. We have known an inspired person, an inspiring person, an artist, a person of brilliance, an ace comedian, a kind and good man.

I do know that now we and Martin have reached the parting of the ways. Our time together is over.

Where our dear friend has gone, or if now he is even slightly the same being we have known and loved, no one knows.

But what we all know is that the love we have experienced and given is true love. And we know, because it cannot be otherwise, that true love never dies. 

We are so grateful for Martin. Wherever or whatever he may now be or not be, We cannot stop loving him.

X

Dangerous vacancies now appear in my mind-stream. I cut in front of ongoing traffic, unaware. Thoughts launched do not arrive. I drift into pools of stillness. Cups fly out of my hand. A sleeve rips on a doorknob. I cut both thumbs on points of a broken crystal. For a moment, the stream seems to move backward. A gap opens, a whisper, incredulity. A feeling of here and not here. An echo of music. Now the brash, uncertain world of living requires ongoing attention. 

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