Last Thursday we had our memorial service for my friend Alan Paskow, the philosophy colleague whom I have written about several times. In my own remarks I invoked Plato’s Crito. I said that, for the three-plus years that Alan lived with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, he was like Socrates after having drunk the hemlock. He knew that he was dying but he used his illness as an opportunity to explore with others what it meant. Like Socrates, he was a student and a teacher to the end.
I talked about how Alan had the same commitment to the truth that Socrates did and that he turned to the arts—especially to painting, literature, and music—as primary resources. I mentioned his special love for The Catcher in the Rye, which I attributed to his own impatience with phoniness. (Another speaker noted how, with Alan, there was no small talk.) I mentioned the intense conversations that he had had, with me and with others, about the role that literature plays in our lives.
I also said that, while I had always been puzzled by Socrates’ last words, I was now starting to understand them better. “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius,” Plato reports his teacher as saying right before he died. “Will you remember to pay the debt?”
Asclepius is the god of healing, and I wondered whether Socrates, knowing that his followers and friends would be distraught, was providing them with a way of dealing with their grief. He was giving them something to do connected with healing.
I said that all of us who loved Alan, especially his wife and his daughter, faced a hard road, but at least in the time of his illness he had given us, like Socrates in the Crito, much to meditate on. We had something to carry with us when he was no longer by our side.
Little did I know that his teaching had not yet ended. At the end of the service, before the concluding remarks and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” we heard a recording of Alan reflecting on the Dylan Thomas poem “Fern Hill” (found here). I can’t do justice to all he said—I plan to transcribe his words and share them with you—but he touched on many of the themes that he and I had talked about. As his voice came through, occasionally rambling but for the most part strong and clear, we heard him describe his love of nature and love of beauty. Without such love, he said, life would be meaningless.
Alan acknowledged that he didn’t have Thomas’s happy childhood—he himself didn’t grow up “green and carefree”—but the intense immersion in the world that Dylan describes was his experience as well. The mesmerizing concluding lines particularly struck him as true. “Time held me green and dying,” Alan read, “though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
It so happens that I had been thinking of those lines as I composed my own remarks. I had even worn a green shirt and tie deliberately to honor Alan. Although Thomas is famous for one of the most well known poems about dying—“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”—this was a far more appropriate poem for Alan. Even at 72 he was still enthralled by life—still green—and the juxtaposition of “green and dying” captured his double sense of himself.
There was no doubt as well that he felt himself in chains. His spirit, after all, was shackled to a dying animal. But that didn’t prevent him from singing and from finding an oceanic depth to that singing. In his “last lecture” to us,” he wanted us to hear his love for life and to love life as he did.
In our conversations I had frequently talked about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Alan never got around to reading the work but he was always fascinated by the way that the Lord of Death and the Lady of Life (as I describe them) are consorts, working hand in hand to prod Gawain into living fully. I heard some of those ideas here.
Returning to The Crito, why sacrifice a cock to Asclepius? The symbolism is clear in a Henry Vaughan poem that I have posted on where the poet talks about the cock filled with joy when, from the vantage point of life, it witnesses transcendence.
I compose this post on Easter day when we celebrate the rising of another sun/son. Jackie, Alan’s wife, joined us for Easter dinner, and as I watched her interact with the young daughters of a colleague, I got a sense of how life might start flowing within her once again, she who has been watching over a dying man for years. She will have some bad days and be very, very lonely at times, but Alan has left us instructions to embrace life. Healing will occur in the midst of grieving if she, and if all of us who loved Alan, dedicate ourselves to finding a cock to honor Asclepius.