Sunday, December 14, 2008

Elegy for Jerry Sternin, 1938-2008

‘If there is no one beside you when your soul embarks,
I will follow you into the dark.’

‘Death Cab for Cuties’

I've been in this space w/ Jerry the past few days. I hear his voice and see him lying alone in Boston. I don't want to believe that the end has come. It's beyond my comprehension right now. I want to have been there with him, Monique and Sam. It feels strange to be so distant when Jerry has already begun his journey between worlds. I can't believe that the end has come so suddenly.

Yet, I must be thankful as my time with him this year, while visiting Josh & Ez, gave us more time than we'd had for years… more time with Jerry’s affectionate, irrepressible humor, his irreverence, his wisdom, kindness and worldly self-assurance.

At least, before going to the beyond, I'm so glad that Jerry saw Josh & Ezra as young men, since he had known them as such small boys. In fact, he may have cooked his last magnificent meal for our family in mid-August, the night before Shakun and Leah returned to Nepal; as that night that it was apparent that something was seriously wrong w/ his health and lungs.

A week later, I took Ezi & his Nepali friend, Suraj, out to White Pond on Suraj’s first day in America to see the beauty of the place and go swimming. I was surprised to find Jerry home, alone, weakened, actually gasping for breath while Monique was out buying him antibiotics.

That day, as the struggled for breath, Jerry knew there was something seriously wrong. He told me that there were only three times in his life when he hadn't had an appetite: when he left college, when he left Nepal and that late summer day when he was gasping for air. This time, although he wasn’t leaving anywhere he loved, he'd lost his appetite. He was afraid. He felt already that he couldn't control this illness, it kept coming for him, taking away his breath, filling his lungs with fluid, tiring him and never leaving him.

Within a day or two Jerry was in Tufts Medical Center. I saw him next in his private room with tubes in his chest and sedated.

After I returned to Nepal, however, he seemed to recover and life seemed more promising. When I saw him in mid-October, returning for the boys' parents' w/end, I was happy to see him healthier, having dinner with friends and hopeful – or so I wanted to believe...

For Jerry has been one of my closest friends, spiritual guides and life gurus for the past 25 years. I have loved, respected and admired ‘Jersey’ like an older brother. He was always there for me, in ways large and small, since we met in the early 80s, through our annual Save the Children Asia directors’ conferences, adventures in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Vietnam, Bhutan and Nepal and well, well beyond those origins.

Even in his work or personal emails, Jerry was always playfully attentive, with double entendres, twists and turns, teasing and questioning in equal measure.

The other day Shakun remembered Jerry playing his recorder after our wedding ceremony in October 1988 in the garden of the Shangri-la Hotel in Kathmandu. The mellifluous sound still echoes in our fondest memories. I have so many such memories of our escapades together in Asia, meandering in markets, finding the odd and unusual, hunting antiques, good food or simply mere, joyful fun.

Now, at 70, Jerry has departed, going back to where we all have come from, into the empyrean, that space-less space in which we eternally exist beyond these all-too-human physical, emotional, psychological realms...

I feel so quiet, empty, emptied at the thought that I will not see him again, laugh with him again, hear his thoughts, ask his opinion, watch his attentive gaze. Jerry is gone. This is what I have read in the messages this week. That there is no way for me to be with him again, even when my life began to turn to regular visits through Boston to my sons' new world in western Massachusetts.

Is this the truth now?

I write because I don't know what to say. I’ve had this feeling in my heart, in my stomach, behind my eyes all week. I’ve heard Jerry's voice whispering to me at night as I lay in bed. What is he saying? I'm not sure. Is it important? I’ve heard his lips moving and seen his eyes staring, gently, toward me. Was this death that came across the seas to say goodbye? Was this the end we never expect nor wish to encounter? Does it come so soon when it is so unwanted. Tearing the fabric of our lives and the love that we cherish.

Must life be so unfair? Always coming for us, for our friends, for those we love, for those we never want to leave? This truth we never want to face.

How hard it must have been for Jerry to accept that he must go. He loved this world more than most. His Jewish soul knew how to play so exquisitely in this fleeting, suffering, inspired world. He taught so many of us the joy of that play: Sternin’s laws of motion -- full of beauty, compassion, irreverence and the essential ambience of food.

Our friend Jerry always seemed so aloof from fear, dancing in the face of uncertainties, observant of life’s mysteries and clever with its petty forms of power. Yet, by the end of the summer, he knew he was very sick, even though the doctors couldn't diagnosis it. Still he wasn't ready to leave. White Lake was so beautiful, their new home so charming, his walls of Asian art so comforting, Monique's love so palpable. Yet, as we looked out the windows, the trees were already losing their leaves and being blown away. Autumn was bearing down on Concord already, soon to be followed by the winter Jerry never enjoyed and always sought to escape. This year, there was no escape.

Now I write this elegy as winter has closed in on us. The g-ds of miracles chose not to allow Jerry more time among us in this world, this fleeting, effervescent, shadowy, ultimately disappearing world.

I can only imagine what Monique and Sam must have endured as they watched Jerry depart alone, far from his ebbing love and care. Yet they know better than we how much Jerry has protected them through the years in this chimerical world.

In this, the truth of his love will sustain them, always. Together they will stand even without that giant sequoia of a man to protect them.

For the power of his love, his joy, his inspiration will surely, wisely carry each of us further on these dank and dark waters.

Further on… into the elusive joy once again, then irrevocably, beyond even darkness itself.

Om shanti. Om shalom. Oh my g-d!

love you forever, Jerry,

your friends, Keith, Shakun, Joshua, Ezra and Ms. Leah


Mark said...

How beautiful! Even in this sadness, I appreciated and enjoyed your elegy, not just for its beauty but because of the history and details that you have related to us. I knew Jerry way way back in the late '50's when he was a counselor at summer camp and I was a kid camper. The way you describe him echoes the qualities that we saw and loved in him back then. I never saw Jerry after 1960 but was fortunate to be able to contact him in later years and share my recollection and appreciation for what he had been to me.

Peace, and best regards --
Mark Cannon

Keith D. Leslie said...

Mark, Sorry, I just saw your comment and thank-you for writing in and sharing your love for Jerry (Jersey, as I often called him...). He was, as you could tell, a remarkable soul in my life. I hear his voice still, when I am sitting in solitude and remember the many insights and gifts he gave me. They last, as you yourself have noted. Go w/ g-d, as they say... Keith

ps: where was this camp?

Mark said...

It was called "Camp Pine Cone" and was in a town in upstate New York called Hancock. As a kid I had no idea "where" that was -- y'know, we just got dropped off there and then got picked up at the end of the summer :-) -- but I see that it's 40 miles east of Binghamton, just outside the Catskills.
Some years ago I drove a friend up to a camp called Camp French Woods, to visit her son. It was near Hancock, so while we were there, I asked one of the directors if she knew anything about the old Camp Pine Cone -- like, where it might have been. Imagine my ecstasy when she said, "Why, THIS IS Camp Pine Cone!"
So, I walked around the place a couple of extra times, just REMEMBERING.....

Cliff said...

I went to Camp Pine Cone for three summers. I was the asst waterfront director in 1968 and waterfront director for 1969 and 1970. Marvin Rothstein was the owner 1969 and 1970. When were you there?
Cliff Schwartz

Mark said...

Hi Cliff! I just happened to re-check this page. Glad it happened to be just shortly after your post.
I missed you by a few years.....camper in '58 & '60.
The place was MEGA LUCKY to have someone like Jerry Sternin. He was responsible for a lot of the music and much else, including that he was perennially the "general" of the Green team for COLOR WAR.
Was it still "green" and "orange" in your time?
What odd colors! :-)
By the way......did you know Jerry there? Is that what brings you on here? Or maybe did you just have to find this via a "Pine Cone" search?
I wouldn't have thought Jerry was still there in the late '60's.....In fact, I had no idea Camp Pine Cone was still around!!
Glad to know that it was.

Mark said...

P.S. a TYPO there......I meant did you just *happen* to find.....

Mike Steuer said...

Hello Mark,

In doing the aforementioned Camp Pine Cone search, I came across this elegy and see that you attended the camp at the same time as my 4 years there. I remember Jerry as well, and for the same reasons---he was the green general and wrote the songs (great oceans roaring, all nature soaring, Green Gods approach Olympia"). My age for most of those years was single digits so Jerry must have really known how to compose and lyricize, that I should still remember many of the songs 50 years later. The owner of the camp was Marty Schwartschild and his mother (Schwartzie) helped as well. When I took my daughter for her 3 weeks at French Woods, 15 years ago, I had the same experience. One of the buildings from the 50's was still erect; the building where we attended services on Saturday mornings and had the visiting day play. (We did South Pacific, Bridge on the River Quai, Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma) Something tells me that Jerry and somebody named maybe Judy Perlmutter directed.

Mike Steuer