Last month, my uncle died.  He was almost 93 years old, and the last, and youngest, of my father’s brothers.  His departure means many things to me, and not just that, now, no one of the generation before me is left on either side of my family.

Times of death and the rituals that accompany it are occassions for liminality.  “Liminality” is a fancy term, given currency by anthropologist Victor Turner and others, to refer to states of being that people experience as they pass over the threshold from one stage of life to another.  In the liminal state, Turner says, one is in-between, “neither here nor there,” one is “betwixt and between all fixed points of classification”.  In this time, one is an outsider, on the margins, in a zone of “indeterminacy.”

A time of death is a passage not only for the one who has died, but for the family and those others close enough to be affected.  It would be interesting, I think, to have a conversation about how this liminal state is experienced, the extent to which it is recognized or dismissed, and how it is articulated in the various religious traditions in which we live.  But that is not my purpose in writing now.

To go to and from the funeral, I had to go through Pittsburgh, PA, where I grew up.  My experience during the trip was of being extremely open to flashes  of my earlier life there.  Going under the Squirrel Hill tunnel, I felt again the thrill of the films of Bergman, Truffaut, Antonioni, Fellini, and those first really free conversations about ideas and feelings.  I saw again the flares of fire from the old steel mills, even though nothing now stands along the river where they were.  When I went through the tunnel toward the South Hills, where I lived in my teens, I felt the presence of my first girl friend in the seat beside me, in the wash of the familiar staccatto visual pattern of the tunnel lights.  I felt that, somehow, a circuit in my life was being completed, or at least re-visited and further incorporated into my being.

I saw my uncle’s hands; the Rock ears; the bushy eyebrows that greet me in the mirror.  Uncle Lenny was there when I arrived into the world, and I always took him for granted; and there we were committing his body to the ground, and participating in a Lenape ceremony led by cousin Art to pray him on his journey to the spirit world, and us on our continuing way in this one.

Leonard L. Rock was a doctor.  A doctor who loved what he did, and loved life.   Especially his four daughters and five grandchildren, and all of us cousins, too.   In the course of his small town practice, he deliverd 4,174 babies, many of whom were present, some with their parents.  At the funeral home, one of the nurses who had worked with him said, “When you heard him start laughing, you knew everything was all right.”

That was his biggest gift to me – his laugh and his delight in life. In our circle I prayed thanks for his laugh, and the joy he gave to me and to the world.  He is becoming one of the ancestors now, Art said, and is with us as we dance the circle of life around the drum, our hearts, the Creator.

 

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