2014-11-18 – My friend Bob Redman would have been 74 years old last week, but he didn’t quite make it. He left us suddenly and unprepared. His memorial service was Sunday.
He was a quirky guy, filled with stories because . . . well, he did a lot in his life. He was a soldier and a spy and a monk. He lived under a vow of silence and he told jokes. He sang show tunes rather than Gregorian chants. He was gregarious. And he was shy. He was an English professor, a speech writer, and an editor—in love with the English language, yet much of his humor was physical.
He did poses. There was one he did that was supposed to represent a mosquito sucking blood. He had a groucho walk and he beckoned you, “walk this way!” And he had a piece of performance art called “The Dead Editor.” He would lie face down in his cubicle at work or in a waiting room or in an elevator and wait till someone would find him, so he could scare the heck out of his unwitting victim. Those of us who had the “privilege” of seeing this are waiting for him to get up again and laugh.
But of course, this time, that’s not going to happen.
People at the memorial service recalled all his jokes. If you were Bob Redman’s friend, you knew them all. I may not know you, but we had this between us. The day before he died, I had a long conversation with him on the phone as I walked my dog Lefty in the park.
He talked about the sadness in life. He was talking about the loss of his life’s partner of 40 years, a guy I never met, a guy I called “the other Bob” because, of course, Bob had to commit his life to someone who had the same name as him. The other Bob died a couple of years ago. All we have against sorrow, our Bob would always say, is a joke and a song.
And kindness. Bob was a kind man and always lent a hand to his friends and animals.
One of Bob’s peculiar stories was to report that, in the middle of the night, he would go naked into his garden and throw himself down and weep tears of joy. Now, you never knew if all the details in any of Bob’s stories were true—or even if any of the details were true. Was he a spy or just a teletype operator? Did he shoot at some Russians in the middle of the Pacific in some unreported cold-war escapade? Did he really point a gun at that general and get away with it? Did he regularly go naked into his garden at night and throw himself down on the ground and weep for joy?
Well, maybe he did and maybe he didn’t, but the hero of his favorite book, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, did something very similar. The character was a monk, like Bob (though apparently a monk who never took a vow of silence). And this is what transpired:
The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him. The Milky Way ran in two pale streams from the zenith to the horizon. The fresh, motionless, still night enfolded the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral gleamed out against the sapphire sky. The gorgeous autumn flowers, in the beds round the house, were slumbering till morning. The silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of earth was one with the mystery of the stars.
Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears,” echoed in his soul.
What was he weeping over?
Oh! In his rapture he was weeping even over those stars, which were shining to him from the abyss of space, and “he was not ashamed of that ecstasy.” There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over “in contact with other worlds.” He longed to forgive everyone and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything. “And others are praying for me too,” echoed again in his soul. But with every instant he felt clearly and, as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul. It was as though some idea had seized the sovereignty of his mind––and it was for all his life and for ever and ever. He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy. And never, never, all his life long, could Alyosha forget that minute.
“Some one visited my soul in that hour,” he used to say afterwards, with implicit faith in his words.
Within three days he left the monastery in accordance with the words of his elder, who had bidden him “sojourn in the world.”
We used to celebrate coworkers’ birthdays wearing dark glasses and singing a mournful version of the Happy Birthday Song that we called the “Birthday Dirge.” We missed Bob’s birthday this year. And we’ll miss many more.
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“Two men looked out from prison bars. One saw mud, the other stars.” –Robert Redman (1940-2014)