Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Remembering My Brother: Richard Forest

By Jim Forest

Richard Forest died, age 70, on 17 August 2013.
Remembering my brother, I recall a little boy, half-a-head shorter than I was, almost hidden in a cloud of steam while a train pulls into the southbound track of the Red Bank train station just as the sun is setting. It’s sometime in the late 1940s. Dick is gazing up in silent awe at the huge steam engine and the two powerful men who share its cab. Our ears are still echoing with the wailing hoots of the steam whistle that seconds ago announced the train’s impending arrival. Now there’s the shrill noise of the brakes as the tall steel wheels pull the commuter-loaded train to a shuddering halt. No kid at any circus — no saint in the midst of a mystical experience — could be more enthralled than my brother. I’m fascinated too, but my attention is partly held by my steam-wrapped brother who, in his state of pure amazement, is just as astonishing as the train.

At that period of our young lives welcoming the train is a ritual. Dick is probably seven, which makes me eight. Monday through Friday, with our Aunt Douglas, we meet the train that brings our Uncle Bob back from his bank job in Jersey City.

My guess is that Dick’s linkage with trains goes back to when he was four and the three of us traveled via the rails from our former home in Denver to Jersey City where we were met by Aunt Douglas and Uncle Bob. It was our move to Mother’s hometown, Red Bank, following her divorce. In fact we must have had some sleep, but I have the impression Dick and I were awake every inch of the way, our noses pressed to the window glass making islands of condensation while watching the ever-changing view: farms, houses, horses, cows, trees, rivers, fields of corn and wheat, gullies, huge clouds, lightning storms, cloudless skies, train stations, blurred villages, fast-passing towns, snap-shot glimpses of people in their homes, all the while the train rushing relentlessly forward, the steel wheels beating a sweet jazzy music out of the tracks. Even long after sunset, it was a constant visual adventure, better than any movie. Is there a finer way to see the world than from a train?

Dick’s marriage to trains took root in childhood and lasted until he breathed his last, seventy years of age. While Dick was allergic to religion, perhaps he wouldn’t object to me saying that he was a devout member of the Church of the Sacred Stream Engine.

Eventually be became a lawyer and was, by all accounts, an excellent one, but I think the job he had enjoyed most was the one he had before he passed his bar exam — the years when he worked for the railroad running switching towers. When we were both young men, I made a drawing of him in command in one of those them. It was a hot summer day. Dick was dressed for the heat. The windows gave a sweeping view of the train yard. Close at hand were the long levers that were used to slide the tracks below us into the right positions as engines and freight cars moved back and forth. It was a demanding job that required being wide awake every minute and which allowed no errors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man happier in his work.

I never had the chance to see him in court but I have no doubt he was equally at home in that environment. God knows he loved talking about it. As did everyone who knew him, I heard no end of stories from him about many of the cross-examinations he conducted of witnesses who weren’t inclined to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Reviewing the e-mail Dick and I exchanged over the last quarter century, I found one courtroom story of the sort my brother relished. It comes from a U.S. District Court in Texas. Let me share with you the extract from the transcript he forwarded to me:

Lawyer: So, Doctor, you determined that a gunshot wound was the cause of death of the patient?

Doctor: That's correct.

Lawyer: Did you examine the patient when he came to the emergency room?

Doctor: No, I performed the autopsy.

Lawyer: Okay, were you aware of his vital signs while he was at the hospital?

Doctor: He came into the emergency room in shock and died in the emergency room a short time after arriving.

Lawyer: Did you pronounce him dead at that time?

Doctor: No, I am the pathologist who performed the autopsy. I was not involved with the patient initially.

Lawyer: Well, are you even sure, then, that he died in the emergency room?

Doctor: That is what the records indicate.

Lawyer: But if you weren't there, how could you have pronounced him dead, having not seen or physically examined the patient at that time?

Doctor: The autopsy showed massive hemorrhage into the chest, and that was the cause of death.

Lawyer: I understand that, but you were not actually present to examine the patient and pronounce him dead, isn't that right?

Doctor: No, sir, I did not see the patient or actually pronounce him dead, but I did perform an autopsy and right now his brain is in a jar over at the county morgue. As for the rest of the patient, for all I know, he could be out practicing law somewhere.

I only wish I had recorded some of my brother’s accounts of his own courtroom exchanges. Many of them were every bit as funny.

Because I’ve lived in Holland the last 37 years, I saw less of Dick than I would have liked, on average just two of three times a year, but one of the treats for me, when back in the U.S., was asking him about recent courtroom events. It was like turning on a radio and listening to a comedy show with my brother doing all the voices. He was a down-to-earth, no-frills New Jersey boy who could have been part of the cast of “The Sopranos.”

He loved certain movies and television shows. He seemed to have memorized the scripts for both. I think his most beloved TV show was the Archie Bunker comedy, “All In The Family.” Even when he was laid low in the hospital, suffering considerable pain and feeling like a prisoner, there were times when he could recite substantial chunks of scripts, and also had a large collection of brief exchanges and one-liners. One of these was Archie Bunker saying, “You'd better start mixing toothpaste with your shampoo. You're getting a cavity in your brain.” Also from Archie Bunker, “Whatever happened to the good old days when kids was scared to death of their parents?” His favorites films included “The Godfather” and “Doctor Strangelove.” Possibly his favorite line from “Doctor Strangelove” came from President Merkin Muffley as played by Peter Sellers: “Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room.”

In contrast to our parents, both of whom were passionate social activists, I wouldn’t call my brother a cause-oriented person, though he was sometimes enlisted by our mother to do pro bono work in her battles with local politicians. He hated war and was dead set against capital punishment. One of my treasured memories of Dick is his declining to shake the hand of a certain governor who had authorized a number of executions and who was standing in front of Dick with his hand extended and a smile on his face. My brother said, “Sorry, Governor, but I don’t shake hands that have blood on them.” I’m sure the governor, if he is still alive, thinks about that brief encounter from time to time.

As I mentioned, Dick hated war. He managed to avoid participation in the Vietnam War and spoke out against it with his usual vigor. Yet he loved guns and had a collection of rifles. For much of his adult life, he was a devoted member of the National Rifle Association. For years one of his hobbies was to bait me into ranting against the NRA. Much to his amusement, I always fell for the bait like a bull chasing a red flag. One year I begged him, for the sake of my blood pressure, not to mention the NRA any more. To my astonishment that was the end of our semi-annual argument about guns.

Like so many of us, Dick had a hard time finding the ideal marital partner. At last he met Adele and married her in the spring of 1997. This not only made him a happy man but also greatly lengthened his life. It was Adele who managed to help him lose weight, a thankless job as my brother, when in the presence of food and soft drinks, was a man without brakes who wasn’t notably appreciative of anyone else applying the brakes on his behalf, even though, after his first heart attack, he knew that major weight loss was an absolute necessity. It wasn’t easy, but Adele was persistent. And it worked. My guess is that Adele added a decade to his life.

Let me close by recalling one of my favorite memories of my brother. Nancy and I live on a narrow lane in one of the oldest parts of a small Dutch city named Alkmaar. Not only is there no traffic but not that many people walk by, probably under a fifty a day. As home is our principal work place — I’m a writer, Nancy is a translator — we’re there most of the time. When someone passes by we often notice. During our coffee break one morning 25 years ago we happened to see two people passing by. I said to Nancy, “They look just like Dick and Beth.” She agreed. Neither of the two stopped at our front door, but not long afterward there was a knock. I opened the door and there stood Dick and Beth! It turned out that Dick had made a last-minute decision to ride some trains in Europe and invited Beth to join him. “Sorry to come unannounced,” Dick said. “It was all last-minute. And it’s in secret. You must not tell Mother. She doesn’t know I’m here”

I never did find out why Mother was not to know. Both of us were a great many years past the age when one sought parental permission for any undertaking. It’s one of the family mysteries that will go unanswered.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Remembering Rosanne

Charles & Rosanne in 1993 at the time of their wedding
On the 24th of July my sister Rosanne breathed her last. She was 68. In her final hours each breath was a great labor. Her husband, Charles, and two of her four children were at her bedside when she exhaled that final time. I was a few feet away. Quite soon all four children were in the house along with grandchildren and cousins plus other members of our complex family in which bonds of DNA are not the decisive ingredient. The next morning Charles washed Rosanne and then all the family oiled her from forehead to toes before placing rose petals on her body.

Rosanne was startlingly emaciated. On the day she died, it had been three weeks since she last accepted food. When I arrived, she was taking very little water. She seemed unable to swallow.

For seven years Rosanne had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. The onset had been very slow -- an increasing degree of absent-mindedness that finally reached the point of her having to give up her work as an occupational therapist. In that period Charles and other family members looked for dietary changes that might help stop the damage to her brain or even reverse it. During the last few years she was gradually stripped of her active vocabulary until words were few and rare. She was sometimes confused about where she was. A wheel chair was needed. Going out became a challenge. She became utterly dependent on the care of others, Charles most of all.

Thank God I was able to take part in the last nine days of Rosanne’s life — part of a community of family members and friends who were not only camping out on the edge of her deathbed but on the border of the mystery of death.

The hours when I was at her side were mainly times of silence but also of a quiet one-sided conversation and reading aloud. I urged her, for example, to ignore the advice of Dylan Thomas about not going gently into that good night; better, I proposed, to embrace, embrace the dying of the light. Using the Bible I have on my e-reader, I picked out psalms, or parts of psalms, that seemed appropriate. I slowly read her the story of Lazarus being called out of his tomb, accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, the Beatitudes, the Book of Jonah, parts of the Song of Songs, the canticle of praise sung by the three young men consigned to the furnace in Babylon — texts that have to do with death not having the last word, the grave not being the end of the journey, life not being a bad joke. I told Rosanne that no one knows much about what happens after death but that we get occasional joyful glimpses of heaven in day-to-day life.

Though she couldn’t speak, apart from an occasional yes or no or groan of distress as her body was turned, I think she recognized each of us who took part in the vigil and heard what we had to say. She communicated by intense attention to the face of the person sitting at her side, sometimes with a puzzled look, at other times with a gaze of recognition, or so it seemed to me. And there was communication by hand-holding. She held hands with each of us with a remarkable firmness, each massaging the thumb of the other.

The kitchen and dining room near the bedroom in which Rosanne was dying served as a gathering place. Charles did a lot of cooking and family members brought still more food. Cooking and eating became a way of coping. Over meals lots of stories about Rosanne were told. One that especially rang bells for me came from our step-sister Tamara, who recalled a post-high school trans-Atlantic crossing by ship taken by Rosanne, Marianne and herself in 1962. Along the way there was a major storm that sent furniture sliding from port to starboard and back again plus water splashing through portholes. After the storm, the question was raised: “What if the ship were sinking? What would our last words or actions have been?” Answer: Marianne would write a poem, Tamara would say, “Just a  minute!” and Rosanne would say, “Oh! Really?”

From childhood until her death, Rosanne had an “Oh! Really?” quality. It was in her steady, wide-eyed gaze. It lay behind her kindness not only in good times but in trying circumstances. It reflected her passionate curiosity about the world, a permanent "tell me more” setting.

Rosanne and I were both “red-diaper babies” — the children of Communist parents — but neither of us were, as adults, engaged with any political party or inclined to look at the world through ideologically-ground glasses or to value people according to their politics. “Blessed are the pure of heart,” one of the Beatitudes affirms. Throughout her life Rosanne had a very pure heart, a deep innocence, a quiet selflessness, an innate ability not to judge others. From early adulthood she had been drawn to an alternative way of life — non-acquisitive, peaceful, sharing, self-giving — and those traits remained with her until the end.


Photos taken during the days I was with the family in Santa Cruz are in this folder:

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

washing the dishes

Back after a long absence..

Yesterday I happened to see this quote: “Everyone wants a revolution but no one wants to wash the dishes.” I was reminded an evening with Vietnamese friends in a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris in the early 1970s. At the heart of the community was the poet and monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. An interesting discussion was going on the living room, but I had been given the task that evening of doing the washing up. The pots, pans and dishes seemed to reach half way to the ceiling in that closet-sized kitchen. I felt really annoyed. I was stuck with an infinity of dirty dishes while a great conversation was happening just out of earshot in the living room.

Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling. But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

That sentence was a flash of lightning. While I still mostly wash the dishes to get them clean, every now and then I find I am, just for a passing moment, washing the baby Jesus.