|Self-Portrait ,July 2012|
I always have envied black men saying hello to each other. Complete strangers. They nod their heads, Hey brother. Walking down the street, in a public place, on a bus, even driving down the street. It didn't matter. Their saludos to each other became more pronounced when they're in a white place--white men, white women, the Man in charge. A nod and a hello. It was an honorable response to life. An honorable response to that ancient history that stretched back through bigotry and slavery all the way to Africa. Mother Africa. I wanted to understand but I always knew that I could not. I could only be a witness to that unspoken bond.
As a young man I wished for that between me and others.
Now I’m 70 and in the last few years I've discovered that old men do the same thing. Ethnicity and race doesn’t seem to matter. White. Black. Chicano. Whatever. Especially in gyms or in places over-populated by middle-aged and young people. A nod and a hello. The guy might be a Republican, a homeless guy, a Christian, a fool; me a democrat, a Buddhist, that idiot with the goofy hat, it doesn't matter. How ya doing? Have a good day. And this morning I realized this bond between old men is about vulnerability. Bodies knowing each other’s secret. I am him, and he is me. Knowing each other's history. Knowing what is our shared future—the universe opens up and I am no longer here. What is this? What is this thing I call “me?” That is our question. Man to man. An osmosis. A biologic memory and transference. A sense of compassion for one another.
I'm so delighted that this happens.
And I remembered, as I wrote this, my mother at the hospital, a few days before she died. I had lifted her into a wheelchair and pushed her outside into a little garden. We both knew she didn't have long to live. Her heart was leaking blood. Congenital heart disease. We passed another woman--equally old, equally feeble. My mother raised her frail hand and waved to the other woman, her boney fingers riffing a quiet tune like a piano player.
A final blessing, a final celebration.
Hello. Goodbye. Goodbye.