Death and Life in Exeter

We had talked about it. With my parents aging and me leading a tour of Europe every year there was always the possibility that something would happen while I was away and that I simply would not be able to be there, that I could not leave forty people to fend for themselves across Europe no matter how well organized things were. We had talked about it, and we were all agreed that it would be alright.


My son Mark and his wife Stephanie are here in Exeter, England. Mark is pursuing his graduate studies in Staging Shakespeare. This year’s travel plans were to have me leaving a few days before the group and stay with Mark and Stephanie in Exeter, and see a play that Mark produced and acted in. Before I left my dad had a difficult day, but seemed to be alright. Just a lot slower. He and I sat out on his front deck for a while the day before I left. We argued a bit about him not driving anymore – of course he did not want to hear that – but most of the time we just talked. Before I left I told him not to check out while I was gone. As I walked down the path I called back over my shoulder that I’d see him later. He said “yup.”

I arrived in Exeter yesterday, after a delay at the Dublin airport, to news that my dad was in the hospital and that it was not looking good. I took that news with me to Mark’s play, Swift as a Shadow (short as any dream). It is a play that Mark and a colleague produced and directed and acted in that used Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets as an exploration of, “the moment of death itself – the instant between life and death, as it were . . . indeed, this play takes place within that instant, exploring a swift and dreamlike glimpse into the mind of a dying man.” from the director’s notes.
I was caught up in Shakespeare’s moments of death and love and dying as I thought about the passage my dad was at that very moment preparing for. It was surreal, it was sad, it was happy, it was thoughtful. It was full of death and it was full of life. I think the instant of death is just that, death and life all rolled into an instant. Half a world away by good dad was lying in a hospital bed approaching that moment at the same moment I was vicariously on a similar journey. You can’t write this stuff up. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Today, Sunday, June 6, 2010 we went to church at the Exeter Ward and to Evensong at Exeter Cathedral. After a pleasant walk in the sunshine we came back to a message that our family was gathering and that the moment for my dad was near. Mark called Holli at the hospital, and just six minutes ago my dad had slipped peacefully away.
June 6th. My dad was always very patriotic. He is a veteran of the Army Air Corps and was very proud to have been part of “The Greatest Generation.” His love of country was part of what interested me in American history, an endless subject I voraciously read about. Dad and I had talked about D-Day, and I had read a lot about it. Some years ago on one of my Europe trips I talked the group into a day trip to Normandy and Omaha Beach, site of the difficult American invasion of Nazi occupied France that had taken place on June 6, 1944. It was an overwhelming experience, and I wanted so much to share it with my dad. I borrowed my coach drivers cell phone and called him – 5:00 A.M. his time. I told him where I was, and then I choked up. I could not speak. We were both silent for minutes. Then I heard him say through a cracking voice that he understood. That was it, but I had been able to really, truly share that overwhelming moment with him, something I knew he would appreciate. It now seems quite fitting that he should leave on the anniversary of that great and terrible day.
So what we had talked about, my dad and mom and me, has come to pass. I am over here and they are over there. I will stay, and meet my wonderful tour group in Rome in a couple of days. I will show them the absolute wonders of Europe as we travel through Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France and England. In a couple of weeks, as we all stand on the beach at Omaha, and as I tell them of all that happened there 66 years ago, my dad will be at my shoulder and we will again share that moment together. I love you dad.
Death and Life – it is all one.
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The look of astonishment on their faces (obviously feigned somewhat by Mitch!) is something I look forward to every year. I love to take my Art History students into the heart of Florence with no indication of where we are going or what we are first going to see. So after droping the bags at the hotel we head down the street from the Piazza Signoria toward one of the great sights of all Europe. And it is that sight that they are getting their first look at – the Florence Cathedral!

It is spectacular! There is just no other word for it! Made of the typical Tuscan colored marble of red and green and white, it is a masterpiece of Italian Gothic decoration and design. There is no facade in Western Europe that is as stunning, and to see the looks on the faces of my students when they see what we have only seen in pictures is just great fun! Giotto’s tower rises beside the cathedral and gives a commanding view for miles around, and gives a great look at the gigantic dome that Brunelleschi put on top of the cathedral. In all respects this is one of the great buildings in the world. And just as they are recovering their wits I remind them that just opposite the cathedral facade is one of the sculptural masterpieces they have been waiting for – The East Doors of the Baptistry of Florence Cathedral!

Created by Lorenzo Ghiberti, none other than Michelangelo gave them the name they are know by – the Gates of Paradise. That is what Michelangelo called them when he first laid eyes on them, and Michelangelo did not go around passing out complements. For him to give a nod to another work of sculpture means something. And these doors, 17 feet tall with individual bronze panels three feet square detailing scenes from the Bible in remakable three dimensionality are among the very peaks of Western art. Needless to say, this group of students was impressed as well.
I love Florence. It’s spot on the Arno river is beautiful, and the great Uffizi gallery is a gem of a museum. We had a great time in there, with the first room showing the work of the most important painter in the history of Western art – Giotto. Astounded looks all around as the scale of his altarpiece Madonna Enthroned struck them, and they saw first hand his revolution of three dimensionality in painting. Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Fra Fillippo Lippi, Caravaggio, Van Honthorst, the list went on and so did the smiles. But Florence itself, astride its beautiful river, is equally the star of the show.Yea, it leans. It leans a lot. I had forgotten. The last time I was here was 1989, and memory hasn’t served me well. In fact, they have straightened the tower by nine feet since I saw it last, so when I saw again how dramatic the tilt is, how astounding that the thing stays up, I really can’t imagine that I climed it when it leaned out another nine feet! Sheesh! And, as far as Pisa goes, this is it. Back on the train and off we went to Lucca,

I like Lucca. We all liked Lucca. Far lest touristy that any other place on our Italy itinerary, it was just fun to wander around and enjoy. Best of all was the medieval rampart, a huge wide earthen wall lined with stone that has now been converted into a wonderful pedestrian and bike way that goes all the way around old Lucca for 2.5 miles. On rental bikes we were off for a leisurly five mile ride under great plane trees and beautiful views of the city. We all highly recommend it.

Venice is like no other. Elegant decay is the best description I can come up with for this unique water world. Venice’s blessing and it’s curse is us – the tourist. Without us Venice would have been lost to crumble and the Adriatic. With us it is a crowded warren of humans elbow to elbow. The only way to really enjoy Venice, to my mind, is to be up and out at 5:00 A.M. That way no one is around, and you have the experience of Venice above. Quiet, serene, rotting and beautiful, Venice captures your imagination and your heart like no other place I know. But not at noon in St. Mark’s Square with the rest of humanity!

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