I’ve read that in Senegal, when an elder dies, they say, “A library has burned.”
It is appropriate when you think about it. Every person blessed with many years has amassed an enormous collection of experiences, insights and wisdom.
In the finality of death, all this vanishes, and no longer can anyone wander through our stories in search of learning, amusement or just a guidepost for the path.
I have a friend whose library is ablaze. The ashes may smolder for days or weeks, but the fire will take it all, from its history of a Louisiana kid of German immigrants to the Wednesday evening “meetings” he has hosted for nearly 20 years and will do so until he is too weak to raise a glass.
A library is an apt metaphor for my friend. His life spans 95 years, and he still possesses an eidetic memory of most of its moments. He remembers events, names and dates, even the weather, with a clarity that most of us didn’t have even before we forgot.
He is still sharp by nature, but he has also been a well-schooled student of hard work, occasional failure, and do-overs until he succeeded.
A member of “the Greatest Generation,” nothing came easy for him. A child of foreigners in a “Jim Crow” South, his first friends were black because the whites ridiculed his accent and his poverty. He married for love but soon found his beloved scourged by schizophrenia. He lost a young daughter in a horrible scene.
He could be demanding, brusque, even seemingly rude, but I think that may have been more nurture than nature. He had to be father, mother and breadwinner. Everything had to run on schedule. If you had a job, you were supposed to do it and do it right. Excuses never solved anything.
But here is part of his enigma. For all his need to control, he was faith-filled, faithful and faith-driven. He found solace and strength in his spiritual practice. He trusted in a God he could neither see nor understand, but was somehow always there.
That trust eventually led him to a woman he adored, to years together serving hungry children and sight-challenged poor in Mexico, and to a daily commitment to her during her dementia and death.
And now it is his turn. It is sad to see this library burn. It had a huge section on history, but an entire wing dedicated to generosity and friendship.