It was intermission at In The Name of Love, a yearly concert in honor and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Each year, Living Jazz gathers incredible musicians to offer musical tribute and this year, they were all singing Nina Simone. My choir, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir always sings and the night has particular meaning to me because my father spent the most vital years of his career as a civil rights worker. He was on the bridge in Selma, he registered voters and, to his great honor, he was near MLK, behind him on the steps, when the I Have a Dream speech was delivered at the March on Washington.
It’s always emotional for me to sing there. Like many people, I feel deeply connected to those times. My parents, both dead now, are intrinsically tied to my experience of the civil rights movement and of the losses we all sustained then. There was John Kennedy, who had given my parents so much hope. Then there was Malcolm X. We lived just a block from the place where he died at the time he was assassinated, in New York for my father to study at Union Theological. Then King, whose death crushed us all and wove itself into my bitterness and anger as a teenager, my sense that things all just needed to be destroyed and we needed to start over. Finally, the grief of my generation deepened (if that were possible) when Robert Kennedy was killed, barely two months after King.
I am always aware of these things when I sing at the event. I press my way backstage, finding a corner to watch the speech they’ve chosen to play, hear the music that is being offered, feel the crowd, the beautiful Oakland crowd, gathered to honor, to remember, to reinforce our commitment to a just and equitable world.
But during the break, the stage doors were closed, and I retreated to the green room. I was feeling unusually quiet and not much into socializing that day, and I sat on a step glancing at my phone, absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook… and then, I saw it, on Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s Facebook page:
Stephen passed away at home in his bed this afternoon after a long illness. He was 78 years old. His heart has gone to God. His light is left here with us. Thank you for your blessings and love and friendship. Namaste.
It only took seconds before I burst into tears, loud sobs heaving my body, completely without my permission (even though I would have given it). I should say here that’s not my usual first reaction to loss. I’ve always envied my oldest child because when bad stuff happens, she purges immediately. It comes right out, full and complete, and then after she has cried her tears, she’s able to go on. Me, it takes awhile. First I get quiet, sit still, go inward and then, only then, do the feelings begin to find their way out of me. I’m also not used to crying in a crowd, although I wouldn’t object to that either. It just doesn’t usually happen. So this was a big surprise event.
Stephen is dead, I thought. It’s unbearable. It made no difference that he had stopped travelling years ago and I had been in touch, but not seen him, or Ondrea, for at least a decade. What did matter was that I was suddenly flooded with everything they had been to me, and all they still are? They had seen me through, and taught me how to handle, my losses. They had been my guides, and that of my first wife, through the horror and the blessings of her long illness. They had taught me how to be with it all, love myself through it, change in ways I needed to, stick up for parts of me I needed to keep that took courage to honor. They had been instrumental in my own transformation through loss, the type of experience I talk about every week on my radio show, Good Grief, and in my blog posts.
All of that was in the background, a forest full of the most beautiful moss and ferns and trees. What was in the foreground was kindness. They were so kind to us. They were so generous. They held our fragile feelings like a loving parent holds a newborn. Their help became so much a part of me that I find myself talking about them often still. As I’ve been asked to be a guest on the shows of others and they ask me what helped me through that time, I am always thinking “Stephen and Ondrea.” And when I begin to describe these things, I hear his poetic and moving and laughing voice. “Let your heart break, and the sooner the better,” “there is no feeling in deep grief we haven’t felt before, it’s just louder,” “forgive yourself” and “underneath all of it is just UNNH, the steady hum that will never die.”
When we adopted a baby, which of course most people thought was completely crazy, they sent a full set of crib bedding, with stars and planets and “Sweet Dreams” embroidered on the corner. When we couldn’t afford to get to a workshop, they let us in at no charge, and several times helped us travel to get there. They held us in their arms, told us what we needed to hear, loved us through.
Eventually, a few of my choir mates timidly approached, “are you ok?” “what’s happened and I told them what I could. A deep teacher in my life has died. But that seemed so inadequate. Teacher seems somehow less than what he was to me. Spiritual father or soul healer or guru or… nothing could capture the depth of what he gave us and how that contributed to this beautiful life I live now, the way I love the people I love, the importance I feel in sharing the possibility that, when all seems lost, life sometimes sets a path in front of us. Would I have found my way anyway? Perhaps. But the way I found my way is indelibly etched in all the corners of my being. May he pass to whatever is next the way he imagined it in this poem:
There is a grace approaching
that we shun as much as death,
it is the completion of our birth.
It does not come in time,
but in timelessness
when the mind sinks into the heart
and we remember.
It is an insistent grace that draws us
to the edge and beckons us to surrender
safe territory and enter our enormity.
We know we must pass
and fear the shedding.
But we are pulled upward
through forgotten ghosts
and unexpected angels,
And there is nothing left to say
but we are That.
And that is what we sing about.
As I read his words, I make a small contact with that feeling of spacious wonder he so expertly invited me to enter. And I imagine I’m looking in his eyes and saying, thank you, thank you, thank you.