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Sketches from the Life of Richard E. Lee, continued

Part 4: His Final Journey

Richard decided against lung surgery and chose alternative healing methods such as Qigong. While progressive and proactive in dealing with his health, spiritually he  was returning to his Catholic roots, though still embracing the ideals of other religions he had studied throughout his life. In the Year 2001, having been told by his doctor that he did not have much longer to live, Richard had many family and friends visit him at home. On February 2, 2001, he wrote in an e-mail:

...We are preparing for a visit from my sister this afternoon. She lives in Ohio and is an ordained minister of Unity Church. We were raised Catholic, but she wasn't happy that women were relegated to almost second class citizenship in the church. So she became a protestant and an ordained minister. She has a small parish back near where we were raised in Ohio. She is the only one in our family I communicate with any more.

What else? I have sent for a series of Spanish language tapes. The army sent me to Fordham University to study Spanish area and language during the Second WW. Now I feel I want to complete the beginning. Then I will do French. College cheated me out of really getting all of every language I studied. Left me in mid-sentence so to speak. So I will do it on my own in my own way. I have begun trying to memorize St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul poem. It is incredibly beautiful Spanish. The only poetry I can compare it to is [Pablo] Neruda's Twenty Love Poems written when he was only 19....

In an e-mail written on February 26, 2001, Richard announced that he was "vaguely preparing for a very long hike-pilgrimage on the Xamino in Northern Spain late this spring -- if my doctor approves. It's almost 500 miles of el Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I think I can do it, but -- We will see...." A little more than two months later, Richard had embarked upon the Camino, but his lungs were unable to endure the strain, and after walking a brief distance he ended up in the emergency room in Pamplona. Upon returning home to Joshua Tree, Richard philosophically concluded in a letter to his friends written on May 24, 2001:

So was my journey then a failure? Shall I go back next year and try to improve on my record, do it in even shorter time and end up in the Guiness Book of Records? What? I feel I have disappointed many of you, for which I am sorry. But I feel my journey was really quite perfect and quite what it was supposed to be. I think perhaps my sitting in the waiting room at Urgencias in Pamplona was a lesson I had to learn. Something about compassion. Something about being genuine. I was among Spaniards who were suffering, in pain, desperate. We were in hospital gowns. One old old lady in a wheel chair and her daughter who put her head on her mother's arm and wept. The old lady occasionally touched her daughter's arm, gently, softly, as if to say I will go soon. I have to go soon and you will be all right. But it was the touch alone that mattered. There were no words. Just the touch, the tears. And another woman receiving chemotherapy and vomiting and her daughter running for a basin. An old man tended to by his wife. When he was wheeled out, she marched stiffly back and forth, back and forth. What would she do if he didn't return? But he did return and she touched him, fixed his collar, put his blanket around his legs more snugly. And suddenly from nowhere there appeared a beautiful girl about fourteen with a cell phone stuck to her ear and laughing and talking and dancing back out of the room again. She would never have to come to such a place. She would never have to attend her dying mother. She would never be a dying mother. She was gracefully, elegantly dancing through life laughing and talking to people she couldn't see....

As the months passed, Richard miraculously regained his strength, and in an e-mail sent on August 28, 2001, discussed preparations he and Savya were making for "a concert up here on the 22nd of September, our fiftieth wedding anniversary. It's also the equinox. It could well be our last Ceremonial Sounds concert. Moving instruments around is not that much fun anymore...."

Though Richard had been anxious about the anniversary concert prior to their performance, he was in good spirits following the event, despite having injured his back in the aftermath. In an e-mail written on September 26, 2001 he explained: "...setting the instruments and decorations up, then "tearing" them down proved to be almost too much for me to handle. So I ended up -- at the least -- with a sore back. But it doesn't matter. There were 160 people here and the concert- celebration came off very well. A fine finale, I think. Savya and I are both pleased...."

Less than two months after the concert, Richard's health began to decline. In mid-November, he sent an e-mail greeting card about having seen the Leonid meteor shower. (Click on the e-mail greeting image at right to enlarge.) Richard did not say that he was not feeling well, but the message in the cartoon greeting said it all: "Sometimes it takes just one good "outburst" to make it through the day! aacck!" The meaning of the greeting card became clearer in what would be his last e-mail to me, sent on November 19, 2001:

I couldn't sleep that night [of the meteor shower]: I am on some new antibiotic that makes me a bit hyper. So at one, one thirty, then two, I went out to look up at the sky, and there they were, the Leonids. What amazed me were the long tails some of them had. The meteors are apparently rather small in themselves; it's their speed that makes them so visible. (I guess the message is to slow down unless you
want to be noticed.) Savya came out too and actually stayed out after me for a bit. We slept in the next morning. But we have seen many celestial sights up here: The Hales Comet, the Hale Bopp comet, and others I forget. We even thought of buying a telescope, but the field of vision is much too narrow for us. We want the entire sky to float around in. Anyway, thanks. Happy Thanks Giving. Glad you could
hear the [e-mail greeting] card [I sent]! richard

Richard died in his sleep on December 14, 2001, survived by his wife Savya and their daughter Lilith, granddaughter Dawn, and great-grandchildren Aimee, Kiran, and Angelie. A memorial service was held for him at their home on December 22, 2001. Richard E. Lee may be gone from this earth, but he shall not be forgotten.

In closing, I leave with you the words of Richard E. Lee, words of peace, from a poem entitled "Poem," written in December 1980:

No poem today, this day of the Lord,
this Sunday in December when the light
shines a gray the Chinese Masters
would have cherished, a day of mist
and fog. A hint of storm, but later,
much later, not now. No poem written
on such a day when such a day is its
own poetry, is the stuff of poems. I
need not add to anything so perfect, in-
deed cannot. Today is its own poem.
I but move in and out of it, paying
as much attention as I can, admiring
what I see, the soft white halos
of puffballs before they fly, the bells
of flowers that ring in whatever wind
there is in this still weather. Birds dart
about, foxes strive, hide, lovers walk.
No poem today. Today is its own poem.

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