The past few months have been hard on me and my peers. Our world is changing.
We’ve begun to lose iconic individuals who’ve always seemed to exist as permanent landmarks in our lives and culture. It’s easy to forget that they’re human, and that they’re aging too. And since many were there to pave the way for us, they may even be a bit older than we are; it stands to reason they might leave first.
I’m at the doorstep of 60, and in the past year or two I’ve become acutely aware that this is an age at which maladies appear more frequently, and morbid diagnoses begin to arrive. Even in my early and mid-fifties I retained that feeling of “everyone but me” regarding aging and disease. The attitude which prevails among the young and early middle-agers. The sense that one has not arrived yet, that age and its concerns are still far-off. For me personally, the new awareness and perspective began as a murmuring in my 58th year and moved in for good sometime over the past twelve months.
I now take nothing for granted. Blood pressure meds are part of my daily ritual now, and due to a family history of colon cancer, I have pre-cancerous polyps snipped off every few years. I’m thankful all is well so far, but it’s real now. It’s here.
In our modern world we are very keen on extending life, and we have come to expect longevity. It’s easy to forget that just a generation or two ago, if you made it to 60, that was an acceptable outcome. If you died in your 70s, it wasn’t considered a breach of cosmic justice. It was simply your time. Your glorious turn on the planet in corporeal form was up. But these days, we fight as hard as we can to survive into years of frailty – and then we consider it a victory. I disagree.
I assert that a life well-lived is a victory, at no matter what age it finds completion. It may be heart wrenching to see someone depart, it might not seem fair, and it may hurt, but a life fully expressed is not a failure or a tragedy. Rather, it should be considered a good outcome. I’d like to think that if my life ended tomorrow, it would be seen as a minor success. I’ve been kind to people (however I fully admit to also being neglectful and selfish at times) and I’ve tried my very best to be loving and kind wherever I go. That’s about the best I can do.
Last year I went back to my hometown of Chicago for a visit. It was a thrilling week for me, densely packed with reunions. There was music and food, and there were all those streets and neighborhoods which I knew so well, the sight of which made me profoundly happy. Two radio stations provided the soundtrack; WDCB (which at my arrival was serendipitously playing a track by friend and jazz guitarist Dave Stryker, who I had also coincidentally just seen play the night before at Caffe Lena in my current hometown of Saratoga Springs, NY) and then – there was WXRT.
The DJ’s voices on WXRT were as familiar and comforting to me as old friends. Because they truly were old friends. These on-air personalities had been with me all throughout my musical growing up. And it was kind of remarkable that they were still on the air. It felt as if I hadn’t actually been gone for a decade and a half. Lin Brehmer accompanied me as I drove north on 294. I can’t hope to describe how full this made my heart. It restored my life energy; the sound of his voice made me feel loved and ready to keep going. It made me feel like I really had returned home. I experienced a moment of true bliss that day.
Lin died yesterday.
I knew he’d left the air last spring, but I’d also heard that he had returned this past fall. Somehow I’d just figured he’d won – he had beat the cancer, and he was back; all was as it should be. Yesterday, the news of his death was shocking to me. Understandable, but still… And as I began to think more critically about it, I realized that my generation was at the beginning of its downslope.
It’s begun. The time of goodbyes.
Death is nothing new, and our grief is not exceptional. But what does make the experience far different at this time in history is that we are all experiencing these losses in real time, and on a global scale. For us, there is no softening of the message through the buffer of time. Maybe it’s a good thing, because it is certainly cathartic to be able to share with people all around the world, in real time, our grief and our memories. I’d even say it’s a kind of privilege. But it’s certainly a new one.
I can recall so many times when my parents would hear about the death of a friend or colleague and express their regrets with a tired resignation. It was as if the time in between the death and receipt of the news served to dull the sting. I can’t really know; my parents were of that stoic generation that thought it bad form to express their true feelings. What I remember is the pause that would follow after my father would peruse the New York Times obituaries and read a name aloud. A beat of silence would follow, and then there would be the recollections, and finally my mother would say “Oh, that’s too bad”, and on they would go.
It feels as if I too am adopting my parents’ approach to the news of a death. It hurts, and yet it seems to hurt far less now than if these people would have died a decade or more earlier. At this point in the game my peers have all left legacies of some sort. There may be regrets – I should think every life has a few – but for the most part, a death after sixty productive years on the planet is not a travesty. It’s a sorrow that will subside as time passes. And as we of the fifty-plus segment of the population can easily attest, time passes much more quickly as one ages. Our pain will soon become less acute.
Ten years ago feels like the year before last. Last year feels like just last week. You know. It’s gone in a blink. Our end dates are fast-approaching. But let us not be made too weary by this; all of us have done the best we can, and we will continue to enjoy the ride as best we’re able. Let’s thank our missing comrades for all they added to our lives, let’s smile at the memories, and let’s let them go with a wave and a kiss.
Thank you, Lin, for reminding us that “It’s so fucking great to be alive”.
Men, please don’t put off having a prostate exam. My own father had prostate cancer, but thanks to early detection, he went on to live another two decades. I know that men aren’t as familiar with routine physical exams as women, so if you haven’t been to a doctor for a health check in a long time, please break this trend and make an appointment.
Funny that after all these years I never knew that Lin got his start in commercial radio here in upstate New York and was known as “the Reverend of Rock and Roll” at WQBK, in Albany. We traded home states, but in the reverse. (But like Lin, I will always be a Cubs fan.)
Here are a few songs played on WXRT today as Lin’s colleagues remembered his life through stories and music:
“Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens.
“No Hard Feelings” by the Avett Brothers.
“Keep Me In Your Heart” by Warren Zevon (it was his last song).
“All Things Must Pass” by George Harrison.
“I’ll Take You There” by Chicago’s own Mavis Staples.
Today’s Sun-Times piece on the life and death of Chicago’s WXRT radio host, Lin Brehmer.
The title of this post was inspired by Lin’s Bin.
The first track Lin played on his commercial radio debut at WQBX in Albany (January 20th, 1977) was the Beatles “Within You, Without You”. He explained that he had chosen it because he had always felt that “life flowed within you – but mostly without you”.