Remembrance of John E. Mack, M.D.: Michael Blumenthal

Michael Blumenthal
Euology for John Mack

One of eleven eulogies spoken at John Mack’s memorial service by John’s family and friends. Delivered at Memorial Church, Harvard University, Saturday, November 13, 2004.

“The art of losing,” the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote, precisely because she knew it not to be true, “isn’t hard to master.” But it isn’t the art of losing — our husband, father, brother, grandfather, and our rare and remarkable friend — that we are here to try and master today. We are here, rather, I believe, to celebrate the great gift we were given in the shape of this good, kind, gentle and large-spirited man, my friend John.

I have only, in my life, once had the experience of love at first sight — some 20 years ago at a party in Newton where I first saw — and fell immediately in love with — my friend John Mack.

In the ensuing 20 years of our friendship, John was much, much more than a friend to me: He was a father, a brother, a Godfather to my son, a sex symbol to my wife (“those gorgeous Macks,” she called John and his sons) a mutual confessor and confessee of our joys and sorrows… he was, in the deepest sense of the word, a soul-mate. He was, in fact, for me, the living embodiment of what I immodestly call Blumenthal’s Law: That water — because it is fermented by the chosen — is often far thicker than blood.

My friend John knew, firsthand and at the earliest possible age, the meaning of loss — in fact, that gravest loss of all for a young child: the loss of his mother. But, like the Greek warrior Philoctetes, he also knew that our woundedness can also become the source of our strength, of our compassion, of our openness to the world and its mysteries. He knew that being wounded means remaining capable of being hurt… because it also means remaining able to feel. And, all his life, John was open to the wounded, in whatever form they came: neglected children, wounded veterans, suffering friends, confused and soul-searching young clinicians. Nor was one world even enough to contain the range of his sympathies: they extended, even, those who considered themselves frightened and misunderstood abductees from another.

And while certain more “serious-minded” persons, in high places and low, sometimes sought to mock — even to persecute — him for his openness and vulnerability, he went on doing exactly that by which Marcus Aurelius defines the good man: “modestly following the divine, saying nothing but what is true, doing nothing but what is just.” Like the truly good man that he was, he rarely, if ever, spoke badly of anyone — with the possible exception of George W. Bush — not even of those who tried to harm him.

Like all of us, John was hardly a perfect man. But, precisely for that, he was all the more impressively — and all the more profoundly — that rarest of human creatures: a truly good one. When I reflect upon those admirable qualities enumerated by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations — “simplicity, goodness, purity, dignity, lack of affectation, love of justice, piety, kindliness, graciousness and strength for one’s appropriate duties” — these were the qualities I will always associate with my friend. Nor were they mere abstractions in his warm and capable hands: He put — in countless small, profoundly human ways — meat on their ever-hungry bones.

Professionally speaking, there were many Johns — John the child psychiatrist, John the biographer, John the teacher, John the political activist, John the holiotropic breath worker, John the investigator into what some might call the para-normal. But, in the most fundamental, and most spiritual, sense, there was always one and the same John… wherever he went, and whatever he did. Part of the genuine beauty, the genuine lovability, of who he was — and, since I am incapable of speaking of him in the past tense, of who he is — was that no situation, no human presence, no mortal contingency, could alter the fundamental integrity and wholeness of his being. Like Walt Whitman, his very presence, and his fundamental humility, insisted: “Nothing external can ever command me completely.”

Because he was a true aristocrat — an aristocrat of the spirit — human categories and status meant nothing to my friend John. He didn’t care — couldn’t have cared less — whether you were a Jew or a Sikh or a Muslim or an infidel. He didn’t care if you were a devotee of Yogi Batwan or Werner Erhard or Stanislav Graf or Sri Aurobindo, or of the B’aal Shem Tov. He didn’t care if you were a Harvard professor or a high school dropout, a Nobel laureate or a janitor, whether your book had sold 10 million copies or 10, whether you were the Dalai Lama or simply the four-legged kind.

He knew, as did Keats, that the world was “a vale of soul-making,” and he respected, and honored, the right of every single soul, no matter how humble, to get made. He was possessed, in other words, of a truly Augustian sense of humanity: “Love means: I want you to be.” And John wanted all of us to be.

Just a few days ago in Tennessee, my son Noah, who loved John like a grandfather and admired him like a father, said to me, “It’s just impossible to believe that John isn’t here.” “John,” I answered him, “is here… and, for us, he will always be here.” Because John was so vividly present to us — so vividly present, I think, to all who knew him — that, even when we were supposedly apart, I felt his presence with me… as I do now. And because goodness and kindness and decency and nobility of spirit survive the mere physical body that tries, unsuccessfully, to contain them, he will never, ever, be gone for me.

On what would have been John’s 75th birthday, October 4th, I took a walk around a pond in Tennessee near where I am presently living. It was a beautiful, crisp and luminescent Fall day — the kind John would have loved and which I sometimes spent with him in Cambridge or Thetford. As I walked around the pond, I saw a great blue heron, a family of cardinals, the common turtle known as a red-eared slider, muskrats, white-tailed deer, warblers of all sorts. I saw, in other words, all around me: Life, and its persistent continuing.

And, then, a single line came to me: “The dead are only dead to us if we let them die.” As did also some lines written by the poet Howard Nemerov, about the painter Paul Klee, which I believe are equally applicable to this particular occasion, and to the life of our dear friend:

So may it be to all of us, that at some times
In this bad time when faith in study seems to fail,
And when impatience in the street and still despair at home
Divide the mind to rule it, there shall some comfort come
From the remembrance of so deep and clear a life as his
His dream an emblem to us of the life of thought,
The same dream that flared before intelligence
When light first went forth looking for the eye.

And, when I considered those words, I knew that — though my beloved friend now had an unlisted number — for me, at least, he will never be unreachable. As an African proverb has it: “The wood burns out, but the fire goes on forever.” He is, I believe, here with us today. And the light from his flame will light my own life until the same Unidentified Flying Object that came to get him comes to get me.

Michael Blumenthal is the author of several books of poetry and the novel Weinstock Among the Dying, which won Hadassah Magazine’s Harold U. Ribelow Prize for the best work of Jewish fiction in 1994. Formerly Director of Creative Writing at Harvard for ten years, he has been a recipient of Pushcart Prizes as well as a Fulbright, a Guggenheim, a Rockefeller/Bellagio, and other prestigious awards.