Essays > Our seasons are not gentle: Remembering Four Good Men


What a relief to return to outdoor walking. Emerging from the long winter, I brush off winter’s lethargy and breathe the rich spring air on almost daily strolls from my house through Burroughs Park, following Brookside, Cadet and Sunnyside, around Pierce School and back again going west, the sun on a noticeably higher latitude than a month ago, on Calumet.

It’s touching how at this time of year we all come out into increasing light, squinting and grateful for survival, but not unchanged and not unscathed. I will celebrate spring, but before acknowledging its lusty resurrections I want to take a moment to mourn.
Our seasons in Michigan, after all, are not gentle or benign. Not every creature makes it through.

The old ash tree at Pierce School is gone – half dead already last year, it was finally done in by an ice storm. It was a huge, marvelous tree, its tangle of dark, gnarled branches joyously reaching up at least seventy feet. In a previous column I celebrated that formidable tree as part of the “leafy accolade” which mesmerized the neighborhood. In that essay, former Flint Parks director George Liljeblad, who used to live across the street, remembered children sitting in a circle under the magical ash tree, reading.

Now, there’s just a big flat spot blanketed with startlingly blond wood chips, aside the gentle mounds where kids could sit. The uncomplicated air above the tidy grave site yawns with…what? Bright emptiness, more light. But the shade of the ash tree hovers, a powerful presence that will not soon pass.
I turn to other losses – it’s only right to do so, before the rush to bloom. I think in particular of four good men the winter took, stripping our world of idiosyncratic goodness and stalwart devotion.

First there was Chuck Bailey, our dear neighbor and friend who died in November. What a life he had lived. A Green Beret survivor of severe injuries in the Vietnam War, he came home to a long and impassioned career in education and social justice. As most of us know, he was professor of social work at UM – Flint from 1977 on. He co-founded the UM – Flint’s substance abuse program and energetically advocated for the mentally ill, veterans, and the poor. He was the father of three kids and an avid participant in neighborhood life. I often saw him raking or mowing his yard at the end of my street, a civilized and faithful man engaging in serene work. It reassured me to see him there.

Then the tragedy of Harry Swartz, founder of Swartz Funeral Home, discovered before dawn on a cold January morning near a headstone in Evergreen Cemetery, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The ironies of Harry’s death are almost too much to bear. When I first came to Flint in the early 80s as a social worker at Family Service Agency, Harry provided dignified funerals for the poor, helping us pick out pine boxes and always treating our clients with respect. He was an unconventional personality, full of stories. Inspired by our many conversations to pen my ‘80s poem “Lunch with the Mortician,” I wrote: “Not all kinds of death can be repaired./The drowning victims are beyond help/and there is not a single infant/whose death he can make beautiful./But many of the bodies can be improved. / He is an artist. He does everything /himself.”

I’m sure Harry was long past doing everything himself. I don’t know by whose tombstone he took his own life. It is a sad ending for a life meaningful in assuring rituals of elegant grace for the deaths of others. What is the sense in this?
And then the shock March 16 of the stunning death of Professor Matt Hilton-Watson, our beloved and irrepressible colleague at UM – Flint. He was only forty, the father of two small kids. A few weeks before he collapsed in a classroom just across the hall from where I was teaching the villanelle “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master…”), I had joined with Matt in a memorable “Poetry Under the Stars” reading at Longway Planetarium.

In the dark, he sat on a stool, reporting he’d spent the night before in the emergency room after fainting – his body, we now understand, urgently trying to telegraph its distress – and read poems in French while the universe wheeled by overhead. It was my turn next but what I remember now is how it felt to lean back in my seat while Matt softly read those poems while Orion circled by again and again.

Finally, most recently, I mourn the vibrant local “foodie,” Cy Leder, whose restaurant reviews in the Flint Journal drew readers and fans for more than 20 years. He was a mensch who always found something positive to say, and within his detailed accounts pulsed a good heart. He wished the best for each hopeful enterprise.

Cy was a kindred spirit, a longtime writing teacher at Mott Community College, and I adored both his grasp of the power of the senses and his generosity of critique –supported by gusto for the good life.
And so, we confront the passings of four good men, and contemplate the mystery of Nature’s cycles. I am ready for the wisdom of spring, but I’m still not over the aches of what the winter took. I really miss the ash tree. It’ll be awhile before I take to what comes next. But I will. It’s in the affirmations of the green sprouts, after all, that we heal from all our winter goodbyes.