To Chicago, to Honor a Righteous Man

Downtown Chicago, the Loop

On Sunday the 12th, something rare happened: I love to travel, but that day I took a trip that I would have preferred not to, winging north at mid-morning to Chicago, to attend the funeral of longtime friend Charlie Kubert, who died of cancer at age 48. I met Charlie in Minnesota in 1986, and though we were not close friends – after we moved to Texas, I saw him fewer than ten times – we kept in touch by e-mail, and he was a faithful reader of my quarterly updates and blogposts. I was so glad that I saw him one last time, in July, when he was in the hospital.

We approached O’Hare from the east, swooping out over the Loop, and heading west on a brilliantly clear early fall day. Charlie was an ardent environmentalist, and I think he would have been happy that I eschewed a rental car for the CTA Blue Line and bus #80 across Irving Park Road. I got off at Lake Michigan, right across the street from what was once Immaculata High School, where my mother graduated. The 1925 building, an official city landmark, was designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. The nuns no longer run it – it’s split between the American Islamic College and the Lycee Francais de Chicago. E pluribus unum.

I ambled down Lake Shore Drive, then west on Sheridan Road, a leafy thoroughfare. Had a tuna sub and a milk at Subway. That day, for obvious reasons, I kept thinking about the great quote from Nigerian author and musician Babatunde Olatunji (which I first read on a wall outside the British Library ten months earlier): “Today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

I walked a block south to the Anshe Emet Temple and entered. One of the funeral-home staff suggested I don a yarmulke, “if you’re comfortable with that.” I said sure, but since I was a Lutheran I might need him to get it into position. He gladly complied. During the entire service, though, I was sure that it was going to sail off my increasingly smooth head; though he was inside a rather solid box 50 feet from me, Charlie was surely hip to my worry.

By two the large sanctuary was almost completely full. It was the first Jewish funeral I had ever attended, so I didn’t know what to expect. The temple’s senior rabbi, Michael Siegel, presided. There were opening prayers and solo hymns from a cantor. After some opening remarks, and the congregation reciting Psalm 23, the eulogies began, first from Charlie’s father-in-law, then his brother and sister, then touching remarks from Charlie’s daughters Jessica, 12 and Abigail, 9, who I met in July.

The best was last, a truly remarkable memorial from the family’s longtime rabbi, Herbert Bronstein, now semi-retired from North Shore Congregation Israel. Rabbi B. knew Charlie well (although he remarked, to laughter, that he would have preferred to see Charlie at services more often). Early on, the rabbi described Charlie as “a great mensch,” and “highly principled.” The teacher was right on when he said our friend had “an additional endowment of soul . . . he affirmed other people.” Charlie loved nature, and I so appreciated the rabbi’s description of snow on evergreens, whitecaps on Lake Michigan, and vegetables from an urban garden as “part of the signature of God.” He ended by reminding us that the fullness of life has nothing to do with length of time. Amen, amen.

After the service, I needed to find a ride to the burial, ten miles north at a cemetery in suburban Skokie (I had already tracked down the bus line back to O’Hare, PACE route #250, which stopped a mile or so south of the cemetery). It took some girding, but I finally worked up the gumption to supplicate. It took three asks, but I found a ride with Robert and his wife Heidi, family friends, and Stan and Richard, father and son. We had a good yak about Charlie and his family, their careers, a bit about me. I was a little worried about making it to the bus stop on Dempster Street by 5:33, and began to think about a plan B if needed.

It took awhile for the all in the procession to arrive. The graveside service began with the cantor, then words from Rabbi Siegel, then Charlie’s casket was lowered into the Illinois earth, sealed in the Jewish way with a masonry cover. Then something unexpected: people taking turns shoveling dirt into the grave, beginning with Charlie’s mom, then wife Karen and the girls. The finality was sad.

Glancing at my watch, it was time to amble, so I quietly took leave. Striding south on Kildare, briskly, I might have been mistaken for a political candidate: who else is in coat and tie on a lovely Sunday afternoon seven weeks before elections? I pray that Charlie got a chuckle from that scene, and again when I tried to figure out a sign in a shop window on Dempster that read “Order your Lulav and Etrog now for Sukkot.” (When I got home, I Googled, and learned that a lulav is a small palm branch held together with willow branches, an etrog a fragrant citrus fruit akin to a lemon, the two waved ritually during the fall holiday of Sukkot; another Judaic lesson that day!)

The bus rolled up more or less on time. I knew the line well, because it runs between the big airport and Evanston, home of Northwestern University. The 45-minute ride was a good opportunity to process all that I had seen that afternoon – and to think, with a sense of good fortune and thanks, that this was the first funeral of a friend since we said goodbye to Jack Sheppard in St. Paul, Minnesota, on an icy December day 17 years ago. Like Jack, Charlie was too young to die, but as the rabbi reminded us, it’s about fullness, not the number of years.

Waiting at gate K-10 for the flight home, I Googled “Rabbi Bronstein, Chicago,” and was not surprised to read from several websites of his long and full life of preaching and service, and his wisdom. Here a fitting thought from a righteous person:

When any of us remember at least from time to time to count the days, to take notice of their infinite value, to greet each day and live each day with the attitude of praise, to make each day a vessel of offering and praise to God, of our own growth, the growth of our soul, and above all, to make them count for good to others, we no longer have to worry about the passing of our own days.

Barber’s contemplative “Adagio for Strings” and a movement from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” were good tunes to cue when I took my seat on flight 2353. But after we reached cruise altitude, and the cold beer was in front of me, I cued my Grateful Dead playlist, for the Dead were among Charlie’s favorites.

Among memories of my departed friend, I lift up three. One, from first meeting. It was fall 1986, and Northwest Airlines had just gobbled up our beloved little Republic. The general belief among the ex-Republic folk was that NWA’s marketing group were populated by some pretty dim folks. But there were exceptions. My pal Rick Dow, described in these pages, was one. And Charlie was another. Who, we thought, was the guy sitting on a Scandinavian posture chair, wearing the Birkenstocks, and pecking at the (way rare in those days) IBM PC? Well, that was “C. Q. Bear,” as we decided to call him, a name that fit all the better after we learned that he loved canoeing in the Boundary Waters wilderness in northern Minnesota.

Second memory: a hot evening in the summer of 1990 or 1991 at Greenwood Hills Pool in Richardson, Texas, Charlie and I bobbing in the water with Jack and Robin. Charlie took a special shine to our kids, and they to him. It was just another part of the people-affirming that Rabbi Bronstein lauded. And a third, described above, from not eight weeks past, the last time I saw Charlie, in his room at Northwestern University Hospital. Three magpies (together with his brother-in-law Richard) yapping animatedly about events of the day. I was then and just now as I type this reminded that Charlie was a citizen in the highest and best sense of that word. He so wanted the world to be a better place, and he devoted much of his life to that end. May he rest in peace.

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I don’t think Charlie would object to a few other photos from that day:

Main entrance, the former Immaculata High School, from which my mother graduated in 1939

Immaculata is now two schools, a French language lycee, and the American Islamic College; the signs advertised a picnic for the French students and a forthcoming conference on Muslims in America.

Detail, movie-theater marquee, Des Plaines, Illinois (just north of O'Hare Airport)

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