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In Memoriam

Rusty Magee

A Celebration of our Beloved Friend

Riverside Memorial Chapel
New York City

Sunday, March 2, 2003

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Josh Mitchell, Ph D.

Lifelong Friend from Ann Arbor, MIchigan

Now when Job’s friends heard of the evil that had come upon him, they came everyone from his own place. . . . And they sat down upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word unto him, for they saw that his grief was very great

(Job 2: 11, 13)

Not because Rusty’s grief was great — for it was — did his friends come everyone from their own place to sit with him during that eternity of hope, apprehension, and sorrow that swirled around the last two years of his life. They came because greater than his grief was his joy; more pervasive than the anxiety that shook-his-soul was the love that anchored it. Friends came, that they might give back and watch over; they left — and returned in a never-ending, never tiring procession - with the uncanny sense that the tables had been reversed, and that it was they who had received. Who among us did not say as we left his side, “What was it that just struck me; by what uncanny Higher Law have I emerged from this bedside strangely healed, newly fortified, now wholly attentive?” Even in his own illness, — perhaps even especially in his illness— , Rusty remained the doctor, who cured the maladies and disaffections of all those who attended him; for the iron cord that rang out throughout his life, sometimes in spite of himself, was that the very order of creation sings out in celebration, that sorrow and grief are not the final arbiters. Rusty Magee: doctor of the soul, bringer of this most needed musical medicine.

By what warrant did this unlicensed doctor heal? I am not certain that Rusty knew the power of his art, nor from whence it came. It is the destiny of artists not to fully command the forces by which they reshape worlds or bring others into their orbit. Rusty was born into their company, and never left it. There was seldom diligence in what he set out to accomplish, but there was often brilliance in what was finally done. On stage, there before the piano, were staggering leaps of imagination, and crescendos of laughter that left his audience gasping for air and howling insatiably for more. That he could give more was not the real mark of his genius however. No, he was a thousand times more sublime than that, for in the midst of this disarming spectacle of sheer joy, this happening that suspended time and space with an ecstatic, delirious, mist that was the universal balm for life’s daily wounds, lo and behold, a clearing would come into view; and suddenly, utterly without announcement, would appear Rusty Magee, up there on the stage, singing a song for you alone, tinged with melancholy, or with love so overflowing that no vessel could contain it. “How was this possible,” you would ask? “To what am I here a witness?” “This burden of cares he has gently eased off of my shoulders with playful reminders of the music of my youth. And now, disarmed, here I am again, alone, with only this man in my sights.”

But this time, of course, you were not alone, or at least not in the same way you were when you first entered the room that fateful night. This was not loneliness but communion, of that most holy and rare type, which no merely mortal set designer or lighting technician could have possibly orchestrated. Suddenly, amidst the greatest possible frivolity and playfulness, a gentle call came forth, as much from Rusty as from the hidden recesses of your own silenced heart. And in between whatever words he sang that night was woven another set of lyrics that he implored us on a thousand different occasions to memorize, not because they were his, but because they were true:

This I announce to you—that in the isolation of your own life is chaos and a labyrinth that cannot be fathomed. Do not, alone, seek a key to unlock your perplexity. For life makes mockery of your private thoughts. Neither savor, as romantics do, the pleasure of their confusion. Instead, sing loudly, and sometimes frivolously. Do this not to conceal the depth of life, but to honor it. And occasionally, when you reveal that sublime world of love and hope and infinite promise to those whose good fortune it is to witness it, dwell there only for a moment, for treasures such as this tarnish in the light of day.

His performances were these words, in every sense. In the rest of his professional life, he gave away his gifts more freely, often to the exasperation of those nearest to him. For all of his elaborate organizational schemes, he never quite believed that the world in which the rest of us lived—the world of payment and of debt—much mattered. And I do not think I am alone in believing that this was both his strength and his weakness. He was attuned to a higher calculus, according to which the payment received was a small measure of thanks and a large measure of laughter, and the debt owed to others was to be generous beyond measure. Motivated by less lofty concerns, I ask, as one of his oldest friends, that those who were the benefactors of his freely given talent find it in their hearts to rebalance the scales, and work as their conscience commands, to assure that Rusty’s musical legacy achieves its proper stature.

Of the place of friendship in his life there is much to say. To be human is to have a highest concern, a concern around which the rest of life is ordered and because of which everything falls into place. For some, it is money; for some, honor; for others, power. Each has an inexorable logic, and configures life according to its own dictates. For Rusty, the highest concern was friendship. For his friends he had inexhaustible energy; to his friends he was fiercely loyal. I saw this first forty years ago, in 1963, the day after my family arrived in Ann Arbor. From across the street he came: a freckle faced, red headed, scrawny little 8 year old, with his dog, Sharpy, nearby—which none of his friends could stand, but which Rusty defended in his mad, Irish-tempered, kind of way. From across the street he came, with an open hand and a smile, in friendship.

Childhood friendships are bound to acquire mythical stature, and I dare say that this stature was amplified by the momentous events of 1960s. Generations are defined by the events they witness; but how they endure them depends on the strengths of the friendships that they forge. A small band of us were fortunate to have found each other; and when the veil of our innocence was pierced that fateful, Indian Summer day, in late November of 1963, it never once occurred to us—then, and in all the turmoil of the decade that followed—that any such event would disturb the Great Fact to which we were a living witness, namely, that we would all be together, in some way, until the end of our days.

Rusty held this in his heart perhaps more strongly than did the rest of us, in no small part because after Elementary School he went away for long stretches at a time, first to Eaglebrook, then to Exeter. His friendships with those of us who stayed were less disturbed than fortified by the rituals of departure and return during his adolescence. “Hey Mitch, I’m back” came to have an almost liturgical quality, repeated more times than I can remember during his pilgrimages home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break and, finally, Summer Break. Ah, Summer Break: eating ourselves sick high up in the cherry tree that grew in his back yard; playing hide and seek in that fraternity house that Rusty kept reminding us was a mere residence; endless miles on bicycles, riding around Ann Arbor, talking about baseball, or the tyrannical teachers we had had that year, or girls—a subject about which Rusty was evidently without a clue, though in light of his later life with Alison I wonder if he really knew as little as he claimed he did.

I have alluded here to only the fringes of the beautiful tapestry that was our youth. Beautiful though it was, however, even then we all saw evidence of what would later crystallize into the lyrics of his life: “show forth your treasures only rarely.” We all knew of his depth, and I think we realized that to be Rusty’s friend was to operate in a two-fold world in which levity and play were the overt order of the day, and knowledge of that other dimension of his soul remained unspoken.

All of his friends—from his days in Ann Arbor to his recent past—had to make this tacit bargain, had to learn this secret handshake. Those who understood Rusty only in the light of his unbounded humor proved themselves to be among the uninitiated; in their eyes he was sometimes something of a mascot entertainer. They were the poorer for it. The rest of us knew better.

There were only two occasions in my life with Rusty when the barriers entirely fell away. The first occurred on a steamy summer night up in northern Michigan more than 30 years ago. A happy group of us were coming home from a drive-in movie, and Rusty demanded that the car be stopped. He had had way too much to drink that evening, and asked that I step out of the car with him, to help him through one of the rituals of youth. During that ordeal, punctuated by the rhythms of doubling over by the side of the road, he said “Mitch, don’t let me forget.” “What,” I said? “Don’t let me forget.” “What do you mean,” I said? “Just don’t let me forget.” Of course I did know what he meant. His musical and comedic powers were in their ascendancy, and he was asking me not to let him forget that other deeper part of his soul, the part he could not easily show, but the part without which he knew he would loose his way.

We never talked about that night again. And for more than 30 years I did not forget—and more importantly, he knew that I did not forget. A glance here, a glance there: nothing more was needed.

The second time the barriers fell was shortly before he died. We had been talking about what lay beyond death. I had told him about the wisdom of the ages, insofar as it had been passed down in the great writings of our civilization. He listened, then said, “but these are all scripts, and for what I am about to pass through there is no script.” “That’s right, Rusty,” I said, “this is the last, great, improvisation.” I said no more. There comes a time when the greater wisdom is silence, the silence Job’s friends knew when they ‘sat down upon the ground for seven days, and said not a word.’

I have only reports of his last week. For the living, there will always be the haunting question of whether we have done well by those who we have helped across the Threshold. I think that Alison saw well in advance what the highest task would be: more important than maintaining his body was maintaining his mental faculties. And she valiantly did just that.

For the dying the task is of a different order. When all mortal efforts at sustaining life have been exhausted, when there are no more scripts, when even the faculties begin to fail, a great peace does, thankfully, settle in—or so I am told. Each breath becomes a miracle, each act of friendship a source of gratitude, and each confession of love a sublime gift. And then it is over.

Now, he is gone. In his life, Rusty brought laughter that was tinctured by love and by friendship. His hand was always outstretched. Through his death, our world has strangely expanded. There are memories to cherish, to be sure; but there are also covenants to keep: with Alison, with Nat, with his family, with those who Rusty brought together. The words he spoke to me so many years ago that summer evening by the side of the road up in northern Michigan now take on a prophetic urgency. Dormant for three decades, so that there full meaning could someday be grasped, they are now our words: “don’t let me forget, don’t let me forget, don’t let me forget.”

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