Saturday, August 20, 2005

Remarks at cousin Sydney's Funeral

spoken July 22, 2005

How can we best summarize Sydney Johnson, my brother? There are many ways to describe him. Loving husband and father, servant of his faith, an engineer, a scientist, an economist, a man who faced adversity and held his head high.

I have another word for him – which summarizes what he meant to us, his brothers and sister. It may surprise many of you who knew him as he became increasingly housebound and even wheelchair-bound.

I would call Syd an Explorer. He loved to explore.

This was brought back to me last month, as I visited Syd in his Danbury hospital room. He was heavily medicated and sleeping and breathing deeply. On the TV above his bed were dozens gazelles and giraffes running across the screen – Cynthia looked at me and said: "He loves the Discovery Channel."

Suddenly, seeing those gazelles and giraffes, I remembered how much Syd loved to travel and learn about and explore many, many new worlds.
When he graduated from college in 1966, Syd was the first in our family to move overseas – to York and to London, England, where he spent the better part of two decades. He decided to take the old Queen Mary, a traditional transatlantic ocean voyage. He loved York – the old Minster, the Shambles.

I was privileged in the early 1970s to spend time with him in England. We traveled many places, both in the UK and elsewhere.

I recall, particularly an adventure in Morocco. We had just purchased Moroccan jalabas, the long flowing Arab robes, at a souk in Casablanca, and decided to wear them as we boarded a long distance bus, filled with Arabs and Berbers, across the Atlas Mountains.

I fancied that my French skills and my somewhat darker skin (after all, we have a Spanish ancestor on our mother's side) would enable us to pass as locals. Syd, whose Scandinavian origins were immediately betrayed by a face as red as a beetroot after a few hours of African sunlight, convinced me otherwise.

I remember another trip, when Syd's Serbian language skills betrayed him and he purchased a train ticket from Belgrade to Venice on a train that actually went to Switzerland – the Swiss police removed him from the train and, after he was released, he had to hitchhike through the Simplon Tunnel. He had a grand time, and told that story many times afterward.

Carolyn remembers the Christmas skiing trip in the Austrian Alps – Syd was an excellent athlete. And a protective older brother to us all.

I recall a phone call from Istanbul one day. It was Syd. He had taken the Orient Express train to Turkey. There had just been an earthquake in Istanbul and he wanted to describe it for us.

Yet there was one more trip.

The poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote, at the conclusion of her poem "Questions of Travel":

/ . . . / Should we have stayed at home

/ . . . / Wherever that might be?

Syd eventually learned that his travel days were over and that he would stay at home. But, like Lou Gehrig in very similar circumstances, he considered himself lucky – or as many would say, including Syd, blessed.

Lucky to be blessed with a loving and devoted wife. Blessed also with a son who was smart and caring, and whose interest in computers paralleled his own.

At home, during the final decade of his life, he became an involuntary explorer, on a trip that none of us would envy him for – as he faced his increasing disability. But he still loved to explore.

I visited him on the evening before his 60th birthday, last November. I shared with him photos of the recent trip that my daughter Marta and I had made to India. He was fascinated by the trip. Syd's eyes lighted up, and he nodded with glee, as we discussed photos of some village monkeys who begged money from tourists, and then took the coins to a local fruit seller, who gave them bananas in exchange. After the monkeys finished the bananas, they awaited the next tourist bus. Syd chortled.

In those final years, Syd dealt with his disease with courage, dignity, fortitude, and incredible grace – and never allowed it to undermine his faith. In that last journey, he became a hero for many of us – and now he has one more journey, one more exploration, and we who are left behind can only note how much we enjoyed his company, and his exploring mind, and say: "Thank you, Syd. Have a great trip."

Bruce Johnson (Seattle, WA )


Kyahgirl said...

Lovely post Lucia. I'm sorry for your loss.

careerlady (on said...

Thank you Laura. It was a beautiful funeral. I loved Sydney and I miss him. What a terrible disease. xoxox

Atreau said...

I am so sorry for your loss. What an incredible man! You were very lucky to have had him in your life and he you!