In the spring of 1995, my grandmother Lali died (may her memory be a blessing). I was a college student then, and had a part-time job as a low-level html programmer at Tripod, the dot.com where Ethan worked, founded by two recent Williams graduates and a professor named Dick Sabot.
Everyone else at Tripod was college-age, or close to it; Dick was an anomaly. He had been a professor of economics at Columbia, Oxford, and Yale before coming to Williams. He had spent ten years at the World Bank, and served as a Senior Economic Advisor to the Inter-American Development Bank. And he was the only one at Tripod in those early days who knew much about running a business -- or, for that matter, about being a grown-up.
Shortly after Lali died, I found a packet from Dick in my student union mailbox. "Rachel," the note said, "As you come to terms with the death of your grandmother, my account of my own near death experience may offer a hopeful perspective." A hopeful perspective: Dick in a nutshell. Sure enough, paperclipped to his note was a sheaf of typed pages, an excerpt from something he was writing entitled To Die Would Be Such An Adventure.
It began by quoting from his journal, an entry dated June 28, 1991:
A week ago today, Friday, June 21, Jude's birthday, I died. I left this world as we know it and then returned. The technical term is cardiac arrest. My heart stopped pumping. The finely syncopated electrical signals that regulate its complex functioning had become a jumble, an electrical storm which transmitted noise but communicated no vital information to the heart muscle...
While playing squash, Dick had suffered a heart attack. They rushed him to the Intensive Care Unit, where his heart stopped beating. The nurses came rushing in to do what they could to bring him back. Meanwhile, he was on an "extraordinary journey:"
I had a sense, not so much of "passing away" or "passing on" or "crossing over" but of joining or, more accurate still, rejoining. Rejoining what? In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki talks of the individual drops of water that fall 1340 feet from the top to the bottom of Yosemite falls. It takes them such a long time to traverse that distance. Having been one with the river prior to its plunge, each drop is now separate and without connection to the others...
At the bottom of the mountain the drops rejoin the stream, lose their individuality and become one. The stream flows smoothly. So at the end of life as we know it we shed our individuality, and with it our feelings and fears, our difficulties, and rejoin the stream becoming one with the energy from which we emerged at birth.
Prior to birth, Dick wrote, we are one with God. (At least, so Jewish mysticism teaches.) When we are born, God places a finger on our lips (forming the indentation below the nose), individuating us from the unity we once knew. At death, we become aware again of our oneness with God.
I have been blessed by this experience of rejoining, even though I chose not to remain in this place of wonderful composure, this realm of unity, to spend more time as an individual being.... My experience of what awaits me vaporized my fear of death. I was not afraid, to my surprise, while on this adventure, nor do I expect ever again to fear death.
Dick counted himself fortunate to have had a foretaste of the peace and comfort that awaited him. But he chose to return to separateness -- to what we know as life -- because of his connection to loved ones, his delight in the natural world, his sense of interesting experiences as-yet uncompleted, and his desire to share the story of the joyful unity he found on the "other side." Dick chose to postpone his entry into that realm.
Last week that postponement came due. Dick had another heart attack, and this time the doctors were unable to revive him. We were supposed to have dinner with Dick and his wonderful wife that very evening; I will always regret that we were unable to schedule the dinner for even one day sooner. Our lives are so busy that though we began planning the dinner some weeks before, July 6th was the first night all four of us could make -- or thought we could. Dick turned out to have a more pressing engagement.
To us, Dick was a dear friend and mentor. To the world he was, as his obituary notes, "a scholar, teacher, entrepreneur and adventurer who was committed to worldwide social and economic change[.]" He was beloved by more people than I can count.
His most defining quality, for me, was his boundless optimism. Dick had the ability to see the best in all things, to dream ways that even difficult situations could turn into blessings. We teased him about it, but we knew it was the gift which sustained him, and in turn, sustained us, too.
It seems impossible that someone so vibrant and exuberant could be gone. We feel his absence keenly. But I find some comfort in the recognition that where he is, there is no loss. Only the rejoining he began fourteen years ago, finally complete.
Dick Sabot, 1944-2005.