Editorial: The Art and Science of Living Well

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 09:29:00 AM

When you get to be a certain age, news of death comes all too often. It’s been only a week or so since we mused on the loss of a couple of good friends in this space, and now another good man is gone. Readers, especially younger readers, might be getting tired of all this talk of death. 

But really, there’s not much point in talking about Michael Rossman’s death, though it was the kind of death the nuns told us to pray for. St. Joseph, they said, was the patron saint of a happy death. The holy cards showed a white-bearded old fellow at home in bed surrounded by family, including Mary and Jesus and assorted other biblical figures, and he was always smiling.  

Michael died at home on Monday, with his family and friends nearby, and that’s about as much as any of us could wish for from death. We were taught at school to pray for “the grace of a happy death,” and by all accounts his passing was full of his trademark grace and charm. 

I knew him twice, early on, now a half-century ago, and again in recent years. We were both on Cal’s undergraduate literary magazine at one point, probably in 1958 or 1959—I think it was called Occident. He was a handsome rosy-cheeked boy, at that point academically a math major because he was very smart, but also a poet because he was very romantic. He was a red diaper baby—his parents were communists, and he took his politics seriously, but also always with a grain of salt. 

The big political news on campus was the primeval student political party— indeed I think it was the only one at that time—Slate. It was perennially being thrown off campus for assorted sins of free speech. Student rabble-rousers, including Michael, spoke when they could, standing on the planters in Dwinelle Plaza. Sproul Plaza was still under construction.  

Michael himself documented in exhaustive detail much of the frenetic activity in those days, and a lot of it can be found on the Internet with a Google search. The facts are actively disputed by participants with failing memories, but the passion behind them is unmistakable. A peak was the demonstrations in San Francisco in May of 1960 against the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was the first big mass demonstration of a generation scared by McCarthyism, and it was the precursor of the Free Speech Movement of 1964.  

By the time of the FSM I’d graduated, moved away and lost touch. I saw Michael interviewed on television on 60 Minutes in the early ’60s, part of a program whose theme was “The Death of the Student Movement.” He argued to the contrary, and soon thereafter the FSM happened, with his enthusiastic participation. 

“Enthusiastic” could have been his middle name. He went to jail on behalf of the FSM, and he enjoyed the experience. 

After a letter he forwarded to us (from one of his well-loved sons, supporting Obama) was quoted in this space recently, he sent this note: 

“When I was reading your editorial about “it’s time to do something for Obama,” [I] came down unsuspectingly to the last third where you mentioned me and then printed Jaime’s letter. How perfect a grist it was for your mill, in all ways sentimental and proactive; and how tears sprang instantly from my eyes, to see you make such capital use, and see his earnest effort honored so naturally. 

“As I told him, on forwarding it: while I was in jail for FSM, I did a lot of writing. Once out, I mimeographed 150 copies of my long memoir about serving time, and sent them to all my friends. Someone forwarded one to someone at NYRB; they printed it; this led Doubleday to offer me a contract for what became my first big-published book, The Wedding Within the War. So that was my grounding experience with writing-to-be-read: do what comes naturally, speak to your friends first (as I had with poetry before); and I am oh-so-glad that he has had this kind of lesson in life at a similar age...” 

He was a big fan of the Planet and an occasional contributor. His pieces were always much longer than any one else’s, and his effusive prose looked unusual in a newspaper context, but readers enjoyed reading his stuff almost as much as he seemed to relish writing it. 

He even managed to enjoy many things about his final illness, acute leukemia lasting only a few months. His mid-life career had been teaching science to little kids, something else he was endlessly enthusiastic about, and he got deep into the scientific details of his treatment. He treated fortunate friends to occasional updates which blended science and poetry in an improbable but effective way. A brief excerpt gives the flavor: 

“Convalescence had been uncannily smooth sailing, save for a clammy scrotum, until two weeks ago, when my robust appetite ebbed and my wide-walking energy flagged, leaving me listless in bed for a few days, losing weight, until yet another clinic visit brought forth a tentative diagnosis of so-far-mild intestinal GVHD—the big scarey (aside from fungal infection), which we sort of welcome for its possible role in forestalling possible relapse, but dread in excess. Whereupon, they put me on prednisone—oh joy, oh oy—to see if that will push it back. Even though my appetite returned, and some energy too, the morning before I went in to receive their diagnosis. Go figure... A sharp reminder that I’m quite a ways still from being out of the woods; but I knew that already, really I did.” 

Sadly, he was right. He never did get all the way out of the woods, despite a bone marrow transplant from his sister. His e-mailed accounts after he took a turn for the worse celebrated festive at-homes where he farmed out his extensive plant collection, even as the medical news was looking dire.  

We’ve asked his family and friends to contribute a proper obituary at some point before the memorial they’re organizing, which will be in a month or so. That should supply the vital statistics, the facts and the figures, the names of his survivors and the titles of his books. 

But he really was his own best monument. His death was exemplary, yes, but a better theme for today’s meditation would be from his own tradition: l’chaim, to life. By today’s standards Michael Rossman died young at 69, though by the standards of previous generations he had a long, full and rich life. He squeezed every bit of juice out of every lemon that came his way, and made very fine lemonade with all the fun he had. L’chaim, then, Michael. May we live so long, or at least so well, as you have.  


—Becky O’Malley