A FEW YEARS ago essayists were telling us that "death" was the great taboo of the 20th-century Western bourgeois world - our equivalent of the Victorian refusal to countenance a public acknowledgment of sex. In no time, it seems, that cultural blind-spot (perhaps, as is often the case, never altogether there in the first place) has been more than challenged. The grieving or simply curious, if not morbid, reader can find his or her fill of books and articles about death - some quite worthwile and helpful, some reeking with that particular psychological self-sonsciousness and preachiness that characterizes so much of our sectarian culture. For every Ernest Becker, bringing to us the subtle, knowing and death-obsessed existentialists of the 19th and 20th centuries, or Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, ackowledging life's mysteries and urging in clear and unpretentious language a quiet respect for them, there are dozens of all too prescriptive and wordy recommendations. We have been given "stages" to go through, and pity the dying or grieving person if either of them misses a step. We have been told of emotions to be analyzed - talk and more talk, with "awareness" the great "goals." Even many ministers these days, God save them, don't just try to console their parishioners, pray with and for them, be with them - but arm themselves with psychological "techniques," and try endlessly to gauge how a particular sick and dying person is doing according to one or another theory, or widely heralded "perspective."
Death, Heidegger kept reminding his readers, keeps us more alive, modest and reflective, than we may care to know. He was thinking, as philosophers do, of himself and those who read books such as his. For hundreds of millions of people on this earth life is brief and grim, the next meal a constant uncertainty, disease a daily fact of existence. But for those of us lucky enough to be well-to-do members of advanced industrial societies, the chances are high for a relatively long and healthy if not happy life. The last breath may well come in the person's seventies or eighties; he or she has seen a lot, enjoyed many experiences, known few, if any, hardships - and in an increasing number of instances, been virtually free of major illnesses before the final one has been diagnosed.
That was about the way it went for Stephen Rosenfeld's mother and father, who, in addition, had been happily married for over four decades, and brought up four children, each of whom had married, with eleven grandchildren the result - a further bonus to a pair of talented, sensitive, decent, generous people. They were of quite comfortable background; the father, a musician when young, when into the family clothing business; the mother, orphaned as a girl, developed strong literary and social interests, and did much indeed for the troubled youth at the Austen Riggs Center, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Nearby Pittsfield was where the Rosenfelds had put down roots, a commercial town in the Berkshire hills, near an important artistic and musical community, and possessed of a first-rate newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle, for which the author's father wrote as a music reviewer. It was a comfortable, fine life - not one available to many, even in this country: a more than adequate home; much land, indeed a striking countryside; a good deal of help from people who cooked, cleaned, made each day easier to deal with; frequent travel; and not least, intelligent, thoughtful, successful children.
All that came to an end for Jay and Elizabeth Rosenfeld in the autumn of 1975, the early spring of 1976; each of them died of cancer - prolonged, difficult, exhausting deaths. Now, a year later, one of their children has written about their lives, their final days. And done so with exceptional skill, intelligence, tact. Meant to be a memoir, a narrative account of two events, a testimony to the unforgettable worth of a particular set of parents, the book quietly and without pretense becomes for the reader something more: an evocation of what this country, at its best, is all about; a celebration of stable, intact family life; and not least, a touching psychological and moral document, which, one hopes, will be read by many of us who have yet to face what the author has gone through, and who will find nowhere anything better to read on the subject he addresses.
One goes through this book quickly; it is short, and the writing is lean, crisp, and at moments, terribly penetrating. One leaves with no rules to follow, no principles or procedures. Days later, however, the dead Rosenfelds stay in the mind, as does the quite brilliant and affecting account of their son: the tone he has managed, the natural grace of his account, its lack of self-importance, and its refusal to become insistently "therapeutic," full of "counsel" or "advice." The elder Rosenfelds gave much to their particular American community and to their children, their grandchildren. One of their sons offers those two fine human beings to the rest of us - a gift of sorts, at a time when so many well-to-do but confused and rootless people badly need to think about what they believe in, want out of life for themselves and their loved ones. The reader may find his eyes repeatedly filling up while reading the book; may come back to it week later; and will no doubt feel grateful indeed to Stephen Rosenfeld for the respectful, affectionate and candid effort he has made to set down the spiritual inheritance his parents left behind.