I've never seen anyone more alive on his deathbed than Marty Jezer. When I visited him last week, his ever-expressive face was animated, his huge eyes were glowing, his thoughts were flowing as openly and fluidly as ever, and his speech -- stuttering and all -- was running witty, deep and openhearted. It was typical Marty except that most of his hair was gone and he was all bone, lying in a hospital bed in his home on a day when making connections with hospice had already tired him out.
I told him that in my opinion it's a shame we hold memorial services for people after they have died, so they can't hear what their friends really think about them. To paraphrase an old Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song, "Memorials cheer the living, dear, they're no good to the dead." So I said I'd write an appreciation of him while he was still alive to read it, and he said "Go for it." So here goes.
When I first started writing my own column -- about music, mostly -- I got a letter from Marty telling me that my opinions were "really off the wall." Then, in two single-spaced, closely-typed pages, he instructed me on the fine art of listening to Billie Holiday, early Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. His words remain wise and eloquent today -- although I don't think we'll ever agree about Frank Sinatra.
I didn't know Marty then, although I knew about him -- that he was a well-known left-wing writer, one of the hippest people of his generation, and one of those legendary early commune hippies who came to Vermont in the 1970s and stayed to make a life here.
Marty was no hippie caricature, though. He was a well-respected and much-loved contributor to the daily life of our community, an adept and knowledgeable political columnist, and the author of four books, one of which was made into a movie.
When I met him, I must admit it took awhile to get through the stuttering. Then I realized that this was just about the funniest man I would ever have the pleasure of knowing, and the stuttering stopped mattering. From the beginning, to me, Marty was a man of great humor, deep intelligence and strong opinions which he loved to exchange with others.
"One of the challenges (and pleasures) of writing for a local newspaper is that most readers do not share my politics," he wrote on his Web site (www.sover.net/~mjez/newspapercolumns). "Truth is, I'd rather be read by people who don't hold my views. Sometimes I picture in my mind's eye a local conservative and write with the intention of changing his or her mind. Other times I write with the image of lefty friends in mind, trying to persuade them to think less ideologically and more pragmatically."
The goal, he said, is to find enough common ground for dialogue, but at the same time keep questioning authority and our own assumptions. Who can argue with that?
Marty has been fighting cancer for some time, and he thought he had it licked. But it returned, and left nothing more for the doctors to do.
I asked if he was scared. He said, "Only of the pain." Luckily, a medical miracle of a pump is keeping him pain-free, so he can remain a conscious participant in his own life.
Our conversation turned to politics and the country's dangerous, right-wing ways. He was patriotic and optimistic. "It's my country and I'm not ashamed of it," he said. "We have to fight and take it back. Half of us haven't bought into Bush. The good fight is still being fought."
Marty has a CD player propped up against his bed, and he played for me Madeleine Peyroux's version of Leonard Cohen's beautiful love song, "Dance Me To The End of Love." The lyrics had special meaning: "Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in/Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove/Dance me to the end of love." As a singer Peyroux has been compared to Billie Holiday, so in a way, for Marty, music has come full circle.
He said he was angry that his life was coming to an end, when he has enjoyed the living of it so much. But he recognizes that he has had a marvelous life. After talking about his love for his work, for Brattleboro, for his family and his friends, he added with awe, "And I heard Count Basie in his prime. I heard him."
At least, we joked together, he had lived long enough to learn the identity of Deep Throat. And we agreed that we may all of us die before we learn the greatest secret of our generation, who shot Jack Kennedy and why.
This has been a difficult column for me to write. As your extended family surrounds you and your many friends line up to talk politics and music, all I can say, Marty Jezer, is that it's been an honor and a privilege to know you. Go dancing all you can, my friend, but you will never come to the end of love.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who lives in Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Email Jezer, who has been a contributor to TPP since 1999, at email@example.com.