A Letter from Joe

My dear friend Joe Nagy wrote this shortly after the death of his brother in 2013.  It’s a poignant attempt at truth-finding. With Just A Thought, we hope we have created a space where truth-finding can flourish and be shared.  I hope that Joe will write again, and that others will consider sharing your own stories and wisdom. – Pat

Dear Pat and Friends,

My good friend Pat has asked me how I am coping with the death of my younger brother, Richard. He died two months ago in a motorcycle accident, 3,000 miles away on a highway in Idaho. His death came so suddenly, so out of the blue, that in truth I have had little time to mourn.

Rick lived alone, and died without a will. In a whirlwind three-day trip to Idaho with my son, we struggled to piece together his life and his death, and put his estate in order. On the flight out, all I could think of was that his body was in cold storage somewhere in northern Idaho. We viewed his motorcycle at the garage where it was towed – smashed beyond repair. We left behind the bloody helmet and the single boot. How did he lose it? Where was the other boot?

From my brother’s cell phone, I found the numbers of his oldest friends, who were as yet unaware of his death. Leo graduated from engineering school with Rick, and they got their first jobs together. Rick served as best man at Leo’s wedding. Tom and his wife Dianne had ridden with Rick on countless motorcycle trips throughout the northwest. Tom was shattered when I gave him the news. So were Jay and Monique, the bohemian French couple in California who loved Rick like a son. I found myself consoling them all.

It was not until I was back home, driving to work for the first time since Rick’s death, that I began to mourn. I put on a Bob Dylan CD that I had brought back from Rick’s home, and the first song hit like a hammer:

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door. Is standing in the clothes that you once wore. Strike another match and start anew. It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

Only a week earlier, I had to go through Rick’s belongings. We decided to give his clothes to charity. Someone else would be wearing them soon.

I became acutely aware of the fragility of life. Each moment we walk the knife-edge of existence. Rick had checked off the first 25 days in April on his kitchen calendar, and he fully expected to check off the 26th that evening. He left his vitamins on the kitchen counter, ready to take when he returned from his ride.

I had his mail forwarded to me in Connecticut, and one day I received a notice from a life insurance company, congratulating Rick for signing up for a $1,000 policy that his bank offered as a free incentive. The activation date was April 26th, the day of his death. Had he filled out the application and dropped it in a mailbox before heading out on what would be his last ride?

I began reading the books that I brought home from Rick’s library. He had no TV at home, no computer, just a collection of CDs and books. Although he trained as an engineer, he loved reading philosophy, religion, and psychology.

“He: Understanding Masculine Psychology,” by the Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, was bookmarked about three-quarters of the way through. Apparently Rick never finished it. Johnson wrote that all males are on a quest for the Holy Grail – which Johnson interprets as the integration of the self and the shadow. Women, he said, already reside in the Grail Hall, and so are baffled by this male quest.

What was Rick seeking on his solo wilderness treks? On his solitary motorcycle trips through the desert and mountains? Did he once glimpse the Grail, as Johnson says all males do in their youth, and was now seeking it relentlessly ever after, like the knight Percival, who never slept twice in the same place? Was that why Rick always talked about moving on after two years in one job?

I reread “Walden,” Thoreau’s classic account of his two-year experiment in voluntary poverty. Thoreau was very close to Rick’s heart. He had a miniature copy of Walden that he could carry with him on his hikes. I began to see Rick now through Thoreau’s eyes.

Thoreau wrote, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” Thoreau wrote.

Rick’s dear friend Rosie once gave him a set of lovely cloth table napkins, and he put them in a drawer and never used them. He said shop rags worked just as well.
Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes,” Thoreau wrote. “If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?” Rick often bought his clothes second-hand from Goodwill. They served his needs quite adequately, he said.

Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep,” Thoreau wrote. On one wall of his home, Rick had erected a small wooden candle holder. On it he placed a booklet, “The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.” Many claim a commitment to human rights, but who places an altar on their wall so that they are daily reminded that all humans deserve freedom and dignity?

In dealing with truth,” Thoreau wrote, “we are immortal.”

I will teach Thoreau in my literature class this coming academic year. I have taught him before, but this time I have a personal motive. I want to share with young men and women my brother’s love of nature, his desire to “simplify, simplify,” his quest for personal integrity. I want them to understand that one person, alone against the world, can alter history.

  • Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician who studied the principle of the lever, reportedly said, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth.”
  • Thoreau taught us, in the words of his great friend Emerson, that “the best place for each is where he stands.” That is my brother’s gift to me.


Joe Nagy

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