In the span of just a few days last month, Fresno lost a dazzling pair of legendary figures – Poet Laureate Philip Levine and Coach Jerry Tarkanian.
Different as night and day, they were hardly a matched pair of bookends. Nevertheless, each was unforgettable and iconic — the kind of humans whose passion pierced a hole right through you if you let it. Both also the kind of mortals who left you wishing you had something burning inside you equally as strong. It never dawned on me either of them would die.
In the days that followed, and as our community and the outside world announced tributes in their honor, I sat one morning wondering how I might remember them. I can’t say I knew either of them particularly well, but both had stirred my soul.
I had known of Jerry Tarkanian for years but never met him face to face until he arrived at Fresno State. From that moment forward, I loved basketball. I ran into him everywhere — The Elbow Room, Armenian restaurants, fundraising events, church bazaars. Constantly surrounded by his devoted entourage, crowds engulfed the man who loved chewing on towels. In his shadow, I saw the silhouette of a human firecracker.
We had breakfast together twice to discuss a program he had agreed to do for our Fresno County Office of Education family. An enchanting storyteller, he mesmerized even himself with tales about his players and possessed an unrelenting desire to give them second chances.
I believed every word, easily taken in by the dance of his bulging eyes, the skyward tilt of his half-moon smile, and a hint of defiance that drove his superiors crazy. Admittedly, I cut him slack because his last name ended in “ian.”
While Facebook and Twitter posts trended and resurrected his life, I pulled two signed prints from the closet and laid them to rest in my writing studio. An attempt, I guess, to keep him in the present tense a bit longer. I propped them against the same wall with Cher, Andre Agassi, Charles Aznavour and William Saroyan.
A few days later, news of Levine’s death arrived. This time, I scavenged bookshelves, hunting down books and finding two of my favorites: “The Simple Truth” and “News of the World.” Tucked inside one was the invitation I’d kept from a 2012 reception celebrating his title as United States Poet Laureate.
Holding each by its spine, placing them onto my lap, I sat in utter awe. He was one of our own, an earthy everyman. The uncommon, common man. Thumbing through pages, I stumbled onto one of my dog-eared favorites titled, “Our Valley.” Eulogizing his prowess, I read it out loud – his words reaching right down to the ground floor of my heart.
“ We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass, something massive, irrational, and so powerful even the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.”
As days moved forward, matters of life and death continued pulling me in deeper.
On a very early Saturday morning, I plugged an unfamiliar address into my car’s navigation system, fearing that if I didn’t, I’d get lost. Several minutes later, arriving at my destination, I entered an oversized living room to join a house full of moms.
We were all survivors lighting candles in honor of lost children. Staring into a flame, we reminisced their unique attributes and remarkable lives during a brief interlude here on Earth. I made a mental note that while none was as famous as Levine or Tarkanian, each was just as important.
More awaits me on the horizon. A few days from now, religious leaders, archbishops and rabbis will gather in Fresno to address the memory of 1.5 million Armenians who perished during the 1915 Genocide. Staring into a flame that still burns bright, I will again join a community of survivors honoring and remembering lives lost.
Back at the computer this morning, I listen to my own silence, an occasional finger pecking on the dusty keyboard. My eye catches the latest passage leaning against my monitor, words recently shared by a friend:
“It is truly a great cosmic paradox that one of the best teachers in all of life turns out to be death.”
— Michael Singer,
“The Untethered Soul”
I will sit still for a brief while, absorbing these words, trying to make sense of the journey each of us travels before another sense — this one born of urgency — lifts me up, pushes me out the door, and into the throes of a new day.