Writings by James Tomarelli

Autumn is for Dying, and for Falling in Love
by James Tomarelli, October 15, 1984

It was October and autumn was in her glory. In city and country, autumn's presence was undeniable. Bright bursting color, radiant light, falling leaves, a season for change and return, and a time for dying

I saw Mrs. Popoff the night before she died. In silence, I sat on the floor beside her chair, wrapped in her presence and light, her hand holding mine. And then I fell in love with her, with her life (what little I knew of it was a lot) and with her death (which I sensed was near.) I would not have been there -- filled with such experiences -- had it not been for Eleanor Schneider, a long-time friend of Mrs. Popoff's.

Eleanor had been adamant in insisting I come with her to visit Mrs. P. She seemed to think there was something I could do. I couldn't see it. I knew Mrs. Popoff was very ill, and that many people were caring for her. I resisted going, unwilling to get involved. Besides I was tired and it was a long drive from Manhattan to Seacliff. I asked her for another point of view.

Eleanor gets Manfred Blum to call me. "If you just go and be with her, just bring good wishes and feelings. That would be good," said Manfred, himself an old friend of Mrs. Popoff's, and a staunch supporter of her work. Manfred said lots more — as is his way — all with love and concern for his friend. I felt his feelings and was moved.

I hardly knew Mrs. Popoff. I had met her only a few times before, all briefly. Most recently was four months ago when she visited the Rudolf Steiner Fellowship Community in Spring Valley, New York. I was a coworker there and helped with the care of the elderly, the infirm, and the dying. Several of Mrs. P's students were also coworkers and volunteers. Mrs. Popoff had an active interest in Dr. Steiner's teaching: Anthroposophy. She was a regular visitor. She recognized me as someone who had been at Claymont. She smiled, always said hello, and was naturally friendly. I've a soft spot in my heart for old women — I smiled back, wished her well.

There is a traffic jam in Manhattan. A young woman approaches our car; she's selling roses. How does she know? We buy three: one red, two pinks. We cross several bridges to reach Long Island; we run the Expressway, leave it, more streets, finally … Seacliff, The Pinnacle — Mrs. Popoff's town and home, the point from where she entered the world around her and the lives of many for many years.

A worried face answers Eleanor's knock on the door. "We want to visit Mrs. P.," says Eleanor.

"No, you shouldn't be … Yes, well … wait here. Come in. Sit here. Just a minute." The face relaxes a little, disappearing into a nearby room. Others pass us in the hall, some with long faces. Many of her students live with her; all are young enough to be grandchildren. There's sadness, heaviness in the house. I sense the fear-of-death. How unprepared we all are, I think, for the end of childhood. But I can understand. We wait. It's nine o'clock in the evening.

Only a short wait, and we're in her room. Her presence is immediate; her light is shining. No fear-of-death here; rather, an incredible awe filled being. I sense she marvels over what is coming and I'm silenced by a presence and reality much larger than us all; I sit down beside her taking Manfred's advice to just be.

Eleanor, ever the Jewish mother, tries to feed Mrs. Popoff some chicken soup; but Mrs. P. is not interested, her attention is elsewhere, focused beyond everyone's concern for her. She speaks. I understand little. She is mumbling. She looks very old. She is moving away from us. I make out some of her words: "the power upon the hour … the power upon the hour … " and other phrases that escape my comprehension. She repeats, the power upon the hour. Where, I wonder, have I heard this phrase before? Later it came to me: Stevenson's Fables.* Bennett would read them to us at Sherborne.

For almost an hour, I sat with Mrs. Popoff, the night before she died. At one point, tired, my eyes closed, I gave up trying to solve the secret of her repetition. At peace, my hand resting in hers, an image comes to me. It's one of a landscape aglow in yellow and gold, a horizon of light. I feel she can die, let go, enter this place and be away from us with our fear, long faces, and young opinions. I feel it is okay; she will go soon, slip away into the light, her work complete, welcoming the light, the freedom.

I awoke from my reverie with the usual jerk of the head. "What will be, will be," I thought. It was something my mother always said. Mrs. Popoff is still chanting. Eleanor's chicken soup is uneaten and cold. On the floor in Mrs. Popoff's line of sight was (where she ask Eleanor to put it) a photo of Bhante with his happy Buddha smile, his orange glow. It seemed to interest her. She loved him dearly, her peer, her friend.

My mind wanders: Where is this "power" she speaks of? Is it in Bhante? Is it in her? Is it in her departure? Will that be the hour with the power? I can only imagine and speculate. Never mind, I'm thankful just to be there, thankful for Eleanor and Manfred; and for Bhante and Mrs. Popoff and for the love between them.

It was ten o'clock when we said goodbye. Eleanor put the roses in a vase that was too big — they looked lonely. Outside Mrs. P's room, in the hall, I give a friend and fellow coworker at The Fellowship Community, a hug "hello" and "goodbye," telling her how fortunate she is to be living there, to be present during Mrs. P's departure, to experience this night. "Thanks for another point of view," she says.

That was two nights ago. Irmis Popoff, teacher and friend of many, died October 13th, 5:05 p.m. God received her.

* Robert Louis Stevenson. Fables: XX-The Song of the Morrow.