Walter died yesterday. A cousin, 87 years old, he probably left fairly quickly I like to think, of a major stroke. Of course modern medicine kept his body alive for a few days, but I bet he was off somewhere else having fun.
Anne Lamott, the author, says that death is just a major change of address. I happen to believe this. Also, by and large, I think death is easy. It’s life which is so damn hard.
Walter was one of those people who shifted the force field in a room. Personally, I think he was a genius but his intelligence was not his defining characteristic. True, he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records in connection with the lowest friction co-efficient of any solid…. (don’t ask me). He began to play the piano at 12 and was so good he was given a radio show when he was a teenager. The state of New Jersey, where he lived most of his life, recognized him as Inventor of the Year in 2015.
He was born in Vienna in 1931 and fled with his parents when the Nazis invaded in 1938. “I lost most of my family,” Walter is quoted in one of the many articles written about him. But no one would ever guess this. He viewed life with an undimmed joy and a sense of optimism which was contagious.
Once, many years ago, when I had fallen into a deep state of despair, I went to sleep and dreamed this: I was sitting alone in an empty room, feeling exactly as I had done in waking life. Suddenly Walter walked in, lifted my downcast face by tipping up my chin, and said, looking at me with smile filled eyes, “Cheer up”.
The power of his presence and love was palpable. I woke up the next morning with renewed courage. My mood had brightened tremendously. I was back. I call this experience a dream but for me it was, and remains, an actual event.
Walter was powerful in all the important ways. He was kind, he was loving, and he saw the world with a balanced perspective, always imbued with humor. I think he embodied Brendan Gill’s quote, “Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious”. But he made it clear, very clear, that he cared.
He’s probably somewhere playing the piano to a chorus of angels and sinners, making no distinction among them, and lifting the heart of every spirit that he touches.