Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Circle of Life and Death

This brushstroke, a sacred symbol in Zen and a common subject of Japanese calligraphy, represents everything and nothing.   Infinity and enlightenment; the void and emptiness.  The space it encompasses and the space encompassed by it are of the same oneness.  Interrupting the oneness is the circle, the wheel of life and death.

As I try to absorb the loss of Tom Seghi,  the love of my life,  the image of this simple circle comes to mind.  One life. One single brushstroke.  Like what he created with his own deft hand, something I watched with awe on many occasions, his life itself was a singular, elegant and quiet revolution from start to finish.

Although his death happened suddenly and unexpectedly, when I turn back to look at how he had arrived at that point, it seems he had reached a remarkable closure.  The day before he died, we flew into Chicago and rented a car.  For the first time in the forty four years we've been together, he suggested that we drive to his childhood home in what was once the heart of a working class Italian neighborhood. That  home was at 2533 S. Spaulding, the downstairs apartment of a two story duplex.

The only time I had seen that building before was in snapshots taken for his family photo album.  I especially recalled the picture of him as a newborn, cradled in his mother's arms as she stood on the porch steps with his father and sister, his Italian immigrant grandfather standing by the door.  Another was him smiling broadly, a mere toddler on the porch.

In the intervening years, the neighborhood had become run-down, now primarily a neighborhood of Mexican immigrants.  A frequent display of graffiti indicated gang activity which explained the wrought iron fences that were put up after Tom's family had moved away. 

The owner of the building lived upstairs.  He responded graciously to Tom's request to walk through his  home:  "Thank you for coming back, he said. "I sit upstairs and wonder who used to live here before me."

Knocking on the door of the first floor apartment, where a sister and brother of about 10 and 12 years old were home alone, the landlord explained the reason for our visit and walked us through.  "Is it smaller than you remember?" he asked Tom.

"No," Tom said,  "it's exactly as I remember it; nothing has changed."  He then proceeded to engage the children, "That's the room where my sister slept, and that's where I slept."

Afterwards we went upstairs to the owner's renovated apartment.  Tom told him how less than a month before, we had taken a trip to Italy with our son, met the remaining Seghi's there and together visited LaSega, the mountain hamlet of their ancestors.

The owner was receptive and encouraged the conversation further.  Tom then shared the experience of visiting the small town of Coalgate, Oklahoma where his grandparents and relatives had immigrated TO.  By actually stepping on that land, the stories his father had told him about growing up in Oklahoma, had come alive for him.

Retracing his family's itinerary,  from Italy to Oklahoma to Chicago, Tom shared how especially fulfilling it was to bring his son Danny back to Italy to learn where the Seghi's came from.  As they stood together in the family cemetery of Ospitale, overlooking the mountains of Emilia Romagna, Tom had pointed out the gravestones of the Seghi ancestors. "This is our past," he said, "and you are the future."

"Yes," the owner nodded knowingly.  "It's so important to go back to where you come from, to stay in touch with that connection.  Even though time passes, the connection is always present."

Tom had come back to exactly where he had started, like a salmon returning home.  Navigating great distances against incredible odds, and realizing so much in the process, it seems he had just completed that beautiful sweeping movement of his life.  A full circle.

I write this on the final day of "Shloshim" - the 30-day mourning period from the day of burial - traditionally observed in Judaism.  Since Judaism teaches that a deceased person can still benefit from the merit of good deeds done in their memory, it is the privilege of those of us who knew him to act in ways inspired by the unique person that he was:  loving, humble, confident, gentle, creative, peaceful, forgiving, and attuned to beauty.   May his soul be elevated by our actions.

As always, please feel free to share your comments and read those of others.  We each have a perspective that is ours alone.


  1. LaSega! The source of his strength. His very name.

  2. Aunt Laya,

    Your writing is so beautiful, so elegant. It has helped me get through this difficult time. Your memories of Uncle Tom are so enlightening. It was as if he knew something by taking those trips to both Italy and his boyhood home in recent months. Uncle Tom was always so interested in his family's past and I admired you both for being able to take these trips in order to delve into our herItage further. Keep writing!


  3. Laya - Todah!
    Thank you for writing these gems...which are like anchored buoys for us to grab onto, as we try to sail the waters of this loss. I read the one about Tom's "grounded shoes" at the table to the family. Someone commented that on Tisha B'Av, we also "mourn through our shoes" and don't wear leather shoes - here most of us don't wear shoes at all. We lost our land on this day, we went into exile, and we stopped being "grounded" as a people. Sometimes we need to go barefoot and feel every pebble in order to regain some "grounding." With Tom's Shloshim falling right after the date of Tisha B'Av, his loss is "in sync" with the greater loss of our people. Perhaps this is what is meant in the words "May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."
    Laya - that whole conversation was sparked by your written words...
    Please don't stop writing and inspiring!

  4. BS"D
    Dearest Sweet Laya,
    After reading what you wrote and viewing Tom the baby, the toddler and the adult by his childhood home, and then reading everyone's comments, I felt a strong yearning to see Tom's art. I hope you all can see this http://tomseghi.com/ and will explore the site (-:

    My 2 children, now teens, remember Tom's patience and generosity of spirit as he gave us a tour of his Rivo Alto studio many years ago when they were young and they both clearly remember his kindness and his remarkable art as expression of himSelf.

    Today, I have designated money to start a Seghi Oil Paint Scholarship Fund in Israel where i live. There is a young, single-mom-of-of-2-young-kids art teacher who uses oils, pastels, watercolors and sketching pencils with students of all ages. Now, we can elevate the soul of our dearly beloved Tom Seghi, MAY HIS MEMORY BE A BLESSING. I have in mind that the student be a budding artist teenager, who not only can learn to master oil painting, but can learn about Tom Seghi and his work through the internet. My intention is to interview the candidates and get to know the one we choose. If this idea resonates to any of you, please email me jyachad@gmail.com. I am open to seeing the idea grow, even to the level of a scholarship at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem or the Bezalel Institute in Manhattan. The artist Bezalel was the brilliant, gifted one put in charge of designing the Tabernacle in the desert The Jewish People. http://bible.cc/exodus/36-1.htm
    May all of our acts of kindness elevate Tom's soul.

    Yachad Shifman
    Ramat Beit Shemeh, Israel

  5. Laya,
    Tears are pouring down my face from reading this beautiful post. It is just amazing that Tom felt a need, and followed it, to return to his roots and to share that history with you and your children.
    My sister and I were drawn to work on my father's family tree and to search out the places of his ancestry in the final years of his life and continuing after his death, so I know how powerful those experiences are.
    Clearly Tom had some subconscious knowledge of nearing the end of his life and a need to connect with his history and his early life, and he was wise enough and in touch with his inner wisdom enough to do so. It gives me goosebumps to think that the day before he died he went back to his childhood home for the first time! And I am so happy for you that he wanted to share this with you, and that the landlord was so open and interested in Tom's connection and the history of the building. I believe he would be interested to know that Tom died the next day, and how perfect it was that he was open and interested in hearing Tom's story and to talk of connections to the past. When our hearts are open and interested, we do so much for one another.
    Thank you so much for sharing the pictures. I loved hearing the story and seeing Tom as a baby and child and adult, the day before he died, back where it all began.
    I have shared this quote dozens of times in my life, and I'm sure you've seen it before, but I think it's even more important at this time in your life: "The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each others' memory. This is how people care for themselves." (Barry Lopez)
    It nourishes all of us to hear your stories about Tom and to follow the story of your grief. And we in turn need to nourish you with stories of our memories of him and other stories. Thank you SO much for sharing this story and the pictures.
    Thank you also for the brushstroke. It is a perfect metaphor for the completeness and yet the transience of life, like the Wheel of Fortune card in the Tarot. How many brush strokes you must have seen him make over the course of your life time together! And he knew exactly how to make each stroke to bring something to life!
    Laya, my heart is with you in your grief as you make meaning of this huge and sudden loss of the love of your life.