Jerome E. Sikorski 1940-2010
Eulogy at National Cathedral, Washington DC
by Richard E. Cytowic
A good life is long in both intention and extension. We often say of the dead that their life was too short. For some, life was not long enough for all they intended. Jerome Sikorski was one of the latter ones, for he accomplished much in his time, and intended even more.
I first met Jerome in 1970 when I was a freshman at Duke and he directed a program at the Raleigh art museum. He was trained in art, and it remained central throughout his life. He was a decent artist himself, and drew a sublime parody of Albrecht Durer’s St. Jerome in His Study with you-know-who as St. Jerome. He admired producing artists more than critics, most ofwhom he criticized as lacking practical experience in how art is actually made. They were lost in theory, he said; he went for the empirical, the practical, the realistic. One of Jerome’s remarkable achievements, I think, was to turn his own life into a work of art.
He did this through tireless self-invention, by subtraction, cutting away the inessential. He understood that things do not pass for what they are but for what they seem. He understood that the “how” of things is important.
Back in North Carolina and early on in Washington when we were both broke and striving, Jerome carried himself with style. “The trick is to look like you were born to breeding,” he said, “while subsisting on air.” He did not eat standing up at the sink. He used cloth napkins, always. This small gesture, misunderstood by outsiders as pretentious, was an outward sign of self respect, dignity, and deservedness: attitudes hard-won by any gay man in the difficult climate of the 1950s and 60s. He extended that respect to others. Some called him “fussy,” and he could certainly be that. With all enduring friendships come an allotment of foibles, and I took Jerome’s in stride just as he accommodated mine-and all of ours. He once came over to the house to work on sketches for church banners and brought along his colored pencils: Faber-Castells, fifty years old in their original box, each one sharpened to a perfect point. That was Jerome. In some things, perfection was possible; for everything else, acceptance was the key.
Many knew his sharp wit, either as bystander or, less happily, recipient. Friends smiled knowingly at his intolerance for fools and his ability to sideline them without their notIcing it. Jerome had patience, and passed on a lesson he had learned that few bothersome things are important enough to bother with. He knew how to wait. He knew how to choose, a skill he thanked as “heaven’s blessing.” The result was equanimity. He knew that patience lead to inestimable inner peace. We would joke that he was like Livia in I, Claudius; time meant nothing them in achieving their purpose.
On one of my visits to DC before I moved here, I sat on the floor of Jerome’s apartment during a meeting of those who founded what would become the Whitman Walker Clinic. The assembled were signing incorporation papers. In various capacities, many quietly behind the scenes, Jerome shepherded the organization for nearly 30 years. That took patience, and his patient temperament applied to his political work, the organizations he devoted himself to, and the rest of his affairs.
Jerome and I long ago reached that stage of friendship where we could enjoy each other’s company without feeling the need to constantly say something. Chatter bored him; good conversation was an elixir. Silence and meditation were important, too. On a Sunday before he died I took over breakfast, the Post, and the Times. Mostly we sat, quietly reading, his constant companion of classical music in the background. We spoke of his illness that day. That he lived to age 69 surprised him given that he was a sickly child whose own mother assumed would not survive adolescence. He specialized in rare, exotic, and unusual maladies. Whenever he came down with something, it was invariably atypical. So like Jerome.
We spoke of his death and the changes he intended to institute in his remaining time. Over decades he’d painstakingly dropped baggage and cut threads that reached back to unhappy pasts. But he always kept to heart future goals. He kept his eye on perfection, even knowing it would elude him. No matter. It was the striving that mattered.
On what turned out to be my final visit he asked me to bring him parsley. “The flat kind, Italian,” he said. “If they don’t have that, I don’t want any.” I told him I hadn’t seen that kind at the market) but when I showed up, flat parsley in hand, he was delighted. “Fabelhaft!” he exclaimed. I was delighted to see him take pleasure in small things, to be so in the moment when his particular moment was so fraught.
“What are you going to do with it?” I asked, knowing that the most particular and specific desire lay behind his request.
“I’m going to dry it,” he said. “It’s delicious on vegetables.” Many of us knew the superb cook that was Jerome, at his imaginative best where there seemed to be nothing in one’s larder. For dried parsley at the end, Jerome had all the time in the world. He still had patience.
I spoke of self improvement as a theme in Jerome’s life. Realistic in terms of selfassessment, he was unafraid to look in the mirror. He took on a lifelong task of delicate, arduous, disciplined self examination. He once said, “If you haven’t been in therapy at least twice by the time you’re 35, then there’s really something the matter with you.” Jerome aspired to be a human being rather than a human doing. Experience had taught him that yes and no are short words often requiring long thought. He said no easily to other’s drama, but was generous and free with advice to those who could see what he had, and wanted it. When he counseled, he took care to seem that he was reminding you of something you had forgotten, not of the light that you were unable to see.
A book he returned to over and over was The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Balthazar Gracian, a Jesuit scholar of 17th century Spain. Gracian’s collection of aphorisms is too delicious not to share with friends, and to penetrating not to keep from enemies. Jerome’s inscription from Christmas 1993 reads, “Richard: You are never too old, and it is never too late to grow in grace and wisdom.”
Many of Gracian’s aphorisms address friendship. They dispense such advice as, “The company you keep can work wonders,” and supply as direct a definition of friendship as either of us ever saw: “Friends do friendly things.”
A favorite aphorism we both admired says, “Know how to use your friends. Don’t seek only pleasure in them but also utility. Few people make good friends, and they are fewer still when we don’t know how to select them. Knowing how to keep a friend is more important than gaining a new one. Look for friends who can last, and when they’re new, be satisfied that one day they will be old.”
A final adage counsels this: “What matters isn’t being applauded when you arrive-for that is common-but being missed when you leave. Rare are those who are still wanted.”