Tuesday, October 19, 2010

small elegy

There was not a funeral.  But at least his sons were able to convince his widow that we  - the grandchildren, the sons, the friends and neighbors - needed some kind of formal ending - even if it were a little too hard for her.  A graveside prayer and brief remarks.  "No one will be there," said his widow.

But she was wrong.   A small though significant crowd stood waiting as we drove up in cortege.

During the days he lay dying, he had asked me to find a poem. "Remember it," he had urged his wife of 57 years, "It's a good one.  It will help you."  To me he said, "Edgar A. Guest. Sunset.  I'm sure you know it," speaking as one poetry lover to another, and then he recited again and again, during those last days when he still spoke, "Some days die like some men . . . something about purple shroud . . . and wrapping him round.  Gently."  And his gaunt hands sketched a wrapping around, drawing together over his shrunken chest.

Edgar Guest is not a versifier I'm particularly familiar with, but multiple Google searches turned up nothing and I suspected we were seeing conflation, confusion.  A lack of clarity.

But I was wrong. 

After he died, we gathered back in their old home.  Their old house echoing now, almost emptied of everything - except for a very old, very well-worn collection of verse by E.A.G. with a card stuck in at the very page.  And as requested, "Sunset" is what I read over his grave.

But what I didn't say then, or ever while he was living, is this: 

Once I had thought he was weak - a smoother and a placater, who backed down to keep the peace - not recognizing his gentleness as a more supple kind of strength. 

I had thought him unambitious.  Years back I would have thought smally of an obituary whose signal life achievement was the building by hand of a small and simple mountain cabin, but only because  I didn't really yet believe that family-building was in any way commensurate with career-building.  For his children and grandchildren, though, I have come to see - that cabin was only the most visible incarnation of an ambitiously sturdy, uncomplaining, and generous sheltering.

Early on I had assumed that his universal cheer, his willingness to fall in, and his easiness to forgive were a kind of simple-mindedness.  In later years, when I perceived at last the awareness and intelligence behind that jolliness, I pitied him.  Briefly.  But I saw that he recognized that pity and resented it. He who resented almost nothing else. 

I feel still the tears on his cheek against my cheek when he called me over, a day or two before he died.  He had been upset, "You boys need to straighten up.  Not spend all your time here.  You have a family.  You have a job.  You need to get back on the straight path.  Momma get them back on the straight path."  And as they had assured him they were okay, that he needed them more, he had grown more upset, weeping, even while embracing each of his sons, his wife, Middlest and YoungSon.  He apologized to each for his tears.  But when Middlest had begun to cry he had cried out, "Oh darlin', no tears!  Everything's going to be okay.  Don't be feeling sad."  When I said softly to Middlest, "Tears are just the rainy side of love, though, huh?" from where I had been sitting, keeping quiet, not wishing to intrude, he had cried out, "Is that Emma J?  I didn't mean to leave you out. I couldn't see you.  Oh come here."  And he held his arms out to me, asking me into my ear, "Will you straighten them out?"  as I leant over and pressed my cheek to his.

"I will.  That's my job.  I'll see that they do what they're supposed to do.  But we'll see you're taken care of too.  You're crying."  And I wiped the tears away over his sunken cheekbones.

And then his body rested and he closed his eyes and slept.

I do not pity him. He lived the life he chose and, I think, with few regrets. He enjoyed greatly whatever harmless pleasures came his way. He chose to laugh and let impossible grievances go and lived instead with a deep emotional intelligence that sought to put others at ease and to universally include rather than exclude. At the end he had spent his life mostly happily, pretty nearly all the days they had together from high school on, with the girl he had chosen and who had chosen him.  And his children and grandchildren remember him with a deep and grateful tenderness.

If I hadn't found his "Sunset" poem I would have said this instead, by Robert Louis Stevenson, because it was so exactly apt:


To be honest, to be kind —
to earn a little and to spend a little less,
to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence,
to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered,
to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation —
above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself —
here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.

Amen.

9 comments:

Neighbor Jane Payne said...

When Fritz spoke and said,“Because of my dad it wasn’t hard for me to envision a loving, patient, and kind Heavenly Father. It wasn’t hard at all,” it put all of uncle's life into perspective for me. A father gave his son a glimpse of eternity and divinity.

Thanks for this post. Thank you.

Lisa B. said...

Thinking of you the other day. Thank you for these eloquent words. I know I will think of this again and again. Thank you also, Neighbor Jane Payne, for Fritz's words.

Fresca said...

What a tribute to an honorable life.

I watched "Say Anything..." for the first time the other night. The main character is unambitious and turns the other cheek when people hurt him.
The director, in the commentary, said he meant the character to show "optimism as a revolutionary act."

I thought of that when I read your elegy.

Plain old kindness is a revolutionary act--it turns things around where violence only pushes them over.

I warrant you inherited some of that "fortitude and delicacy."

Mrs. Organic said...

What a beautiful tribute. Gentleness is a quiet kind of strength. Our thoughts are with you both.

ArtSparker said...

What an extraordinary tribute.

Also reminds me of this children's verse (I think anonymous):

A little health, a little wealth,
A little house and freedom;
And at the end a little friend,
And little cause to need him.

Clowncar said...

a quiet and elegant remembrance.

I think a function of memorials and funerals is to allow you some distance, just a little, to step away from your private grief and view a life from a slightly more public vantage point, a life seen in sum, from beginning to end.

suzanne said...

So this is where you've been.
Love, and prayers.

Linnea said...

I've missed you. Thanks for sharing that touching tribute.

Melody said...

Long breath out with a little hmmm in it. That's all.

And bless you.

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