Rock Island, IL
On the last day of classes before the Christmas holidays, typically a Friday, the mood on college campuses invariably vibrates with cheer. From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with slush, people are happy. Something better than school is coming, and once again “advent” proves itself the right term exactly. We get an annual reminder that anticipation is one of the happiest states of being, so long as it’s not underlined or circled in dread.
So it was several years ago at about four o’clock in the afternoon on the last Friday before Christmas: in the air joy and hope and peace on earth, good will toward men. But in my building the Christmas excitement had abated a bit when, weary from marking essays, I walked down a corridor quiet as a morgue to check my mailbox. Almost everyone was gone. But there in the department office sat one of our student workers, a girl whom I will call “Jill.” Her last shift before the break was almost over.
She was a sophomore at the time, but mostly I remember her as a timid yet earnest freshman sitting in one of my introductory classes in a large old wooden-floored classroom called Cable Hall, a favorite of mine for its old wooden tables and desks, a wooden podium big enough to be a cathedral pulpit, and portraits of dignified forebears looking out through the thin yellow veil of the patient and abiding chalk dust. I could tell even then that Jill was a really good kid, and by that Friday before Christmas she had given me no reason to think otherwise.
“Jill!” I said, surprised to see her. “Go home!”
She looked up at me from her work, smiled, and said three unremarkable words I will not soon forget: “I can’t wait!”
The next time I saw her it was not she I saw but only a part of her—the bodily part that lay in a coffin. She had made it home. She had had the benefit of that last Christmas, but not much more. I am fairly certain that “I can’t wait” were the last words she said to any of her professors.
The short and long of her story is that on her way back to school after the holidays she hit a patch of highway ice. She was not far from her destination, the college and the friends she had come to love, when she lost control of her car and struck the cement supports of an overpass, whereupon poor young sweet Jill, by then less timid if not still earnest, came to grief.
Perhaps it was about that time that I began using a little meme in class every now and then. “We’re in week three,” I’d say at the beginning of week three. “You’re three weeks closer to being dead. What have you been doing with yourselves?” I probably did this initially as a gag. Perhaps it had come to light that, for example, no one in the class had ever read the Bible, or learned an ancient language, and that on my way out the door at the end of the class prior I had said, “your assignment for the weekend is to read the Bible and learn an ancient language.”
But over the years, and certainly since the time of Jill’s demise, I began to use it not merely as one of those cheap teacher’s tricks that calls the wandering and the distracted back to attention. I began more earnestly to remind them, the young and the bulletproof, that time is not a quantity laid up in store. It is a fund that, by dint of being alive, you cannot help but spend down. Think about the sand in a hour glass. Think especially about the word “hour.” You’re two days closer to being dead since I saw you last. What are you doing with yourselves?
I also haul this line out for a few of my colleagues at the end of each year. Four or five of us will meet over martinis on some warm languorous afternoon during finals week, a week during which anther kind of cheer begins to awaken in us as the prospect of a long summer appears on time’s horizon, and inevitably I’ll raise my stemware, shaped appropriately like an aborted hourglass, and say, “we’re another school year closer to being dead, my friends. Drink up.” And we do.
On a few occasions not long ago I used the phrase in an upper-level course I was teaching at the time, a course that had an unusually high number of likeable but knuckleheaded seniors in it, students who had waited until their last term to fulfill a general education requirement, their procrastination indicating without much nuance their indifference to the course and the requirement it meets. But, of course, trained like many college students in the strict discipline of protecting their desires from frustration, they weren’t so kunckleheaded in their likeableness as to assume they could get around the requirement. So here they were, disappearing from class with remarkable frequency and then returning periodically, dispassionately hoping each time they resurfaced that their bahavior wouldn’t actually end in a “victory lap,” that much-feared extra term after the usual four years during which, while all their classmates are out in the big wide world trying to outpace their creditors, they find themselves amid alien masses trying complete the three credits that only a little bit of work and discipline would have earned them back in the spring—had they not been such knuckleheads, likeable or not.
After the mid-term grades came in, about 70% of the students had effectively declared their intentions to take that victory lap. Reading the assignments, coming to class, paying attention, and taking notes had, apparently, been regarded as optional—the warnings on the syllabus (also unread) notwithstanding.
All the people failing were seniors except one, whom I’ll call “Rob.” Rob had made the highest mark on the mid-term examination. He was what we call a “non-traditional” student. He was probably not quite twice the age of the other students and had returned to school to complete his last nine or so credits. He was intelligent, well-read, thoughtful, and attentive. In fine, he was a grown-up, a man who understood, as many of his classmates apparently did not, that no one owed him a diploma. Rob was also ready for an argument, but in a useful and constructive way. If it weren’t for him, I too might have stopped attending my own class for long stretches at a time. He was a godsend. He and I disagreed on almost everything, but we also liked one another a great deal—or I, at least, liked him a great deal.
In the eighth week of the class, as I recall, I reminded the students that although some of them were no closer to graduating, all of them, myself included, were eight weeks closer to being dead. “You might not have much time,” I told them, “to learn an ancient language, so get started. And read the Bible while you’re at it. You can’t call yourself educated if you don’t know the Bible.”
A little context will, perhaps, explain this eccentricity. No student enrolled in any course I teach benefits from an ignorance of the Bible. If you want to read Milton or Donne or Shakespeare, you can’t count on tutelage in Harry Potter or Twilight to get you through. Nor does the occasional “visit” to dictionary dot com do you much good, a point I sometimes emphasize when I pause in class to trace the meanings of a given word, and therefore its etymology, as far back as those meanings can be traced. And once I’m satisfied that I’ve enlarged our sense of the word, I’ll feign a retreat into Education Lite and tell the students not to get the idea that learning ancient languages—or for that matter their own language—is useful. This is another meme, a trick—whether cheap or not I’ll leave to others to judge—that gets the point at hand across at least a little. And when I do this I can tell that some kids are actually thinking about consulting, maybe even acquiring, historical dictionaries, though many think I’m another ivory-tower oddity, the over-thinking sort who has no sense whatsoever of his own irrelevance in a world where true value lies in shimmering gadgets just waiting to be purchased by people with degrees in Earning Money.
On the last day of class Rob did not show up. This was his only absence all term. And when I heard from another student that he had missed someone else’s class the day prior, a slight pall descended upon me and a little chill came over me: I knew that Rob had a long daily commute. (Some of the students in class who lived across the street had managed to get to class only about fifty per cent of the time—and were still expecting to pass a class they obviously weren’t taking.) But it wasn’t until the next day, the day after he had gone absent from my class, that I learned that Rob had missed these two classes because he was dead. He was driving to school when, no farther from his destination than Jill had been when she hit that patch of ice, he was killed in a five-car pile-up along a stretch of interstate construction. The cars had slowed down for it; a semi behind them had not, and it crashed into them full-bore. My godsend would be sent no more.
I knew that Rob had a fiancé. If fiancés can be widowed, his was now a widow. I had met her and her two exceedingly cute young children who were soon to become his step-son and step-daughter. I had seen the joy he took in them, and they in him. Now they were essentially half-orphaned.
Perhaps not racing to make a green light in town before getting on the interstate would have made the difference for Rob between death then and death much later. Perhaps his not going back to his apartment to get something he’d forgotten would have put him far enough ahead of that semi to have avoided the fatal mischief. Perhaps not leaving early to stop for coffee, perhaps one small change in the way the morning played out, perhaps one less beating of a butterfly’s wings halfway across the world and there would be one less widow—and two fewer orphans—adrift on that tempestuous sea of life after someone else’s death. Perhaps Rob could have opted to meet a gen ed requirement in someone else’s classroom, someone who’s not a death-watcher. Had he done so, perhaps an entire microcosm, perhaps a whole little world made cunningly, would still be orbiting the sun, ardently inclining toward the light as does this goodly frame we’re all spinning toward death on.
One of the lessons of ancient philosophy is that life is a regimen that prepares you for a good death, that a life purposeful and good teaches you to die properly. I had even said this in class, once when Rob was in attendance and once again when he was not. And I can remember, as I struggled a second time to articulate the point, seeing the knitted brow of one student in the room; he was trying to figure out in what alternate universe this could possibly be true—that what philosophy does is teach us to die. Neither he nor anyone else who had condescended to attend class that day had the benefit of considering this in the fresh light of their classmate’s terrible and, I might add, senseless death.
I say “senseless” because, knowing what I know of Rob, I would never in a million years have required that he be credentialed by any college anywhere at any time. I wouldn’t for all the world have put him on that murderous highway three days a week. Except maybe for what the insensate “job market” was telling him, he had no need, no real need, at least not in my view, of the B.S. in Political Science he was so near at age forty to completing. He was working as a chef at the time of his death, but he was far more credentialed than any of the kids he’d be walking across the dais with in ten short days. I’ll allow that he needed to add a shelf of books to his personal library, books he might never have cracked had he not met me, but I say this only because in his agreeable, pleasant, and useful way he would grant me almost nothing, and I think he needed to leave off the permitted sentiments and listen for a while to the voice of the heckler. (“We want people to be mobile,” he had said in class, responding to a writer favoring less migration from rural areas than the current rates indicated. “We do?” I asked, not knowing what mobility had in store for him.) Rob and I crossed swords on almost every point, and I thought he was as wrong as often as he thought I was. But as certainly as neither he nor anyone else needed to agree with me to pass my class, just as certainly he needed no diploma to “succeed” in life. It never occurred to me during our many friendly arguments after class to call him “Scarecrow” but I should have done so. He lacked credentials I wouldn’t grant to many people I know who can boast of whole bowls of alphabet soup after their names. But he had what many of them don’t have—and what the Scarcrow mistakenly thought he didn’t have: a brain.
The interstate and defense highway system is no place to come to grief, not if you’re Jill, age nineteen, not if you’re Rob, age 40, not if you’re anyone at any age. Driving is almost as bad a way to die as fighting on the other side of the world for an insensate political abstraction is—an abstraction barely accorded flesh and blood by well-groomed and well-fed people enthroned in the halls of power, influential but narrow-minded demi-men, bellicose of disposition and in imagination utterly impoverished, “public servants” all, venomously guarding but one or two ideas and jealous for a “way of life” that not even casuistry can defend.
The devil take them. And while he’s at it he can have the interstate and defense highway system.
It bears mentioning that the automobile, which at least one American writer has numbered among the “unprecedented monuments of destructiveness and waste,” has claimed more lives than all the wars we’ve ever been entangled in. No. There are better ways to die than driving, an over-earnest NPR radio essayist in your ears, talking about overcoming the benightedness of the place her mobility enabled her to leave behind.
But because the way of death is not given to us, not really, it certainly bears articulating what is given to us, or at least made available to us: the readiness.
Hamlet couldn’t come to it without first jumping down into the grave dug for Ophelia and then meditating upon the skull of poor Yorick. (“Where be your jibes now, your gambols?” he asked of the jester’s skull.) When an ill-at-ease Horatio warns Hamlet that he will lose the wager prepared for him by a murderous king, Hamlet says that
we defy augury. There’s special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will come now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
But he has not come to this easily. No attentive reader of the play could suppose that he is merely rehearsing a prepared speech such as the one he wrote for the player who could “force his soul so to his conceit / That from her working all his visage wanned,” etc. It is only by submitting himself to a strict discipline—the discipline that in our tradition we know at least in part by the phrase memento mori—that with utter calm he can speak of readiness to a loyal but rightly disturbed and anxious Horatio.
During Jill’s funeral, as I sat in the church next to a colleague and the sweet soul who served as our department secretary, whom Jill worked for, all three of us trying not to dissolve into sobs, I could not help but think of Jill’s unremarkable last three words: I can’t wait. She couldn’t wait to go home—and then she didn’t. It was clear that she had been raised to think of her earthly home as an emblem of another Home, and that that was a thought giving at least a little bit of comfort to some of the people gathered at the funeral. But I gather Rob didn’t have the benefit of so comforting a thought; I seem to remember that belief of that sort was either difficult or distasteful to him. I doubt that, notwithstanding my remarks in class, and notwithstanding the dutiful attentiveness that led to his high score on the midterm examination, he was thinking about the purpose of philosophy when, like Jill, he came to grief betimes—though, knowing Rob, I have no doubt that he was thinking.
Though I myself sometimes find belief of the sort I am gesturing toward difficult, nevertheless I too have deep inside me an image of Home, if not at all times the comfort of it. Often the image is the comfort, wordless but comforting nonetheless. And though I may not hold with Dr. Johnson that “protracted life is protracted woe,” I understand what it means, as A.E. Housman said, “to slip betimes away / From fields where glory does not stay.” I think I can see in some dim way the advantages Ben Jonson had in mind when he wrote of having “so soon ’scaped world’s and flesh’s rage, / And, if no other misery, yet age.”
But for now I’m quite sure I would take the fading glory and the ravages of flesh and age over being townsman of a stiller town. Robert Frost, who didn’t mind climbing a birch toward heaven so long as he could come back down, said “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” I think it is difficult not to credit that sentiment, even granting Dante his vision. I have a wife, and we have our children and our place, all of whom and all of which and much more in addition are dear to me. Perhaps I have an inordinate love for my family and for our place, for the labor and the books and the music and the food and the laughter and the plants and animals that make it dear, or perhaps I have an imperfect love, or an improperly ordered love. No doubt I do. No doubt much of what I call “love” is mere self-love, which is to say not love at all. But earth’s the place where I enact it, and, at least for now, given the benefit and enjoyment of good health, especially in such moments as this, as I think about a student giving his life for nine academic credits, I feel myself clutching that love jealously. I feel myself desperately clinging to its objects. They are not an abstraction half a world away, but they are the sorts of things a man can reasonably give himself to—and also, if he is ready, die for.