Monday, November 21, 2005

Melancholy Monday: Without Words

I have a framed poster on the wall over my desk. The poster advertises a literary review at the college where I teach. The reason why I asked for a copy of it was because it is a painting of the bedroom of one of my former colleagues from the English Department. He died last year and it was one of the saddest funerals that I have ever attended. His death was not expected, and hence the funeral was not a salve to the mourners. The funeral only magnified his absence.

When I first arrived at this job, I was young, a bit crazy, and full of life. Bob took me under his wing in many ways. He would talk to me about literature and philosophy over beers at our local pub. I cannot tell you how many times he told me how bright I was. I really needed to hear that when I first got here. I was so intimidated--good lord I was 29 years old, fresh out of graduate school. One of his favorite lines was that the "Philosophy Department has the highest IQ on campus." What I loved even more about Bob was that he probably said that about every department.

Bob was also the kind of English Professor that every student has to have at least once. In the 60s and 70s, you can imagine him getting high with his students (before all the PC and tightening down in the 80s). He taught Lolita every year, and relished the shock effect on his students. He travelled to Africa and Jamaica with his students and bathed nude in front of them. Just ask anyone, you will get countless stories of his generosity, insanity, and kind, kind heart.

Bob retired after I had been at the college 4 years. He was forced to retire because his wife's drinking problem had magnified into a full-time disaster. He cared for her, tried to get her to stop, and then, I think, just joined her. I still don't know what caused his death. But, it was sudden and tragic.

I remember worrying about the fate of his wife all through the funeral.

The last time I had seen the two of them together was at a meet-up for Howard Dean's candidacy for the Democratic ticket. The two of them were exceedingly drunk, spilling over others, knocking plates off the table, talking really loudly and ruffling the feathers of the discussion moderator. I remember being really torn in that situation. The moderator didn't know them, and hence it was reasonable to be irked with them. And yet, I wanted to leap in and take over, just so he wouldn't continue to talk to them as children.

The whole event was unnerving. Bob's wife was particularly loud and disruptive, but if you had any kindness you could hear her profound intelligence and will to be part of something transformative. But who would be attuned to hear that from two old, drunk, ex-hippies from Minnesota?

Which reminds me, Bob was younger than my mother when he died. He really wasn't old. In fact, he could have easily kept teaching if it were not for his wife. Before he quit his job, he wrestled with leaving her and couldn't bring himself to do it. He loved her too much and couldn't abandon her to her destruction.

This morning, I glanced at the poster of Bob's bedroom: a huge iron bed with a toussled quilt, sunlight coming through the window, and books everywhere. It is a romantic picture of a literary man's most private room. When I looked at the poster this time, I thought of his wife.

Last week when the usual suspects gathered at the local bar for a post-mortem of the faculty meeting, I saw Bob's wife in the corner.

She was all dressed up, reading the New York Times, drinking Bourbon, and all alone. She sat at a table that I used to sit at with Bob and others on Thursday nights several years ago. I couldn't help but glance over at her. She looked so profoundly sad. She would listen to our conversation a bit, then put her head down for a few minutes.

I began to imagine what it would be like to view us from her seat.

Was she reliving days of her youth, remembering the heated arguments around her dinner table, when she and Bob were our age? Or was she thinking about the last few years of his life, when Bob would meet up with us at the pub and talk about the horrific state of the country before hurrying home to meet her? I have no way to tell.

Watching her from time to time that evening made me melancholy. I could've gone up to speak to her, and perhaps I should've. I hesitated because I wasn't sure she would know me. That is probably not fully honest. I didn't walk up to her because I didn't know what to say. I was without words.