September 16, 2009 is the 10 year anniversary of my father’s death. He did not live to see the 21st century; he did not know that the twin towers would be attacked and that they would fall. He would not have necessarily welcomed the digital age. I guess there are many things that each of us will never know.
If you asked my father what he did, he liked to say that he taught college. He was not a professor, he was, Don, a teacher. Not always perfect, but always learning, always embracing his path and encouraging me to skip along mine. I think no more so than, with fearlessness and pure heart, he faced his own death. “Are you afraid,” I asked. “No,” he said, “just curious.”
I was with him 2 hours before he actually died. They tell you to say goodbye, to say that it’s okay to die and that you’ll be okay when they pass. All these things to make it easier for the person to “let go.” Cancer, being the aggressive bastard that it is, wasn’t likely going to be influenced by what I said or didn’t say, but I said everything anyway.
Fourteen months earlier, I had arrived at his hospital bed. “Have I given you enough?” he asked.
Many words have been written and spoken about my father. At the funeral, students I didn’t know approached me: “You were the apple of his eye,” they said. And six months later, students running the ticket booth at the local movie theater looked at me strangely, “We know who you are, and we loved your father.”
There was one piece (Craig Carlson Eulogy) written about him that I have always especially loved. Penned by Craig Carlson, poet, teacher and long-time colleague of my father’s, the essay had story, memory, surprise, reveal. It was an excavation of history, with them sitting in the backyard of the old house with the bees. As with any good story, if perfectly captures who my father was and it revealed extra words and thoughts he had, which, like the fragments of ancient pottery, are precious beyond explanation.
A few years later Craig drowned, and there was a story told about it. He and his teenage son had been swimming, maybe out a little too far and then the current had taken them out further. They knew they were in trouble. Craig was tired, and told his son to swim back without him. His son didn’t want to leave him. “Get help,” said Craig. And so the son swam back and was saved.
Not, save yourself. Not, just go on without me. Get help. A task. A reason to survive. A charge to save the life of someone else. It’s Muhammad Ali winning Rumble in the Jungle–fighting not just for himself but for his community. Something greater than oneself.
For 10 years I have missed my father, but I have cherished the legacy he left behind and I am deeply grateful to Craig, a poet to the end, for his words.
Check out my father’s book: Teaching with your Mouth Shut.
Also, his as of yet unpublished, Out of the cave; steps to essay writing.
11 thoughts on “Words Matter (In Memory)”
Beautiful, Zoe. A perfect balance of celebration and sadness. Maybe that’s what you get at the 10-year mark? Anyway, thanks for writing this and sharing it.
beautiful, zoe. “get help” indeed–so much power in those two small words.
and I’m so buying your dad’s book.
A beautifully written passage for your father. His light shines very bright in all our hearts.
Lots of love to you cousin
This is a touching and meaningful piece, that gave me further insight into your relationship with your father. How he loved you and your brothers!
You are very much your father’s daughter. Your simple, beautiful prose really touched my heart.
Don would be so proud.
I love you and I always miss Don.
Thank you for sharing your touching thoughts about your memories of your father and how he is forever a strong, loving and wise presence in your life. Beautifully written.
By accident I ran into your mother today and was reminded of this anniversary. Your memories bring tears to my eyes for what we lost when we lost Don.
Your father and I became “best friends” on the first day of kindergarten 1947. We saw each other almost every day – except summers – until we went to separate colleges. We wrote long letters to one another when I was in Vietnam, and, a year later, when Clare and I got married, we lived near Don and Susan in Cambridge. We were in nearby Somerville. So I had a long, very long, history with your father, and, although I am fortunate to have three or four good friends, no one can replace Don.
Very best wishes and regrets,
Zoe, In Don’s memory this year I got out the HUGE Introduction to Classical Greek that he insisted I buy to distract me during my chemo (three years, prophetically, before his). I tried but never got beyond the present tense of “to teach.”
I knew him longest, having been present when he arrived home, 5 days after his birth. I remember clearly when he and Buddy became friends. Ι remember his joy over his marriage to Susan, then your birth and then the same, undiminished joy over that of your brothers.
I will always miss him.
Much love, Gail
I found this page while looking for information on Craig Carlson’s passing – which I only just learned about, through an old friend from Evergreen, this afternoon. He was one of my teachers in one very tumultuous, life-altering class – “The Aesthetics of Healing,” which, shortly after its first quarter, splintered into factions; I subsequently ended up in a different class, “Women, Health and Healing,” and have always wondered what might have happened if I’d stayed in the original group.
In any case, I don’t think I ever got the benefit of really knowing what Craig was about, which is unfortunate (and my own fault). Had I known he was a friend of your father’s – my seminar leader in the Winter Quarter of my very first program at Evergreen – that alone might have changed everything – because your father was (as if I need to tell you this) entirely extraordinary, one of the best teachers I ever had the fortune to work with.
I had known about his passing years ago, as he was one of the first people from my Evergreen days with whom I really wanted to get back in touch; learning he’d died was a huge blow, then, and in some ways, now, but his effect on my life, and my writing, continues, and for this I am very grateful.
He was a great man, no question about it.
I appreciate your words here, and for the insights concerning Craig. It goes farther than you might imagine in helping me to (at least semi-coherently) assemble details from that period, for a book I’m working on. (Your dad will, needless to say, be thanked in the acknowledgments.)
Best wishes to you – Victoria.