This week my friend Beth posted a story on her blog that hasn’t been far from my mind since I read it. Her husband Bill is an English professor and has stage 4 cancer. He just began his second round of chemo, which is expected to be pretty brutal.
Instead of giving his usual lecture to his class earlier this week, he spontaneously decided to tell them a story instead. You don’t have to know Bill to be moved by and appreciate this story. I’ll paste it in below (feel free to read the entire post here):
He said he began to pace back and forth across the front of the room and instead of talking about Picts, Angles, Saxons, and Romans, he started telling them a story about what, in his mind, is the actual most important, essential reason for anyone to ever study English Literature.
He began by quoting, from memory, two poems by William Butler Yeats, which poems are timelessly beautiful but which Bill used to demonstrate that even the most perfect literature is, in one sense, impotent and ineffectual, giving the example that Yeats, despite having the Nobel Laureate in literature, couldn’t use his poetry to get even the unknown young Irish girl, Maude Gonne, to give the merest edge of consideration to courting Yeats.
But, Bill continued, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, said that the mark of intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind simultaneously and to give assent to both of them.
To illustrate this point, and to show the power of literature, Bill then told the class the story of the most memorable day in his life, which occurred when Bill was 18 years old, and when, in the presence of his roommate Geoffrey, an 18-year-old poet, Bill launched, for the first time, a wooden airplane that had taken Bill nine months to build from scratch. Bill had painted the beloved plane yellow and named it NC5011C.
Also watching this plane’s maiden voyage were two other friends, Jim and Barry.
The launch was successful; NC5011C flew briefly and gloriously, but then as Bill watched in horror, the plane unexpectedly turned and headed for the earth, at a terrible speed, and hit, crashing into a million yellow wooden splinters.
There was a brief silence, and then Jim and Barry started laughing and laughing and couldn’t stop laughing. Bill, even as upset as he was, had to laugh, too, to look cool, he said. But even as he laughed, he noticed that his roommate Geoffrey wasn’t laughing. In fact, Geoffrey walked away in silence.
A few hours later, after Bill had spent some time alone, kicking dirt, walking aimlessly and trying to recover from his monumental loss, Bill went back to his dorm room. When he stepped in, he noticed that a piece of paper was taped to his pillow case.
The paper had been hand-decorated in baroque style with drawings of cherubs blowing trumpets and the like, and on the sheet was the following poem, which Geoffrey had written, entitled, “On the Death of NC5011C: An Elegaic Sonnet Written in Iambic Tetrameter and Dedicated with All Sincerity to William R. Drennan.”
“For leaning days and wearisome nights,
he loving shaped thee perfectly,
most beauteous of aerey sights.
‘Ah, thou shalt see the sun
on tops of clouds,’ dreamt he;
then thee with bright yellow he bedights.
Then thee to the yard he doth transport,
and with a prayer said for thy dearth,
he sends thee, looping round to earth;
such grace, and yet thy flight so short.
The tears that fall around thee after
strangely sound, almost, like laughter.”
After that day, Bill gave up his major in political science and pre-law, and became an English major.
When Bill finished telling this story and reciting this poem to his class at Appalachian, the room was quiet, he said. He then reiterated that on one hand, literature can be impotent, but on the other hand, it can change a human life forever.
In closing, he said to the class, “I need to tell you one more thing.”
“I may not be with you for several class sessions this semester. I’m appearing here between major cancer operations. I have already had three operations and chemo, and I start four to six months of chemo on Thursday.” No one spoke.
“But I’ll try not to die on you before the end of the semester,” he threw in, trying to lighten things up a little.
He then noticed that one woman student was staring at him, apparently frozen, with her eyes so wide open in surprise at what he had just said, that he felt he needed to respond.
“What?” he said to her gently. “It’s okay. It is in the nature of things for old men to die.”
Then he added, “You will understand that when you get to the part about Beowulf and the dragon.”