“What is sweeter than to have someone with whom you may dare discuss anything as if you were communing with yourself?”
– Cicero, On Friendship
Three weeks or so before Will died, I telephoned him at the hospital. When he answered, his voice was not much above a hoarse whisper. He was nauseous, he told me, and despite the best efforts of his excellent palliative doctors, in considerable pain. I asked him if I should call back another time. He told me no. After a short pause during which he called the nurse for some medication, we began to talk.
Several times, I asked him if he needed me to hang up. Each time he assured me no. We spoke about many things: faith, death, politics, and parenthood (he was, he told me, amazed at the late gift of daughters). As we spoke, his voice grew stronger, and I remember at one point he laughed heartily with that room-filling laugh of his, and for a moment it was easy to believe that everything was quite alright, and that he would be up and about in a few days’ time.
Over two hours later I hung up, amazed at the strength of the man, and grateful beyond words for the gift of his friendship.
That was my last real conversation with him. There was one more, extremely brief phone call, and then a last, heartfelt e-mail, in which he asked me to pray for him, and to do what I could, practically speaking, to help Mary and the children. After that, silence.
My wife told me the other night that it had always been easy for her to imagine Will and I, old and bent, decades from now, still vociferously arguing about everything. I always thought so too. “But, I’m not done with him yet,” is what I thought when Will first told me about the cancer diagnosis. “Hell, we’ve barely even begun.”
This great mystery – this untimely leave-taking by this most-alive of all men – has come, by my reckoning, about four decades too early. I seem to see those decades now, conspicuous simply for the sudden void in them, the blank spaces, the silences. I had consciously looked forward to decades more of uproarious, free-wheeling conversation, of great-spirited arguments, of songs sung, of adventures shared. I took all of this for granted, as my right. I never, ever expected this great silence.
My first instinct is to pick up the phone, and to call Will, and to tell him about these thoughts, and to describe for him this beautiful funeral I attended the other day: how the children of the deceased, in a spontaneous, heartbreaking gesture, had helped to fill in the grave. He would certainly have something to say about it.
It would be easy to be angry. Hell, I am angry. I want him to be here. I expect him to be here. Everything about this feels wrong. The silence oppresses.
But then I remember how Will approached death. How he died.
Shortly after Will was diagnosed, he bought a book called Gratitude in Life’s Trenches. As the title suggests, the book was all about how to cultivate a spirit of gratitude, even in the midst of great trials. He bought me a copy too. We read it, and discussed it. I recommend it to everyone.
Will intentionally modeled his approach to battling cancer on something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter while in prison, awaiting execution for crimes against the Third Reich, and which was quoted in the book. Bonhoeffer, who knew a thing or two about suffering, wrote to his brother-in-law: “[W]e have been able to enjoy so many good things together that it would be almost presumptuous were we not also ready to accept hardship quietly, bravely – and also really gratefully.”
Over the past year, I had the privilege of being with Will when he received some of the worst news of his life. A bitter privilege, it is true, but a very great privilege nonetheless. Our house is about halfway between Barry’s Bay, where the Pembertons were staying while in Ontario, and Princess Margaret Hospital, where Will was being treated. When he had an appointment, he would drive to our house. Then I would drive him the rest of the way into Toronto. During his consultations or treatments I would sit in a nearby coffee shop, and try to work, but mostly pray. Pray that he got good news. Pray that the treatments would work.
Those prayers were never answered. It was always bad news. And yet, I am telling the truth when I say that I cannot remember a single instance when Will expressed anything even remotely approaching self-pity to me. I am not saying that he never felt it, or expressed it to others; but I am saying that the courage with which he faced down those ghastly spectres, cancer and death, is something I will remember all my days.
After his appointments, Will would meet me in the coffee shop. I would look at him, and know. But he would shrug with a smile, deliver the brutal facts, accept my commiserations, and then we would go get lunch or dinner, during which we would talk about everything but cancer. For all the hundreds of hours of conversation this past year, scarcely any of them were about the elephant in the room. He determined from the get-go that no matter what happened, no matter how bad things got, he would strive to live in a space of peace, and gratitude.
Yes, it is true that there were dark days, and that up until the end he doggedly, desperately clung to the hope that he would live. Will is the stubbornest man I’ve ever known; and I’ve never seen him more stubborn than when it came to the question of dying. He wanted so much to live. One day this past February he said to me, with a ferocity that broke my heart, “I have to get better. I have so much I want to do! I was just getting going on the farm. You should have seen the year I had planned before I got sick.”
He wanted to learn how to do Japanese joinery with his boys; he wanted to install a multi-stage, electricity-free filtration system to run water from their creek to their reservoir; he wanted to watch his boys, of whom he was so intensely proud, grow into men; he wanted desperately to dote on his daughters, those crowning jewels of his fatherhood.
There were two occasions when there were tears; when the news was so bad, that I could see the hope seeping out of him. Those were difficult days. They were the days when we went and got sushi. Lots of sushi. Then we got in the car and blasted the music and sang at the top of our lungs. Hell if he was going to let something as stupid as cancer get him down.
When I first met Will some fourteen years ago, I was (like, I suspect, many others) intimidated. It’s not just that he was a large man, but that he was a large man. At six foot five, he loomed over everyone, and he had vigour and a voice to match. Will physically filled spaces. But more than that, there was the almost unbelievable enormity of his personality, drive and accomplishments.
My interior monologue during the first few months of getting to know him sounded, I suppose, something like this:
“Ah, so this dude can play the guitar like the devil. Fine. That’s nice. Oh, and the fiddle? And he’s written a bunch of first-rate songs with richly poetic lyrics? Very, very nice indeed. Excellent. And his vocal range spans nearly four octaves, with perfect pitch and no noticeable break at the bridge? Well, I guess music is his thing. Everyone has their gifts. Impressive.
“…Wait, you’re telling me that he only speaks Latin to his kids? That he knows ancient Greek? That he’s trained his memory using obscure medieval memory palace techniques? That he’s read something about nearly everything, and remembered almost everything he’s read? That he’s also an excellent sketch artist? And a skilled calligrapher? That he can fix/build/carve just about anything he sets his mind to? That he’s an accomplished gardener? That he writes poetry? Fiction?
“Well, hell, is there no end to it?”
Will, in short, made me feel inadequate. Or, to be more precise, he made me feel my inadequacy. And it was this realization, more than anything else, that made me resolve early on that I was going to be his friend, whether he liked it or not.
Truly, it was an explicit decision. It was obvious to me that Will was fiercely independent, and exceeded me in almost every domain: intellectual, artistic, spiritual. I was only too keenly aware at the time that I had scarcely anything to offer him but for friendship. But I resolved that I was going to grab onto his coattails and go along for the ride.
As the years went by, I can’t say I ever entirely stopped feeling inadequate. But at times it certainly seemed as if the distance between us had lessened, and that we operated more and more on a footing of equality. Some of this was simply due to the fact that, as we got older, the gaps in our age (there was a nearly six year difference) and experience became less significant, proportionally speaking. Then there was the fact that, in time, I came to see those areas where Will was lacking, and where I (thank God) had things to teach him.
But if, over time, I increasingly felt I could go toe-to-toe with him, it is due largely to the fact that the sheer gravitational force of his character was such as to ever draw me upwards. As I have said so many times to my wife over the years, there is no one else who made me want so much to become better, in every possible way, simply by being who he was. Just knowing that Will was out there, striving every day to achieve his peculiar, all-encompassing, and profoundly rich vision of the good life, was a perpetual provocation to me.
In the early years of our friendship, the Pembertons lived fifteen minutes away, in East City, Peterborough. At the time I was working as a journalist. The days were long, fractured, chaotic. The work, glued to a computer screen, often left me mentally drained and feeling weirdly detached from myself. Will, who was working on his PhD at the time, had built an office apart from the house – a small, insulated shed, with a desk and an arm chair. The walls were lined with pine bookshelves filled with his beautiful, old, musty books: Virgil, Plato, John Scotus Eriugena, Aristotle, in their original languages.
Often, after a difficult day, I would drop in on him. He would make a big pot of tea. At the time we both smoked pipes. Within minutes, such a peace would descend on my mind. Surrounded by real books, with real thoughts worth thinking, and immersed in conversation with one of the truly great conversationalists, time slowed. There was a palpable sense of touching on the permanent things, the slow, meaningful, rich, resonant things. Often, I would feel half-ashamed of myself for ever getting so worked up about all that nonsense in the news, or whatever it was I was fretting about at the time.
One of the things that makes a great conversationalist great, isn’t just that his conversation is full of wit and insight, it is that he makes you feel as if you are full of wit and insight. A skilled conversationalist beguiles the best out of you. He reveals, to your surprise, that you know things that you didn’t know you knew; that you have insights that you weren’t aware you had; that you are interested in more things than you remember being interested in.
That is what Will was like. But not just in conversation. In life.
I have never known anyone who was as passionately, wildly, and indiscriminately interested in everything as Will, and who pursued knowledge and acquired new skills with such ravenous appetite. He often lamented to me that his greatest challenge was simply deciding what to focus his energies on at any given time. If only there were forty-eight hours in the day, perhaps he might yet take some baby steps towards accomplishing a few of the goals he had set for himself.
Will’s brother-in-law, Fr. John O’Brien, recounts here how one year Will resolved to learn a new folk song every single day. “It was a very Will thing to do,” he writes. Indeed it was. Will told me how, in seminary, he memorized the titles of every question in Aquinas’ vast Summa Theologiae, constructing a sprawling memory palace to house it all in his fervid brain. He memorized large sections of The Aeneid, in the original Latin. I remember another summer, when Will was learning something like eight different languages, including medieval Norse and Gaelic. He followed a daily schedule, moving from language to language to language. If I were to attempt a catalogue of his hobbies, it would, I suspect, strike most people as positively silly.
In the early days, I listened far more than I spoke. Will had already spent over a decade studying the Greek and Latin classics, and thinking very, very deeply about certain philosophical problems. My own opinions were woefully ill-formed, embryonic things, rarely supported by more than a superficial familiarity with the broad outlines of some field or problem, and instinct. His were rich, complex, and supported by a deep erudition.
But I scrambled after him. We debated philosophy. He recommended books. He taught me how to read Gregorian chant notation, and we sang together at the local Latin mass. He inspired me to pursue languages, and I got to work on Latin and Italian. We challenged each other to write poetry and fiction, and convened at the local pub and read our writings, submitting them to one another’s critique. He helped me dig my first gardens. He introduced me to the wild and wonderful world of fermentation (some of our earliest conversations were while shredding enormous amounts of cabbage for his huge sauerkraut crock). We spent hours and hours in front of my great uncle’s audiophile stereo system, which I had somehow inherited, swapping music. One memorable night, we made a heroic effort to listen to all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies, only giving up in the wee hours of the morning, our senses benumbed by far too much of a good thing.
At one point, Will lent me Mary Carruthers’ famous scholarly study of medieval theories of memory and mnemonics, The Book of Memory. While reading it, I broke the spine. Will was so disgusted (he was meticulous with his books), that he gave it to me. I am now pursuing a PhD in the same program at the University of Toronto where Will studied. My dissertation is a study of Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy of memory, a topic that only ever occurred to me because of that book, and our conversations (My wife remembers – ironically, I do not – that the very first time Will and I met, at the Pembertons’ house in Peterborough, we discussed memory and mnemonics. Memory, “that winged host,” was a recurrent theme of our friendship.)
In other words: I owe far more to Will than I can ever possibly put into words. I tried to tell him this before he died, but I suspect he already knew.
I am only too aware that in describing these things, there is a risk that I will stand charged of engaging in rose-coloured, post-factum hyperbole. But all I can say is, this is how it was. And I know that I am not the only person who felt this way. There was something so uncannily wholesome and alive about Will. It is not that he was some kind of a perfect man, or a saint. We were very honest friends, and I knew his faults well enough, and he mine. Nor is it that we always agreed. We argued constantly, about everything. It is simply that Will drank from deep wells, and it showed in everything he did and said. For all his deep human flaws, he was, for me at least, a preternaturally pellucid conduit for many things far greater than himself.
Will was the most impractical practical man that I’ve ever known.
He was the rare egghead who could not only think about everything, but could do just about everything. He knew how to use his hands as well as his brains. And he was almost freakishly strong. When the Pembertons moved from Peterborough, I showed up late to help him load the moving truck. Somehow, he had already loaded his industrial table saw, which must have weighed somewhere in the realm of 400 pounds, into the truck. At the time, I was into powerlifting and stupidly proud of my own strength. I could scarcely budge the damn thing.
And yet, despite all that, so many things that Will tried to do somehow went strangely awry in the execution. Will and I joked this past year that if he ever wrote an autobiography it would be called (parodying Wim Hof’s autobiography, The Wim Hof Method), The Will Pemberton Method: Life, the Hard Way.
Will’s decision to move to Cape Breton and to start a market farm was not practical. Indeed, there were times that I regretted that I had not spoken up more strongly against the idea. I know I wasn’t the only one who foresaw something of the heartbreak that awaited Will in his efforts to realize his dream. And it was sometimes difficult for me, after they moved, to speak to Will on the phone, and to hear the catalogue of setbacks: dead or runaway livestock; wells that ran dry; earth that turned out to be more clay than soil; crops that failed; gardens that were trampled by moose (true story); horses that refused to behave; equipment that broke down. And to be able to do nothing at all to help, but listen.
There is, I suppose, room to criticize Will’s bullheadedness and his failure to foresee all the vast difficulties of the undertaking. And yet, there was something that Will shared with me during that last, long conversation, when he was in the hospital. You will have to bear with me a little. It is difficult to condense what was a lengthy, and admittedly abstract, even dry exchange into a few words. But I want to try, because I believe it reveals something extraordinarily important, indeed central, about his character.
In brief, Will explained to me that there are two traditions of interpretation of the account of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis: one represented by Augustine, the other by Maximos the Confessor. In the Augustinian tradition, said Will (and please understand that any errors contained in this recounting from memory are almost certainly mine, not Will’s), Eden is viewed simply as the perfect dwelling place, and something that, once lost, was completely and irrevocably lost.
In the other tradition, however, Eden is given to Adam and Eve only as a model of what they were to do elsewhere on the earth: that is, to bring harmony and order into creation through their co-creative labor. In the latter tradition, said Will, even if it is true that Adam and Eve lost Eden, nevertheless Eden was not utterly lost. There still remained the hope of cultivating and reconstructing an image (however imperfect) of Eden elsewhere.
From the context of our conversation, it was clear that what Will was saying was that this is how he viewed his farm, and his work on the farm. Will truly thought of those two hundred wild, inhospitable acres among the wind-lashed hills of Cape Breton as his little slice of Eden. For all the suffering and difficulties and heartbreak that that patch of Eden brought him, he truly viewed it as his little paradise on earth. A paradise with many thorns, it is true, but a paradise nonetheless.
Will was a romantic and an idealist on a colossal scale. He didn’t just aim high, he aimed at the heavens, at the celestial spheres in all their quintessential perfection. He didn’t just want to get a PhD, he wanted to perform mind-bendingly difficult philological scholarship that would change the way we read the Aeneid, or The Divine Comedy (preferably both). He didn’t just want a marriage; he wanted one of the towering romances of the ages, the sort of thing about which epics are written. He didn’t just want to play music, he wanted to write songs that would capture something of the Great Beauty he had seen in his dreams. He didn’t just want a farm; he wanted to implement a whole other way of farming, one that would restore something of the harmony that he believed once existed between man and nature.
Will’s idealism is what made him so bloody charismatic and great; what enabled him to accomplish so much more than any of the rest of us could ever dream of accomplishing. It was also, however, the source of so much of his suffering. Gravity doesn’t stop working, simply because you are leaping for the stars. All too often, gravity reasserted itself, and yanked him back to earth, which could be a bruising and humiliating experience.
And yet, for all that, Will always promptly got back on his feet. No failure ever seemed to depress him for more than a few days. His resilience and fortitude amazed me. Setbacks that would have stopped me in my tracks were mere foothills for him, things to be faced and surmounted on his indefatigable march up the mountainside of his vision of the fully-realized life.
But lest I be misunderstood, let me be clear that Will’s love for his farm was in no way simply the love of some abstract, unrealizable ideal. Will loved his farm, as it was; and he loved the actual work of farming. He loved every bloody square inch of that rough, uncultivated, gorgeous property that he had dreamed about for so long. Even the thorny hawthorn that had completely overgrown the pastures during the decades in which the property had lain fallow was something beautiful to Will, a living resource to be used to build pens for his livestock.
The first summer the Pembertons were in Cape Breton, I came and returned a favour, helping Will dig gardens in the rich, moist soil on a small peninsula, almost an island, that jutted out into the river on which their property fronts. The other day I went back down there with one of Will’s sons, to twist the knife of memory a little. The cutting edge of memory is a keen one. It was all too easy for me to see Will standing there, leaning on a shovel, an overgrown boy bursting his buttons with pride as he gazed on the river and the soft, rich grass of the pastureland in the intervale, and the surrounding hills, every fiber of his being conveying, in wonder, the thought, “All of this, is mine.” You could see his brain planning, planning, planning, envisioning all the steps necessary to transform this earth into his garden.
Will passionately loved, and took a child-like delight in all living things – all growing, creeping, stomping, swimming things. After Will returned to Cape Breton earlier this year, he told me several times that the one activity that brought him the most peace, was simply to stand in the field, amid the hum of the crickets, and to watch his cows chew their cud. “It’s just so restful,” he said.
But even more than cows, Will loved trees. So often while out walking with Will, he would suddenly stop to admire some hoary oak or maple or aspen, dwarfing the young-growth trees gathered around its feet. He would draw my attention to the tree’s various features, or run his hands across the bark, or simply stare up into its vast canopy. There is a poem by Robert Frost that never fails to remind me of Will’s passion for trees. The final stanza reads:
Leaves and bark, leaves and bark
To lean against and hear in the dark
Petals I may have once pursued
Leaves are all my darker mood.
Like the narrator of that poem, it wasn’t the flashy things in nature that moved Will. It was the dirty, earthy, smelly, throbbing, sometimes violent, but more often inexplicably beautiful and mysterious nature that you could touch with your hands and feel beneath your feet. “Leaves for smooth, and bark for rough / Leaves and bark may be tree enough,” writes Frost. That’s how it was for Will. There was nothing put on about his love affair with nature. It wasn’t frilly, or superficial, or self-conscious. He just bloody well loved the smoothness of leaves and the roughness of bark; the treeness of trees; the wetness of water; the cowness of cows.
My wife, too, has a passion for botany, ornithology and all things nature. I loved to listen the two of them when we went for our walks in the woods, trying to identify every plant, tree, insect, or bird, noticing and puzzling over everything that was unfamiliar to them. Every walk was an education. In the past few years, Will added mycology to his many hobbies, and would go out with his boys collecting all the eatable mushrooms they could find, and then fry them in butter as a feast.
Will had a profound respect for the complexity and integration all natural things, and consequently a great distrust of anything that sought to force or manipulate nature into the service of human rapacity. Hence the “old-fashioned,” quixotic animal-powered farming practices that he attempted to implement on his farm, and which (I suspect) so puzzled his neighbours.
But I would go to the mat with anyone who would accuse Will of being a Luddite. He was not a Luddite. He was simply a man who believed with all his heart that humans were capable of living in deeper harmony with nature, while yet meeting our practical needs. What looked like a return to an idealized past, was in fact an effort to move towards a far more complex (albeit idealized) future: one in which we used our immense modern brain power to eschew reductionistic and sometimes brutal one-size-fits-all methods, and to favor fine-grained, locally-conditioned farming practices: practices characterized by an imitation of nature, and an accumulated, cross-generational wisdom.
When Will helped me dig my gardens, I remember how he took the pale, sandy soil in his hands and ran it critically through his fingers, warning me that there was too little life in it. What it needed was compost, and worms. At the time, Will had a “worm farm” in his basement, in which he was raising gobs of the slithering things, to dump into his own garden, to aerate and fertilize it. Ask him about worms or mushrooms, and you would be certain to receive an earful.
In this, as in other things, he may well have been unrealistically idealistic. I don’t ask for agreement. Sometimes, I confess, I did not quite understand what he was about, and wished that he might do something – anything -the way other people did it. But I do ask for the large-mindedness to appreciate the greatness of the aspiration.
Two weeks or so before Will died, I happened upon a gorgeous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Will’s favourite poet. It recounts the death of a blacksmith by the name of Felix Randal, whom Hopkins – a priest – had ministered to in his dying months. Much of the poem is unaccountably apt when applied to Will, down to the fact that one of Will’s innumerable (but abandoned) hobbies was blacksmithing.
The poem speaks of Randal as a powerful man, “big-boned and hardy-handsome,” and of how in his youth he had worked “at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers.” Sickness, however “broke him.” But there is one phrase in the poem that stands out, speaking of how illness, combined with the gift of the comforting sacraments of the Church, brought to Randal “a heavenlier heart.”
Although my experience of Will was overwhelmingly one of a man of great kindness, gentleness, and sensitivity, I could see that he sometimes could come across as hard and imperious. Unrelentingly driven in his pursuit of excellence, and ever the smartest man in the room, he did not always suffer fools gladly.
Those who knew Will longer than I tell me that there had been a softening in him over the years, as the acerbic certitudes of his youth were mellowed by age and experience. From what I saw, this softening was especially marked in the final year, as cancer battered away at his strength, and – what was most distressing to him – his mental acuity (although I admit I sometimes laughed when he complained of the weakening of his memory, which, even when hobbled by cancer and opioids, still far exceeded mine).
In particular, I was witness to what I believe was a purification of his Christian faith. In the weeks before Will died, he was writing a reflection about The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that both of us had reread this year. I have a copy of that reflection, which is scattered and incomplete. However, in it, Will was trying to wrestle with the famous argument posed by the brilliant atheistic brother, Ivan Karamazov, which can be boiled down to something like this: “If God is good, then he would not permit the suffering of the innocent. However, we see that many innocent children do suffer. Therefore God is not good; or, there is no God.”
I will not get into the nitty-gritty of Will’s counter-argument. However, one thing that Will identifies is that, in part, it is Ivan’s extreme rationalism that leads him towards his great intellectual and spiritual crisis. Ivan can do nothing without first understanding. This is in contrast to the younger brother, Alyosha, the hero of the novel, who is also intellectually gifted, but who prioritizes love over understanding. “Alyosha,” wrote Will, “is first love, then understanding.”
At the root of the novel, wrote Will “is how we understand the mystery and the story of the Cross”, which is ultimately to pose the question “what is love?” and “what is the relation of love to life?” What Alyosha – and his spiritual father, the saintly monk Father Zosima – conclude, and embody through their lives, wrote Will, is that love is ultimately “to be willing to suffer, and in suffering, to lose all for the beloved.” To be a Christian, he said, is to prioritize “active love, rather than theories.”
Over the past year, Will and I spoke often of the nature of faith and Christianity. For someone as brilliant as Will, there was always the temptation to reduce faith, and even God Himself, to a set of propositions to be understood and defended through reason. But in recent years, and particularly in the past year, Will had spoken more and more of his distrust of a Christianity that attempted to put God into a box, or that put itself forward merely as an elaborate system of thought, or even an elaborate system of morality and ethics. For in the end, at the very heart of Christianity is the great commandment of love: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul; and love thy neighbour as thy self.”
For Will, to love God was in the end to completely immerse oneself in mystery. For God, who is Love, is utterly and inexpressibly transcendent, exceeding every possible intellectual category, escaping every imaginative representation. Christianity, therefore, is lived most authentically by simply immersing oneself in the God of Love, who in some very real sense transforms us into Himself. In immersing ourselves in Love, we become transformed intoLove. And as Will saw it, any version of Christianity that in any way deviates from this central concern, has lost its way.
In my last conversation with Will, he told me that the fact that he was dying was becoming “very, very real” to him. I asked him how he was dealing with that. “I’m just keeping it simple,” he said. “Lots of acts of faith. Lots of trust. I’m just placing Mary and the kids in God’s hands, and trusting that they will be taken care of.” And then he told me that, faced with the reality of death, all the comforting imaginary representations of heaven had vanished, and all he was left with was the great, incomprehensible mystery of it all. He said he was trying to imagine what it might be like, but that he had no idea. It was all mystery.
And yet, this was not a source of dismay to him. Quite the contrary. It was, rather, the way it had to be. The way it ought to be. The only way it could be. Will was not a saint. And yet, if there is one thing I can say with absolute confidence, it is that he believed in, and loved God with all his heart; and that he yearned for God with all his heart. In many respects, I think that all of his great drivenness and striving after knowledge was simply a manifestation of the keenness of his hunger for God.
Mary tells me that in their last conversation, before he began to slip away, Will told her that he was only filled with gratitude and wonder at the life he had lived, and that he was at peace. Mary says that she pressed him on whether he was scared, worried that perhaps he was simply putting on a brave face. No, he assured her. He was happy.
I have spoken of the suffering that sometimes resulted from the magnitude of Will’s aspirations and ideals. My prayer is that now, after all the terrible psychological and physical suffering of the past year and a half, Will is finally, truly at rest. That his great, restless heart has found rest in the one Object, the Great Beauty, that alone can satisfy every longing.
In On Friendship, Cicero has Laelius say the following about the death of his friend Scipio Africanus: “I find very great consolation in the comforting fact that I am free from the delusion which causes most men anguish when their friends depart. I believe that no ill has befallen Scipio; it has befallen me, if it has befallen anyone; but great anguish for one’s own inconveniences is the mark of the man who loves not his friend, but himself.”
If Laelius, a pagan, could soothe the pain of losing his great friend with hope in the afterlife, then how much less excuse do any of we Christians who loved Will have for self-pity? Will had a remarkably strong faith. And he died happy. What more can we ask…for him?
And yet, one of the footnotes in my Loeb edition of On Friendship notes that Cicero’s own grief at the death of his daughter, only eighteen months before he wrote this work, was “unrestrained.” Cicero, who though not a Stoic was a great admirer of the Stoics, could not muster the stoicism he needed when faced with the weird finality of death.
Selfish it may be, but I do mourn for my own misfortune. I mourn for those lost decades of friendship. I mourn for the loss of the encouragement that Will so often gave me; for the loss of his intellect, which I so often used as a foil to test the soundness of my own speculations; for the loss of those moments of communion: when, for instance, we both listened, silently, to some piece of music, knowing from long experience that the other felt every slight modulation in mood, and delighted in every humorous or tragic turn of phrase, quite as keenly as ourselves.
Today, I made one last visit to Will’s grave, before returning to Ontario. The newly heaped mound rests in a lovely green vale, surrounded by those rolling Cape Breton hills. Looking north, you can almost see the trees and hills of his beloved farm. Only remove some of the trees from the top of one of those interstitial hills, and there would be a clear line of sight from his resting place, to his little Eden-in-development. It is a peaceful spot.
This is what I have been thinking, and feeling, about death these past number of days: That when we say the word “death,” we seem to be speaking of something. That is what words are for. They are signs that point at things. But when we speak of “death”, it is like when we say the word “forget,” or “silence”. We use something positive – a spoken word – to point to a negation, a void. It is a paradox. This is the paradox of death. Will “died” on Friday, Aug. 20. But it wasn’t something he did. It is something he stopped doing. He stopped living. To our pitifully earthbound eyes, there is now only a stony blankness, where once there was everything. To speak the words, or to think the thought “Will died,” is as if I were to put my hand out in the dark to grab hold of a familiar handrail for support, only to grasp at empty air. The mind reels and loses balance.
To be honest, I still do not believe that he is gone. With some part of my head, yes, I suppose; but even then, not really. Such a man, more vigorous and more alive than anyone I have known, does not suddenly vanish off the face of the earth. Every time I think that I have come to fully accept that he is gone – after, for instance, helping to heap the earth on his coffin – there comes a moment when I realize that I am still not fully convinced; that a part of me seems to know that he is only taking a short break from life, and that all this cancer and death business will be over soon, and that in a few weeks, or months, the phone will ring again, and it will be him. We will talk about his latest projects on the farm; about the book I’ve been reading; about the new band or composer one of us discovered; about the various hilarious and fascinating things our children are saying and doing.
This inner conviction of the seeming impossibility involved in the idea that the dead are gone, full stop, may not, I admit, amount to anything like a proof of our immortality; but I suspect that it amounts to a kind of inbuilt intuition of the truth. If we are honest, we will confess that all the truisms of our faith do but little to soothe the ache of the concrete, daily losses that come from death; from the fact of its crushing permanence, so that so long as we still live, we will never, ever again speak with, laugh with, argue with, or merely be in the presence of the one who has gone. And yet, there is certainly very great comfort to be found in the belief that, as we have somehow suspected all along, this is not the end. That this sense of the uncanniness of death, of its fundamental unconvincingness, is not an illusion. That there will be another meeting.
For “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
But until then, Will, thanks for everything.