On Tuesday I went to my last class as an undergraduate. It’s been one of my favorite classes, too — with my hands down favorite professor. I watched the clock, not hurrying the minutes as I usually do, but wishing them to slow down as I relished the notes I wrote in the margins of The Canterbury Tales and contemplated my connection to the Pilgrims on the outskirts of Canterbury: a turning point, an ending point. A new beginning.
Professor K ended his lecture early — something he never does — and I wanted to tell him to make something up: one last point, one last note. But he didn’t. Five minutes early he said simply, “Well, that’s all I’ve got.” He paused, looking at the room sprinkled with seniors who must have been giving him that look. He looked melancholy for a moment too, before a slight grin brightened his face. “Pardon my joke,” he said, “but we’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
I wrote it down in my book.
It was probably the least profound thing Prof K has ever said, but it almost brought tears to my eyes. Would refusing to leave the classroom mean I could stay a student forever?
Prof K is one of those professors you keep around. He’s got a white beard and eyes that smile and he always wears perfectly pressed blue oxfords. In 2007, I took his “Thinking, Seeing, and Believing” class and was inspired by concepts like “The Always Already” and the mysteries of religion in art. Philosophy, literature, religion came together in his class and I was hooked. He’s one of those guys that some people might find too dry because he stands up and lectures and uses words we have to Google after class, but for me, Professor K embodies my undergraduate experience.
Today is Prof K’s birthday.
I didn’t know it, and neither did Amy (his other advisee) before he took us out to lunch at Joey’s to celebrate the completion of our senior theses. It came up in conversation when we were talking about his daughter-in-law: she had called this morning and oh, by the way it was his birthday. It was just like him to be discreet but to let us know just the same. I’ve got to remember to write him a card next year…
Amy has worked with Prof K on a thesis about Robert Frost’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s nature poetry. So, after lunch we visited Elizabeth’s grave site at Hope Cemetery. It had been raining when we were in the restaurant, but by the time we left the sky had cleared and that crisp, clean smell filled the air. It was so “May” : a cool wind, a dark sky to the west and bright puffy clouds to the east, a landscape refreshed. The cemetery was beautiful, with huge oaks and maples rustling in the wind. As we drove in we were talking about the beauty of the Berkshires, but for once Worcester seemed beautiful to me. Prof K parked the car and we walked off the path a ways to the unassuming grave site Elizabeth shares with her parents.
“I know,” said Prof K. “There’s mystery in being close to someone’s remains.”
I looked around, considering the ritual of burying our dead. Why do we feel such an attachment, a responsibility even, to this rite? Is it for the dead, really, or for us, the living?
I thought of my little brother, still –shamefully?– unburied. “Would he have wanted to be in a cemetery?” my dad asked me once.
“I don’t know! Who talks to their siblings about what they would want if they were dead?” I snapped.
“Who talks to their sons…?” He responded.
The wind blew my hair in my face and I turned back around, studying the rude stone, preferring it to the glossy, polished granite I’ve seen at more modern grave sites.
My brother would want to be out here, under a tree, in a beautiful place like this. Not that he would have ever talked about it with me, at this point in our lives at least. He would want it not for himself, but because he loved his family, his friends, people in general. He would want them to be able to come and visit, if only for their own comfort. If only for the surreal mystery of being with him in that small way.