Hail the Striding Man (Re-posted)
[This piece, taken from the writing collection of the same title, is re-posted as an anniversary tribute. Dad died on August 12, 2013. ]
The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder is my favorite book. It is probably also the most underrated novel of the last century. I never merely re-read it; every few years it summons me, and like a somnambulist I turn to the bookshelf and reach for my copy.
A novel such as that is a conjurer’s orb: your hands surround and caress it, your eyes peer into its depths and… a voice sounds. The voice wields the kind of authority that dismisses fiction. The images, the characters—the story chronicles a series of events so rife with Truth that they must have occurred, perhaps more than once. A novel like that becomes a hymnal: the richest passages and dialogue make refrains to live by. For centuries we trusted our greatest treasures to song.
For example, now that my father, old and very ill, is living his last month, I invoke Wilder and The Eighth Day. In the book, when Roger loses his father, his lament and his ache is not to speak to the man or embrace him once more, but only to watch him walk along the street.
I can see the younger man, my Dad, moving along the pavement just ahead of me. He seldom “walked” and never swaggered, marched or trudged: he strode. He set long, driving paces, his torso balanced. He focused upon some middle distance, his gaze neither bent low by mortal gravities nor searching for symbols in the sky. He eyed the world squarely and lived without extravagance or delusion. He understood duty, understated his place in the world, spoke without embellishment, and acted without malice.
Ahead of him now and he is almost beaming. In one stout arm I see a brown paper parcel tied with butchers’ string; he is making a delivery. As he draws nearer the scene is revealed. He carries a full order of decency and kindness, and it is addressed to the world.
I will deliver my eulogy in the moments before we cover him, the moments where loved ones often tremble and wail, or blurt the words that had been too long withheld. I plan to move my lips to form the words—all without moving enough air to even whisper: no one present will hear them. The words will be heard though. One day, a voice will speak them and a reader will hear them, this while their hands caress a book, their eyes peering into the pages of a favorite tale.
“Hail to my forthright father. Hail the striding man!”
The reader will accept without question that those very words had been uttered before–perhaps more than once.
[Authors Note: The italicized part (an early version) was included on a prayer card we used for the funeral and wake. I am very grateful that that little piece came together as well as I feel it did: Dad deserved something special. The Eighth Day was introduced to me by a Creative Writing TA, Rebecca, at UW-Madison. I am grateful for that as well as a tip she once gave me while I tended bar. It was the last stanza from Love Among the Ruins by Robert Browning and she wrote it on a bar napkin:
O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.
I hope in my teaching that I passed along a treasure or two, though I am not sure you can know which ones will stick.]