Tuesday, March 10, 2015

`Over a Last Companionable Drink'

Imagine a reunion of family and friends now dead, by invitation only. The bouncers would be instructed to turn away the annoying ones, the bullies and whiners, the dullards and black holes of ego, those whose return would darken the festivities. Many of our dead would never have met before. Some died when young, others ancient, but for the sake of our reverie, all are restored to their prime. The qualities we loved them for would shine. Ostensibly, our departed guests would have only us in common, but that suggests a likely shared affinity with our sensibility. Conversation would bubble. Comedy would flow, as would tears, for the return of the fond dead would give us a chance to express our regrets, to make amends and to thank them. Of course, the moral of such a thought experiment is to thank them while they’re around the first time. In “Going without Saying” (Gunpowder, 1995), the Irish poet Bernard O’Donoghue writes: 

“It is a great pity we don’t know
When the dead are going to die
So that, over a last companionable
Drink, we could tell them
How much we liked them. 

“Happy the man who, dying, can
Place his hand on his heart and say:
‘At least I didn’t neglect to tell
The thrush how beautifully she sings.’” 

Too often I’ve neglected the obligation to express gratitude, to tell friends how important they are to me. Selfishness trumps even the best intentions. Lost opportunities pile up as we get older. We accumulate the dead and, with them, a burden of regret. Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #54: 

“When a friend is carried to his grave, we at once find excuses for every weakness, and palliations of every fault; we recollect a thousand endearments which before glided off our minds without impression, a thousand favors unrepaid, a thousand duties unperformed, and wish, vainly wish for his return, not so much that we may receive, as that we may bestow happiness, and recompense that kindness which before we never understood.” 

I’m always moved by the story of Johnson’s return as an old man to Uttoxeter market. In November 1731, Johnson’s father, a bookseller, asked him to mind the stall for him in the marketplace. Johnson, age twenty-two, thought the job was beneath him and refused. Exactly fifty years later, already sick with emphysema and dropsy, and less than three years away from death, Johnson stood for two hours in the rain at the spot where his father’s stall had stood. He told Boswell: 

“Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago, I desired to atone for this fault; I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.” 

To avoid the need for such acts of penance, Johnson suggest in The Rambler #54: 

“Let us ... make haste to do what we shall certainly at last wish to have done; let us return the caresses of our friends, and endeavour by mutual endearments to heighten that tenderness which is the balm of life. Let us be quick to repent of injuries while repentance may not be barren anguish, and let us open our eyes to every rival excellence, and pay early and willingly those honours which justice will compel us to pay at last.”

1 comment:

ghostofelberry said...

The Johnson story puts me in mind of Provenzano Salvani.