Thursday, April 23, 2015

`A Soul Remembering My Good Friends'

A Canadian graduate student in statistics who by all accounts was a brilliantly promising young woman died here last fall of cancer at the impossible age of twenty-six. I never knew Sarah Tooth, though we worked in the same building, but I was asked to write stories about her here and here. Last week a memorial bench for Sarah was placed in the engineering quadrangle. The first time I saw the bench, a female student was seated on it, reading a Penguin paperback edition of Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A tree will be planted nearby in memory of Sarah, and a brass plaque was added to the bench on Wednesday. It gives the dates of Sarah’s birth and death, and these lines, spoken by Bolingbroke to Hotspur (Henry Percy) in Act II, Scene 3 of Richard II:

“I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends.”

Silently, we add Bolingbroke’s subsequent lines:

“And, as my fortune ripens with thy love,
It shall be still thy true love's recompense:
My heart this covenant makes, my hand thus seals it.”

Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, his 451st, and it’s appropriate that even non-English majors (especially non-English majors) use his words to mark significant events in life and death. In Act IV, Scene 1, Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Richard himself -- a solipsist, a self-infatuated proto-poet -- lines all of us with justice will someday be able to speak:

“’Tis very true, my grief lies all within;
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul;
There lies the substance.”

[ADDENDUM: I received an email from a friend of Sarah's, a doctoral student in philosophy at Rice University: "I tried to find selections reflecting on two things for a memorial at Rice: either (1) the notion of the importance of friends and an appreciation of them, or (2) the notion of accepting and appreciating (an adopted) home. Both were things that seemed to myself and other friends and her parents as at the center of Sarah's thoughts about her life in Houston and at Rice. Additionally, Sarah enjoyed Shakespeare quite a bit. We made a point of going to Shakespeare performances in Hermann Park and a few on campus at Rice, though we did have to miss the last round at Hermann Park in 2014 because she was away receiving treatment. I think she appreciated both the use of language and the writing itself, and also the uinversal human themes you can find in Shakespeare. All of that and Shakespeare's penchant for providing good concise statements of large sentiments made it seem like a natural place to look. I had to look -- it was not one I had previously memorized. You never see Shakepseare's history plays performed any more, so we never discussed Richard II at length, but I think she would have approved." 

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