Saturday, May 11, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt five)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

In my experience with funerals and memorial services, there has often been some grumbling in the car afterward. It must be natural for people feeling a loss to fasten on some factual error in a eulogy or some way that the setting or the order of service was inappropriate. Of the fifteen people in our Yale senior society, Denny was the third to die. I remember the grumbling on the ride back to New York from New Haven after the funeral of Mike Dodge—Marshall J. Dodge III—who was killed in 1982 by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bicycle. Mike had been living in Maine, where he was well known as a Down East humorist who appeared on a series of recordings about “Bert and I” and showed up, dressed in a yellow slicker, at college auditoriums to tell stories of lobstermen and farmers in a Maine accent so broad that it was hard to believe he had developed it before he ever entered the state. Mike was unlike anyone I ever knew. The High Episcopalian service in New Haven didn’t leave much room to go into why that was true. There were a couple of terrific talkers sitting on the platform, listed on the program as ministers—among them was A. Bartlett Giamatti, then the president of Yale, a spinner of perfect paragraphs in the air—and I wasn’t interested in hearing them read passages from the King James version. I wanted to hear what they had to say about Mike. The priest who ran the service, Robert Bryan, had been the other half of the “Bert and I” team, and in delivering the presiding cleric’s eulogy he managed to stretch the form enough to give a flavor of Mike. Otherwise, I remember someone’s saying in the car on the way home, “the departed could have been a stockbrocker.” Even as we grumbled, though, I acknowledged that Mike, who was an eccentric but not a rebel, had a traditionalist side that would have been horrified at anything other than a proper Episcopalian funeral and would have been particularly pleased that the closing hymn of the service could be described in the program as “the traditional last night hymn of St. Paul’s School, Concord, New Hampshire.” I suppose it was simply more convenient to be angry at the service than at the hit-and-run driver, who had eluded the police and would always elude us.

One of the people in the car on the way to Tersh’s was Mary Fine, whose husband, Peter, had been the first in the group to die. He was a pediatrician who began suffering in his late twenties from something called neurofibromatosis—nerve-ending tumors in the head. Eventually, the tumors took his hearing. He learned sign language. He wrote a book for parents of deaf children. He moved from lower Westchester County, where he had been working, to become the medical director of the student health service at Gallaudet College, in Washington, the only American college specifically for the hearing-impaired. He was the first doctor there who was himself deaf, and the sort of doctor he was is indicated by the fact that the infirmary is now named for him. A memorial service for Peter that I went to was carried on with a communications arrangement the opposite of what is normally seen at political conventions: some of the speakers presented their thoughts in sign, and someone at the side of the stage spoke the words. The words were about how much Peter had meant to hearing-impaired people—about his determination, his fierce advocacy of sign language, his dedication to his patients and their cause even when he knew that he himself was doomed. I don’t remember grumbling on the way home from that one.

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